August 6, 2007

Honey bees summer in Howard Lake, then travel the US

Local beekeeper keeps “bee-sy” year-round

By Jennifer Gallus
Staff Writer

“Honey bees are happy bees. I’d rather be stung by a bee than bit by a mosquito,” said Swan Bee owner/operator John Swanson of Howard Lake.

Swan Bee honey can be found on the shelves at several local stores and is locally produced by honey bees right in our backyards.

“I started raising bees at the age of 14 as a hobby,” Swanson said. “About eight years ago, I started with 25 hives that I bought from a man who was retiring. Now, I have 1,200 hives and work full-time at it,” he said.

“Each hive contains one queen, 25,000-30,000 worker bees, which are only female, and a handful of drones, which are the only males in the hive,” Swanson said.

Swanson’s bees are hard at work year-round because his bees are contracted for pollination purposes certain times of the year in various parts of the US, and they also commence honey production in Minnesota in the summer.

Honey production will be affected by the drought this summer, meaning lower production, so it is fortunate that Swanson’s business is supplemented by the pollination contracts.

“They do pollination of Minnesota apples in the spring, usually May, then the hives are brought to Wisconsin in mid-June for cranberry pollination. After the Fourth of July, they come back to Minnesota for honey production. From mid-September to Feb. 1 they go to Texas for their winter grounds. February 1 they go to California for almond pollination. March 15 they go back to Texas until May 1, which is when they come back to Minnesota,” Swanson said.

It takes two semi trucks loaded with the hives to haul them from one location to another. A bee net is wrapped around the hives, even though the hives are closed up while enroute.

However, the bees can overheat while being shipped in hot weather. Swanson’s semi trucks are equipped with a series of sprinkler hoses that the drivers hook up to spigots at truck stops to hydrate the bees.

The hives are stacked on pallets, which makes loading them onto semi trucks with a forklift easier.

“With all the moving of the bees, it’s very stressful to them because they like to stay in one spot. To reduce stress as much as possible, I use informed truckers, as well as a split-articulating forklift, which doesn’t bounce the bees around as much as other forklifts,” Swanson said.

Another way Swanson reduces stress on the bees is by staying away from pesticides as much as possible.

Swanson has a bachelor of science degree in entomology and said that it has been a practice for many beekeepers to dump as many chemicals as possible into the hives to prevent disease, which is leading to antibiotic resistance, just like in humans.

“I use integrated pest management to reduce pests and disease by using natural methods of control like essential oils instead of chemicals,” Swanson said.

Mites are a big problem for bees, and are equivalent to wood ticks on humans, Swanson explained.

“I try to keep the bees as natural as possible. I have a problem with putting pesticides in a hive full of insects because it doesn’t make sense,” he said.

“I try to keep a natural population dynamic between the honey bees and the mite population in the hive. The essential oils, along with olive oil, promotes grooming of the bees that help knock the mites off so they (the mites) fall to the bottom of the hive,” Swanson said.

When working with the bees, Swanson is not afraid to go bare-handed. He had been stung about eight times during a four-hour-period and it didn’t bother him a bit.

Smoke is used to calm the bees while fe works with them.

“They think the hive is on fire and they go into the combs and start lapping up honey. They have another purpose at the moment and pay less attention to the man invading the hive,” Swanson laughed.

Honey bees are about the only bees that produce more honey than what they need for their own purposes. “They’ve come up with a method of gluten,” he laughed.

Colony collapse disorder

Colony collapse disorder (CCD) has been publicized a lot lately and is causing a decrease in honey bees nationwide, causing a bee shortage, Swanson explained.

“Last year, I did have unusual losses, for whatever reasons, but the population since this spring has rebounded really well,” he said.

“Honey bees are 80 percent responsible, in general, for the pollination of a specific product,” Swanson said. “If we lost our honey bees in the US, 30 percent of products on our grocery store shelves would disappear. So it’s a serious problem everyone should be concerned about,” he added.

Where to locally find Swan Bee honey

In Howard Lake, Swan Bee honey can be found at Cattail Corner, and The Country Store (as well as The Country Store in Buffalo).

In Waverly it can be found at Pete’s Grocery, and Mark’s Service.

In Winsted it is at Glenn’s Supervalu, in Dassel at Gary’s Family Foods, in Delano at Peterson’s Produce, and in Cokato, Swan Bee honey can be found at both Dan & Becky’s Market (bulk honey), and the Marketplace.

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