It's hardly as dramatic as the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano, Calif., or the buzzards to Hinckley, Ohio. One day a field is empty and the next day you see white, wooden boxes stacked here and there on its edge or in a nearby shelterbelt.
Once the days are warm enough and the little guys inside the hives have shaken off their travel lag, the bees quietly go to work. Beyond squashed bees on your windshield, you'll barely notice them. Then, in the fall, when days get shorter and moms start nagging their kids to put on a jacket, the beehives and their occupants are gone. They've headed south like some North Dakotans, seeking warmth in Texas.
Migratory beekeeping is part of a cycle vital to an economy heavily dependent on agriculture. Tom Thompson of Medina, N.D., in the summer, and Denton, Texas, the rest of the year, runs what he calls a "mom and pop" bee business. John Miller of Gackle, N.D., in the summer and Newcastle, Calif., in the other seasons, runs a major honey-producing firm. Both men and both types of operations help make North Dakota the number one honey-producing state in the union.
Bee farmers produced nearly 35 million pounds of the sweet stuff last year, according to the North Dakota Agricultural Statistics Service. "Sometimes I think people have a little trouble visualizing the size of the market when they're just buying a little honey bear at the supermarket," says John Miller.
John is a fourth-generation "bee guy." His great-grandfather, Nephi Ephraim Miller of Providence, Utah, pioneered migratory beekeeping in the last century. According to family lore, N.E., a Mormon convert from Germany, caught the vision on a winter trip to central California in 1904.
He'd gone there to learn a better way to process beeswax and couldn't help noticing that while his bees were freezing and dying in Utah's higher altitudes, California bees were still hard at work in the orange groves. A few years later he began the migratory pattern familiar to his great-grandson and other American beekeepers. "At times N.E. was the biggest migratory beekeeper in the world," John says. "He went broke twice to prove it!"
Many of N.E.'s descendants stayed in the bee business. Miller's Honey is a well-known brand throughout the Intermountain West and the Pacific Coast. "Those Millers are honey handlers," John says of his Salt Lake City cousins. "Honey comes to them in drums and they pack it into jars and plastic bears."
Beekeeping tends to be a family oriented business. The Thompsons got into it for precisely that reason. "Tom's dream was a business where the family could work together," Diane Thompson says.
The Thompson children Ð David, Danielle, Michael and Andrea Ð have all been deeply involved in bees and honey. Diane remembers when she had to send a note with Michael to his afternoon kindergarten explaining to his teacher that he was late because he had to work. "Michael was so proud," she says. "He was the only kindergartner with a part-time job!"
The first job for each Thompson youngster was to stand beside Tom and hand him the quart jars for honey, according to Diane. Graduation meant a spot across the table screwing on lids. "They all looked forward to the third job, because it was skilled labor," she jokes. "They had to fix those labels on straight!"
There are hazards to the profession. Diane has fallen victim to a curious one that is fairly common among beekeepers' wives. She's developed a serious allergic reaction to bee stings. "We wives are the ones who usually put the beekeeper suits in the washing machine," she explains. "The suits are covered with bee stingers and tiny bits of venom. The allergy is a result of years of close contact with the venom."
After several stings and even unconsciousness, Diane is really careful. She always has bottles of Benadryl¨ on hand when she works around bees and chugs one down immediately after an encounter with an irritated bee. Last summer Diane stayed safely in Texas at her full-time job with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
She points out that bees can sense fear. "No kidding. If bees feel bad vibes, they alarm each other and pass the word back somehow that there is trouble ahead. You need to be in tune with bees." She adds that Tom likes to talk to them. "Bees seem to recognize when people are kind. He hardly ever gets stung."
Pleasant thoughts and good vibes aside, people who work with bees must avoid colognes and use unscented deodorant. "No fabric softener, either," Diane says, "People must be scent-free to work safely around bees."
If bees are so high maintenance, why go to the trouble of transporting them all the way from Texas as the Thompsons do, or to California like the Millers? "It's the long daylight hours," says Tom. Because the state is so far north, there are seven more hours a week of daylight for the bees to gather nectar. "Up here I get eight days of work every seven days out of my bees."
John Miller agrees. "Bees perceive light differently than we do," he says. "You notice this especially as fall approaches and the nights get longer. The sun is lower in the sky then and this signals to the bees that the blooms are going." When this happens the bees move into a self-preservation mode and work frantically to seal up cracks in the hives and get ready for winter. This single-minded focus gives the bees a bad attitude.
"At the height of bee activity in the summer, you could walk through a bee yard in your bathing suit and be completely ignored. When fall comes they get more defensive around the hives and you're more likely to get stung," John says.
But isn't spring a little dicey when the bee guys are loading hives for the drive north? Who gets that job? According to Tom, the trick is to load his thousand-plus hives onto semi-trucks in Texas early in the morning when the weather is cool and the bees are sluggish. He envelops each semi in plastic netting to contain the bees.
After several days on the road, Tom admits that his little over-achievers get anxious, stressed out and irritated. He trucks them to Medina, in south central North Dakota, and sets them out on farm land in early May, when the weather is still cool. "That slows them down again. We unload bees right at dawn when it's chilly. We can unload five hundred hives in an hour."
Both Tom and John put their hives in 12-to-44-mile-wide radiuses around their respective honey houses. Farmers don't charge them rent and both men repay their hosts in honey. "Bees are a vital part of the agricultural business," Tom explains. "We're a welcome sight to farmers."
