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'Liquid gold' and the declining honey bee

MONTROSE -- Ricky Wurtz isn't fazed by bee stings anymore. It's just part of the life of a beekeeper. Wurtz, who says he's stung five to 10 times daily, usually wears a veil and gloves to handle his bees, so that he doesn't get stung on or around...

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Ricky Wurtz takes the lid off one of the beehives. Wurtz has hives at eight different locations that produce the honey for his Orland Honey Farms products. (Matt Gade/Republic)

MONTROSE - Ricky Wurtz isn't fazed by bee stings anymore. It's just part of the life of a beekeeper.

Wurtz, who says he's stung five to 10 times daily, usually wears a veil and gloves to handle his bees, so that he doesn't get stung on or around his face, but getting stung is inevitable. He uses a smoker to help calm the bees down and make them less agitated. But even then, taking care of approximately 10 million bees results in stings.

In 2002, Wurtz's father started with about 10 colonies, but now Wurtz helps take care of the 180 hives that are part of the Orland Hutterite colony's hobby honey farm. The farm is located about 10 miles north of Montrose.

"We started out with bees just so we could have honey on the table, but we got more and more and more," Wurtz said. "Now we make like $20,000 to $30,000 not trying real hard."

The 'bee yards' and the hierarchy

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Wurtz has eight areas where he keeps the bees with about 25 hives per bee yard. He tries to space them at least two to three miles apart since bees travel up to 2 miles from their hives, according to the South Dakota Department of Agriculture.

Wurtz feeds his bees corn syrup until plants bloom. After he no longer has to feed them, Wurtz checks on the colonies weekly.

Each hive has its own queen, and each queen lives for about two to three years.

When the bees have a diminishing queen, Wurtz said the colonies get smaller, the bees don't forage and they don't make honey.

Once the queen of the hive dies, Wurtz has to buy a new queen. But, there is a process if the colony is going to accept her. Within the hive boxes, there is a wooden cage for the queen. Wurtz places a sugary candy in the cage for the worker bees to eat, and once the candy is gone, the queen is usually accepted.

During the "heat of the summer" in June and July, Wurtz said there are about 60,000 bees per hive, but that decreases during winter.

After the summer is over, Wurtz ships his bees south to Oklahoma during the last part of September and into October depending on the weather. But, like with any other livestock, transportation is stressful on them.

Once spring comes, his bees are used for a month in California to pollinate the almond groves at the end of February, and then they are brought back to South Dakota.

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The Hutterite colony not only keeps bees. They also own hogs, turkeys, cattle, sheep, goats, ducks, geese, hens and have 3,500 acres of crops. In addition, Wurtz said they own a large garden and do steel work.

Declining honey crops

Wurtz, like many other apiarists, aka "beekeepers," around the country, has seen a decline in both bee population and productivity.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), there are 40 percent less apiarists with five or more honey bee colonies compared to 2015.

"I used to make 200 pounds (of honey) per hive per year," Wurtz said. "But, now I'm down to about 70 pounds per hive. We'll be pretty lucky if we get 70 this year."

If they average about 70 pounds of honey per hive, they will harvest about 12,600 pounds of honey at the end of July.

Wurtz said his honey crops started diminishing around 2004-05. For Wurtz, the biggest issues his bee colonies face are nosema, a bee gut disease; habitat destruction and varroa mites, blood-sucking parasites.

According to the USDA, varroa mites were the top stressor of honey bee colonies in South Dakota.

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The state bee inspector inspected Wurtz's colonies last year. And so far, for 2016, Wurtz said his colonies seem to be "pretty clean" of varroa mites. The mites tend to be an issue near the end of July and beginning of August right after he harvests.

Statewide, July through September 2015 had the highest colony losses for the year with a decrease of 18 percent, according to the USDA.

"You see bees sitting around on the grass and you know they're sick and there's something wrong," Wurtz said. "They don't have the energy and don't want to fly. It's a big challenge to keep under control."

Being a caretaker has increased in difficulty since Wurtz became a beekeeper.

"It used to be that beekeepers set (the bees) out wherever and forgot about that, then had a crop in the fall," Wurtz said. "It's not simple anymore, but you know, it's a learning experience. You learn as you go."

Wurtz said treating bees for nosema isn't always successful.

"To treat them for the nosema it's not cheap, it's expensive stuff," Wurtz said. "It works a little, but what we're finding is we might be able to do more with probiotics, so we'll see."

Wurtz has also faced issues of not enough flowers for the bees to pollinate and chemicals used for farming and roadside maintenance. Farmers cut their alfalfa or other crops before they flower, which the honey bees need to successfully produce honey, Wurtz said.

Wurtz was able to talk to the county, and they agreed to stop spraying the roadsides with chemicals around his area, but farmers in the area still use various herbicides and pesticides.

"With all this chemical farming, it's not doing us any justice," Wurtz said.

Harvest

For Wurtz, the most exciting time is when they bring in the honey for harvest.

When the colony harvests the honey, about two to three adults help carry the boxes since the boxes average around 100 pounds. After that, women in the colony help with the extracting. It takes two to three days to collect and extract the honey.

"That's a sticky and hot business," Wurtz said.

The Hutterite colony usually harvests honey twice a year depending on how full the boxes are. The first harvest is a lighter honey, and Wurtz said sometimes they separate out the light honey from the dark between harvests, but usually, they combine the two.

Once the honey is extracted, it is placed in a tank to be separated into the different bottles. The tank has a water jacket that keeps it warm, at a temperature of 120 degrees, so the honey is easier to bottle.

They sell honey in several different sizes ranging from 6 ounces to gallons and buckets. They also sell cream honey, though they do not make it at the colony.

Orland Colony sells honey to several stores and convenience stores in Sioux Falls, Madison, Salem and Canistota as well as at the colony's vegetable stand.

Wurtz said the Brick Oven restaurant in Canistota was one of the first stores he ever sold honey to and he has been supplying them with honey ever since.

Ed Thomas, the manager of the restaurant and Ortman Hotel, said they have been buying the colony's honey for at least three or four years for retail sales.

"It's a good, quality product," Thomas said. "We like to support local communities as much as possible, and it's good honey."

The Orland Colony also sell pails and drums of honey to other Hutterite colonies. Since bee colony populations have been going down, Wurtz said the price of honey has gone up.

"I don't eat a lot of honey, but I like to see a crop," Wurtz said. "You see it run out of the tank into the pails, and it makes you feel good. It's liquid gold."

Related Topics: MONTROSEAGRICULTURE
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