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Honey production grew in 2023 — but it's a small bright spot in a struggling industry

 Honeybees across the United States churned out more honey in 2023, increasing production numbers for the first time in three years. To beekeepers, it's a small win in an industry facing major challenges.
Photo courtesy of Matt Lance
Honeybees across the United States churned out more honey in 2023, increasing production numbers for the first time in three years. To beekeepers, it's a small win in an industry facing major challenges.

Honeybees across the U.S. produced more honey last year than in previous years. It’s the first time production has risen in three years, according to a new USDA report.

Patty Sundberg, a beekeeper who also leads the American Beekeeping Federation, wasn’t surprised by the bump in yields. Years of dryness gave way to rainier weather in 2023 for some areas, including top honey states like the Dakotas, California and Montana.

“You can’t have blooming flowers without moisture,” Sundberg said. “If a plant is stressed, it won’t produce nectar, if there’s no nectar then the bees don’t produce honey.”

The increase is “something to celebrate,” according to Gabriela Quinlan, a postdoctoral researcher at Penn State, especially as beekeepers contend with decades of declining honey yields.

Quinlan’s research connected the downward pressure to herbicides and land use, such as the conversion of flower-rich lands into fields of crops. Extreme weather, likely driven by climate change, also affected honey yields.

“This increase is a testament to the great work of beekeepers and land managers who are getting flowers onto landscapes for pollinators,” she said. “It’s important to focus on those things we can control, since there are a lot of stressors that will detrimentally affect honey production and bees in the long run.”

Some states, including Kansas and Illinois, saw a decrease in honey yields even as topline numbers rose.

Jim Kellie is a Kansas-based beekeeper who recently retired after working in commercial beekeeping since 1976. He attributes Kansas’ dip to the state’s small beekeeping community, mostly made up of hobbyists.

As commercial beekeepers like Kellie retire or move out of the state, amateurs account for a bigger share of Kansas’ beekeepers.

“It’s just a much smaller state and a large amount of hobby beekeepers,” Kellie said. “We’re so small that just a sneeze somewhere shows up.”

Headwinds for beekeepers

Despite the uptick in production after years of decline, Matt Lance worries the difficulties facing the industry are mounting.

Matt Lance manages more than 350 bee colonies across Nebraska. To him, challenges like parasites, land use and foreign honey imports outweigh 2023's increase in production.
Photo courtesy of Matt Lance
Matt Lance manages more than 350 bee colonies across Nebraska. To him, challenges like parasites, land use and foreign honey imports outweigh 2023's increase in production.

Lance manages more than 350 honeybee colonies across Nebraska, and called 2023’s boost “small potatoes” compared to the challenges beekeepers face.

“Don’t look at the increase in honey yield as an industry thriving,” he said. “It’s just a slight less headache than what it was before.”

In addition to climate change impacts, herbicides and pesticides and insufficient pollinator plants, beekeepers are battling parasites like the varroa mite, which feed on honeybees and transmit viruses and defects.

The stubborn drought in the Midwest and Great Plains has also challenged beekeepers. Becky Tipton, president of the Kansas Honey Producers Association, said nectar was so scarce last year she had to supplement feed for her colonies by July.

“They were going to starve because there was nothing left,” she said. “And the drought is still continuing to be pretty severe. I’m concerned about our clover crop. If it doesn’t get good moisture, there might not be any nectar in the flowers.”

Economic challenges

The rising honey supply likely dragged down prices. For the first time in three years, prices dipped in 2023. Honey prices went down 16% to $2.52 per pound, from $3.01 in 2022.

Lance suspects other factors are also contributing to lower prices; including foreign honey and imitation syrups being blended with American honey. That suspicion has long been present in the industry, and in 2013 two large honey packers admitted to buying cheap honey from China and mislabeling it.

“The price in the commercial industry is about half to a quarter of what it should be, were we not importing so much fake honey from overseas,” Lance said. “The laws are not protecting the American beekeeper or consumer.”

It’s a challenge especially as beekeepers deal with higher operational costs. Sundberg said she’s seen expenses go up at least 35% over the past two years at Sunshine Apiary, the business she runs out of Columbus, Montana.

Bee hives sit in a field in southeastern Nebraska. Land use is a challenge confronting beekeepers in Nebraska and elsewhere — as pastures like this are converted into fields to grow crops like soybeans and corn, there are less pollinator plants available for honey bees.
Photo courtesy of Dustin Scholl
Bee hives sit in a field in southeastern Nebraska. Land use is a challenge confronting beekeepers in Nebraska and elsewhere — as pastures like this are converted into fields to grow crops like soybeans and corn, there are less pollinator plants available for honey bees.

Higher costs are affecting most corners of agriculture right now – including the farmers that Sundberg relies on for her pollinating income. For example, she knows some apricot farmers who are thinking they’ll go without the pollination they typically pay beekeepers for.

“They didn’t harvest their apricots last year, because the cost of harvesting was more than they were going to get paid for them,” Sundberg said. “So right now they’re not looking at pollinating this year.”

Pollinating income generally accounts for about 65% of Sundberg’s income over her five-year budget, she said.

The industry is getting increasingly difficult, Lance said. He often sees beekeepers leaving the field, he said, without young beekeepers taking their place.

“You have cheap honey flooding the market, you’re losing your pollination potential and there are virus issues,” Lance said. “It’s a challenge, and the challenge is getting harder every year.”

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.

Copyright 2024 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Elizabeth Rembert