"I call it guilt-free living," says John. "I'm doing the right thing for the environment. We bee guys are the gatekeepers of the food chain. Besides the pollination, we sell a product that is healthy and good for you."
Both men set their hives near clover, alfalfa and sunflower fields. The lighter the honey the better quality it is and the higher prices it brings. Clover honey blends well with other types of honey and is the flavor that many prefer. According to Tom, good clover honey is so light that you can hold a quart jar of it to the light and read a newspaper through it. Later in the season bees bring in sunflower nectar, which produces a bright golden honey, breathtaking in beauty and taste.
But whatever the honey, once the season starts and bees get busy, it's nonstop until fall and cool weather. A typical honey day starts early. "We keep bee hours," Diane says. Once the land is warm the bees leave the hive on their never-ending search for nectar. While they're gone the bee guys and their helpers remove the honey supers Ð thin wooden frames, 8-10 to a box Ð from the hives and replace them with clean ones. Back at the Thompson's honey house, the waxy, honey-filled frames are put into the extractor. When it's full of frames and the door is closed, the extractor is turned on. It spins for 20 or 30 minutes, slinging the honey out of the frames. The honey drains into a pit tank, which holds 150 gallons of raw honey.
"On a great day this tank fills six times," Diane says. "That's 900 gallons of honey a day." When the pit tank is full the top is an unsavory mass of waxy bits, drowned bees and other debris. "We leave that alone, because it acts as a cover for the honey, which is heavier. It's easy to skim off." The raw honey remains clean because it is drained off from underneath and then stored in 55-gallon drums. The Thompsons typically extract 15-to-20 barrels a day during the height of the summer.
Diane points out that some beekeepers will stack six boxes and their supers to make up a hive and not come back until the end of summer. Both Tom and John prefer a more active management system, where they take off boxes and the full supers and put on more. They'll do this all summer because bees produce more honey this way.
Tom ships most of his honey to Pennsylvania, where it is filtered and blended with other honey and sold to Eastern markets. Although he usually contracts with the same company, he'll get four or five calls a week during the season from other firms eager for his product. "Our honey has a good reputation," he says. The honey is weighed in Medina and again in Pennsylvania where its purity is determined. Then the checks come, says Tom, the sweet reward for a challenging business.
Tom hires locally in Medina, often high school and college-age kids for an intensive six-to-eight-week period. It's a ballpark figure, but Tom estimates that his honey business returns between $10,000 and $20,000 a year to Medina in gas and labor.
To Tom the bigger picture is what his bees do for local agriculture. "Because of the more effective pollination that bees provide, crop yields go up 20-50 percent in the area," he says. "This is for clover, alfalfa, soybeans and sunflowers."
Because John Miller's operation is larger, he has both a temporary and permanent crew, some of whom migrate with him to California in the fall. Even though his is a large, state-of-the-art honey house, John is the first to admit that it still looks pretty rough.
"That's the nature of the honey business," he says. "It's messy." John sometimes feels "stuck" in honey. "Oh, that's the worst part. I pick up a hole punch in the office. It's sticky! I put the telephone receiver to my ear. It's sticky! I'll bet I clean the phone every day - still sticky."
Then why do it? It's a good question, and John, a thoughtful, articulate man, has a short answer: "I love the bees - no other way to explain it."
John's devotion to bees has extended to two terms as president of the National Honey Board and countless hours of work educating children, the business community and legislators on the sweet and challenging world of honey. A typical summer week finds him working alongside his crew in tee shirt, jeans and ball cap one day, then changing to a suit and tie (always with a bee motif), and speaking to influential groups all around the country as one of honey's ablest advocates.
John is the first to admit it's a busy life. In October, when North Dakota starts to hunker down for another winter, John and some of his Gackle staff move the bees back to Newcastle, Calif., a small town near Sacramento. His 8,611 hives (one queen bee per box) winter in a 30-acre area. December and January in both Newcastle and Gackle is time to paint and repair equipment. In February the bees go to California's almond orchards. "This is really intense," John says. "Almonds require every blossom to set and this demands a lot of bees."
In March some of the well-traveled bees pack up and head for apple orchards near Wenatchee, Wash. April is also a time to make up for losses. While half of the bees are in Washington, the others are re-queened to prepare for the summer ahead. May finds the Miller bees on the road again, this time to North Dakota, where they will be Ð ahem Ð busy as bees through a long, bright summer.
From May to October the labor is the most challenging and the rewards are the biggest for North Dakota. Like Tom, John hires locally. He estimates that Miller Honey spins a quarter million dollars back into Gackle's economy every year.
"North Dakota's the best place for bees," Tom says. "There are fewer parasites and bugs to bother the bees and the people are great." He laughs. "People in small towns know your business up here, but it's in a friendly way. They watch out for you and you do the same for them." Case in point: when the Thompsons return to their modest summer home in Medina people will drive by "just to make sure the right people are back," according to Tom. Security is never a problem. Tom just closes the doors on his buildings and locks them. "The neighbors are good about looking after our buildings."
No wonder the migratory bee business and North Dakota are a good fit. When asked to characterize "bee guys," John Miller's description matches many citizens of the Flickertail State: "We're fiercely independent with strong views and an entrepreneurial spirit. We're risk-takers like everyone in agriculture."
Tom agrees, and puts it simply: "I just like it here, and the people, too."
It's a honey of a deal.