Brent Barkman is the Vice Chair of Project Apis m., a third generation beekeeper and honey packer, and has been a part of the industry all his adult life. He oversees the operations of two separate bee operations that own 16,000 colonies of bees producing and pollinating in eight states. Artesian Honey Producers has 8,500 colonies based in South Dakota, wintering in Oklahoma and Texas and pollinating in California. Barkman Apiaries is based in Florida and operates bees in Michigan and New York as well as pollination in California. Barkman Honey is the family owned business that packages honey based out of Kansas supplying millions of pounds of quality honey to consumers all over the world. In addition to serving as the vice chairman of Project Apis m., Barkman has served the industry in many capacities including serving as chairman of the National Honey Board once while it was a producer board and again more recently after it was changed to a packer board. He is also a member of multiple state beekeeper organizations and both the American Honey Producers Association and American Beekeeping Federation. His memberships also include the National Honey Packers and Dealers Association and the Western States Packers and Dealers Association. He was one of the founders of True Source Honey and is a proponent of high quality traceable honey for the enjoyment of the consumer.
As I think about what to address in this article it occurs to me that procrastination is one of my best and worst qualities. I can say this was a hard task in a year that looks quite discouraging to a lot of honey producers across the northern states where a lot of the US honey is produced. I used the procrastination model successfully this time as some much-needed rain is falling in parts of the North and is lifting the spirits of some producers that are in rainfall areas. It is a sad thing as a producer to see all the potential honey sources out there and not enough moisture to let the bees take full advantage of them. Not only is there a shortage of bee pasture as corn and beans take over the landscape that used to be covered with bee friendly plants, but those that are there are thirsting for water that will let them produce nectar for the bees.
The news is not as bad in some other parts of the US as rain has come when most needed for a large crop to be produced in areas that normally do not fare as well. Some areas are even getting too much rain if that is possible. One producer in Wisconsin shared that it rains all the time, and the bees can’t work enough to fill boxes with honey. This spring it rained in California again. It was a welcome change from the drought that had covered the state for such a long time. There are some honey crops being made there that have been missing for a long time. Welcome back California! Reports from Minnesota are good, as well as Michigan. This will be an interesting year for buying domestic honey. The hope is that we can make enough honey to satisfy the need, and that customers are not forced away from the US honey they usually buy. This is an important point for producers to remember as the honey marketing season approaches.
What, you may ask, is a packer doing on the PAm Board? I am going to try to address this and share with you why it is important to me as a packer to be a part. As you read in my Bio, I am not just a packer but also a beekeeper. I rely on research to help keep my bees alive, too.
With that being said, I believe the work of PAm has taken on a needed service to the industry as the best way to screen and select research that will make a material difference sooner than what we have seen in the past. PAm has become the industry leader in selecting the research projects that can make a difference. Just last year for the first time, PAm worked with the National Honey Board to select the projects that will be funded by the 5% of assessments collected by NHB for production research. It is great to see the industry working together to use the strength of different organizations to grow and strengthen the industry as a whole. This is truly an industry-wide effort to do what is best and not protect territory for fear of losing prominence. This is one of the things that attracted me to serve on the PAm Board.
We are a group of bee people and others that are looking for the tools needed to make sure we are good stewards of our bees. We want to provide honey for consumers as well as provide a service to the growers of other products that rely on us for pollination. These are often competing parts of our job as producers. We are doing things with our hives that make bees good pollinators for those that rely on them. Some of the things we do to assure they are healthy pollinator hives can damage their potential to be good honey producing bees. We have had to be educated with a Masters in Bee Husbandry to learn to take care of and be great caretakers of the bee. It should be noted that beekeepers are just that Keepers of the Bees. We must do everything in our power to help the little creatures fight all the battles they fight with pests, pesticides, lack of bee forage, and an overall fear of them by most of the public.
