It may come as a surprise, but North Dakota is the largest producer of honey in the United States. Local beekeeper Eric Andress’s company, Grand River Honey Company, has been buzzing around Hettinger for the last 45 years, producing gallons and gallons of honey for large distributers.
“My dad started the company in 1974,” said Andress, “After I came back from college in 94, I bought him out in 2002 and have been running it since.”
Andress’s passion for beekeeping resulted from working for his father in high school.
“It was always something I liked,” continued Andress. “I liked the area and the community, so I just wanted to be back here in Hettinger. I just always knew I wanted to do bees.”
To continually make honey, bees require lots of travel. During the off season in North Dakota when plants are not blooming, the bees must be shipped using trucks to other agriculturally active states like California and Texas.
“These bees need somewhere to go to make honey to survive,” he said.
Andress, along with many other local beekeepers, doesn’t actually own his bees, but instead shares his bees with other trusted beekeepers to avoid constant travel.
“I now have a shared crop, so my employees and I can stay in the area year round. We get the bees shipped in early may and put them out in fields on basically whatever crops are available,” said Andress. “There aren’t many local bees here… You can’t overwinter them here anymore. With the mites and problems, it’s hard to keep them alive and you have to feed them all winter.”
Beekeepers’ concerns go farther than just bee mites and harsh winters. According to Andress, both pesticides and herbicides pose a threat to bees as well.
“The bees are very fragile. They found that some of the carriers in roundup are causing crashes in bees. Not only are pesticides an issue, but some of the herbicides are affecting bees too.”
The bees are shipped into North Dakota using semi trucks full of bee colonies. Nets cover the bee colonies so they cannot escape. According to Andress, one semi can carry over 20,000,000 bees.
“We put 480 colonies in a semi-load. A colony is one box. Per colony you are looking at approximately 50,000 bees,” he said
In early June when the crops start to bloom, Grand River Honey Company releases its bees into the designated crops. Then once the bees are distributed, Eric and his employees leave empty brood boxes for the bees to start inhabiting and producing honey. As the season progresses, Eric and his team leave out more and more brood boxes until they start harvesting in mid July.
“We harvest the honey by pulling those boxes off the bees and bring them back to our facility where we have our extracting machine that spins the comb really fast to remove the honey from the comb, and we do that until September,” he continued.
According to Andress, North Dakota’s key crop for making quality honey is clover. Different crops produce different tasting honeys. Honey produced from a clover field is the highest quality with a lighter honey and better taste.
“If we have clover, that’s what we go for. If there isn’t clover, which it’s a biannual so you don’t see it every year, we will put the bees in alfalfa, canola, or sunflowers,” he said.
Andress said that honey is graded on colors and taste. Clover honey is the most sought after with the lightest colored honey and the best taste. Alfalfa also creates good flavored honey, but is darker color making it less desirable. Canola makes a light honey, however, it granulates the sugars really fast.
“When distributers put canola honey in jars,” said Andress, “it crystallizes really fast and doesn’t have a very good flavor. Usually, canola honey is blended with a different honey to improve the flavor.
Sometimes beekeepers will use their bees specifically for pollination instead of just for honey.
“Canola has to have insect pollination. By putting bees on the field, the crop will have better yields. Same with sunflower, we can prove better yields, higher proteins and higher oil content with pollination through bees than without,” said Andress.
By the end of September, Eric and his team have all the bees shipped out of North Dakota and back to California or Texas.
According to Andress, people in North Dakota can promote bee health and support the North Dakota industry by being aware of the effect pesticides have on bees.
“The bees will decimate from the pesticide used on people’s lawns and trees. You have to get away from town at least a mile before you can have bees. Awareness of pesticides is very important,” said Andress.
Grand River Honey provides honey for companies like Nature Nate’s Honey Co., which distribute their products nationwide. Local Hettinger people who are interested in buying the honey can also find local Grand River Honey distributed at Kennedy’s Fresh Foods.