Tom Harned, the owner of Five Bee Hives honey is busy this time of the year. He has 800 buzzing hives in the Wood River Valley and in Three Forks, Mont.
“Summer is the time to make honey in this region,” said Harned, 50.
He started his company in 2010 after learning the art and business of beekeeping from a friend.
Harned’s traveling hives, with about 60,000 bees in each, are among 2 million hives required to pollinate the $5 billion Southern California almond crop each spring.
By late April, about half of Harned’s bees are back in the Wood River Valley, feeding instead on new dandelions and then on mustard blooms on a farm on Gannett Road, or fresh blooms of alfalfa elsewhere in the Bellevue Triangle before farmers’ fields are cut.
“They like clover, rabbitbrush, bitterbrush and fireweed. Anything that has a flower, they will go for it,” Harned said.
Last year Harned lost half of his hives to “colony collapse disorder,” a precipitous loss of Western honeybees (Apis mellifera) that has been attributed to a combination of causes that include pesticide use, genetic changes and natural pests.
“I attribute my losses to varroa mites,” Harned said. “We can use pesticide to kill the mites, but there’s no getting rid of them.”
Harned said losing so many hives quadruples the amount of work he had to undertake this year to rebuild bee colonies, but it won’t put him out of business, due to the resilience of bees in restoring their numbers.
“What other business could survive a 50 percent loss in one year?” he asked.
A single queen bee can live for three years, far beyond the six-week lifespan of the colony’s summer-born worker bees. The queen can produce up to 1,500 eggs per day in high season, reducing that number sharply in the fall and winter.
“She will keep only a baseball-size cluster of bees around her in the winter,” Harned said. “But when the dandelions bloom again in the spring that’s a trigger. She builds back up the hive enough to produce honey.”
Harned then caps his hives with boxes that the bees fill upward, producing about 25 pounds of salable honey each year from each hive.
Harned’s honey doesn’t come cheap. He said that at about twice the cost of honey produced elsewhere, it may have local-specific medicinal effects.
“Many, many people have told me that eating my honey has helped them with their allergies,” he said. “The pollens that cause allergies create histamines in the body that produce allergic effects. In local unfiltered honey, there are small amounts of local pollen that when ingested work like an inoculation. It creates an immune response.”
Harned said honey comes into the U.S. from India, Argentina and elsewhere. He said China has been “dumping” honey on the U.S. market that consists largely of corn syrup.
“I am fortunate that people in the Wood River Valley appreciate local honey,” he said. “And when you know and trust your beekeeper, you know what you’re getting.”