PAm is working hard to correct some of the problems and give tools to those who care about the bee as much as the beekeepers. In addition to Pam's Honey Bee Health Research programs, Seeds for Bees is a great example of giving the almond grower a tool to help take care of the bees that are so valuable to them, and The Bee and Butterfly Habitat Fund is a program that is just getting a good start in changing the landscape of the farming community that will help create a sustainable environment which benefits nature and farmers alike. These approaches work together to secure what we do as packers, producers, pollinators and Keepers of the Bees.
Project Apis m. Board Member
Zac Browning is a 4th generation commercial beekeeper and honey producer. He is a co-owner of Browning Honey Co. Inc. With his brothers, he operates over 20,000 hives for honey production and pollination in Idaho, North Dakota, and California. He has served the beekeeping industry as Chairman of The Honey Voluntary Quality Assurance Committee, as Trustee for the Foundation for the Preservation of Honey Bees, and as a current board member of the National Honey Board, True Source Honey, and the National Pollinator Defense Fund. He also serves on the EPA’s Pesticide Program Dialogue committee pollinator work group and was recently the North American beekeeper representative at SETACs Pellston global pollinator toxicology workshop. Zac actively contributes to pollinator research and habitat conservation work, which is his passion. Zac is the Legislative Committee Co-Chairman and past president of the American Beekeeping Federation.
As a beekeeper, you are likely well aware of a growing list of challenges your bees face. Varroa, Pesticides, Nutrition, etc. You are looking out for their interests so that they might provide you with some form of return, whether that means an income or perhaps just a little home-grown honey and the satisfaction of having stewarded a hive through a season. In either case, it’s clear that it is much more difficult than it used to be. The challenges of making a good honey crop today are often overshadowed by the greater challenge of just keeping them alive! Domestic honey production has fallen 35% over the last 2 decades. Winter losses now averaging near 40% are 4 times higher than 20 years ago. Input costs in commercial operations are as much as 5 times higher than they were in the 90s. These are sobering facts for beekeepers to digest. Are these facts related? If they are, then what are the common denominators?
In my opinion, one of the most important factors is habitat, or “forage” as many beekeepers say. Habitat availability, in the form of clean, safe, diverse natural forage is the most basic and important component in maintaining healthy, productive colonies. A hive that has proper natural nutrition will tolerate much more stress than hives that are nutritionally deficient.
Large scale beekeepers around the country are aware of the sobering reality that their bees are finding less and less nutritional opportunity on our landscapes. This problem is not new. In fact, commercial beekeepers have adapted to changing landscapes quite well over the years, which has led to the mechanization and mobilization of the industry. As consummate opportunists, beekeepers are amazingly resourceful. At the micro level: When farms change their practices, beekeepers scout for a better opportunity and move their bees. At the macro level: When honey production opportunities are scarce, beekeepers seek more opportunities in pollination services.
Unfortunately, this resourceful and innovative strategy will only succeed until there are no more safe, productive alternatives. That situation is becoming a reality in many parts of the country as more and more of the landscape is changing. Honey crops nationwide are on a declining trend. Hives are malnourished and too dependent on supplemental feeding. In major honey production states like California and Florida, beekeepers now have to avoid some of the very best citrus areas completely, because of pesticides used to control citrus greening. In the Dakotas and Minnesota, the Honey basket of the country, the expansion of GMO row crops and the subsequent prolific use of herbicide has been devastating to honey production. North Dakota is still the number one honey producer, but only because the number of hives in the state have doubled recently, as beekeepers fleeing other states, where opportunities are even more scarce, flock into the “last best place.”
Compounding these changes is the loss of tens of millions of acres of conservation acres in federal programs nationwide. These lost acres once served as safe, supplemental habitat, where beekeepers could expect their bees to thrive.
As hive losses have garnered national media attention over the last decade, there has been a swell of new interest in finding solutions to the bee health crisis. Beekeepers, scientists, and politicians have worked to solve the problem from every angle. As more and more stakeholders recognize habitat loss as a major problem, the interest and opportunities to improve habitat are broadening. To date there are over 40 programs aimed at improving habitat for pollinators. They range from ad campaigns that send out packets of seeds to new federal programs. As you might have guessed, while all are probably well intended, most have little impact on bee health on a wide scale.
PAm has been a pioneer in developing habitat for honey bees. In 2013 PAm launched the Seeds for Bees program, which provides free honey bee forage seeds to Almond growers who are willing to plant it around their orchards. The goal is to improve available forage before and after the almonds bloom to give the bees a needed boost and also to raise awareness of the importance of habitat for the bees.
In 2014 PAm upped the ante by partnering with Pheasants Forever and Browning Honey to form the Honey Bee and Monarch Butterfly Partnership, which later became known as the Bee and Butterfly Habitat Fund. The BBHF has two primary goals. First, to establish high quality habitat in key areas. Secondly, the program aims to influence other pollinator habitat initiatives by serving as a model of the best practices in terms of cost, weed competition, and overall benefits to pollinators. The program solicits funding and pays participating landowners, who are close to beekeepers’ apiaries an annual fee to plant and maintain project acres for pollinators. The seed mixtures are engineered to provide diverse, high density, season long bloom for pollinators and utilize both native and introduced plant species.
To be fair, this is a new concept. Never before have beekeepers needed to invest in habitat. For many beekeepers, it seems impossible to invest in forage on a scale large enough to make a difference. And it would be, if we as beekeepers were alone in this fight. The good news is…we’re not.
As a beekeeper, are you also a conservationist? According to Webster, a conservationist is someone who works to protect animals, plants, and natural resources or to prevent the loss or waste of natural resources: a person who is involved in conservation. If beekeepers are conservationists, which we are, then we join a host of others who are seeking the same things, albeit for different reasons, but, nevertheless, all vying for their own little scraps on the landscape. Our bees utilize the same kinds of habitat that meet the critical needs of hosts of other critters. Deer, upland birds, waterfowl, grassland song birds, native pollinators, monarch butterflies, and countless other creatures all need places to call home on our landscape. That means that those people interested in those animals, whether to protect and conserve them, or to hunt them are also promoting the same kind of habitat that bees need. The list doesn’t end there either. People who are interested in soil health, sustainability, clean water, and even carbon sequestration to offset climate change…all want things that can be consistent with great pollinator habitat!
PAm pollinator habitat programs have been funded by many stakeholders, from beekeepers and honey packers to big ag and from hunting groups to the federal government. Beekeepers who contribute dollars to PAm habitat programs are joining a broad list of other stakeholders who share common interests, making each dollar go further and further.
These programs are still in their infancy but are growing fast. As I talk to beekeepers and growers alike who are participating, it is clear there are more than just dollars changing hands here. There is a growing level of awareness and appreciation for what bees both need and contribute. The relationships formed by working with landowners who are planting habitat for bees is priceless. They become partners, invested in the health of the bees that occupy a spot on their farm. I personally worked with a land owner in my area where I had kept bees for many years. As the farming changed around him I saw less and less honey and eventually quit bringing the bees back. He called and inquired why, and I explained that there was not enough forage around for the bees. Saddened and concerned, he asked what could be done. I mentioned that he could establish habitat for the bees. That fall he planted 8 acres between two rows of trees where it was difficult to combine with a mixture of clovers. The next year I brought the bees back. They did amazingly well. The next fall, he enrolled an additional15 acres into the Bee and Butterfly Habitat Fund. Now the yard is as good as any in the outfit. The land owner calls to inquire how the bees are doing and remarks about all the birds, deer, and butterflies that have returned to his farm. One more thing…last year the farmer who rents most of his land complained about the bees when he wanted to spray soy beans. This year he has a new renter.
As beekeepers, we are remarkably well adept at overcoming challenges, like the bees! The issue of declining habitat is a real challenge, but it is not one we can’t make progress on if we work together. hope you will consider joining the many stake holders investing in habitat by donating to PAm forage programs.
Project Apis m. Board Member