George Hansen, owner of the Foothills Honey Company, started beekeeping as a hobby 25 years ago. His company now does $2 million in annual revenue.
George Hansen has had just a few hours sleep after spending the night moving his bees to a pollination job in Madras, but he is awake, freshly shaved and ready to talk about bees. The 61-year-old Hansen is by most accounts one of the superior beekeepers in Oregon, though he comes to it differently than most.
Unlike many beekeepers who come from a long family line of them, Hansen is the son of a government bureaucrat who started out teaching Russian 25 years ago to immigrant school kids in Woodburn. (Russians now comprise his bee crew.) He kept bees as a hobby and eventually stopped teaching to try to make money from his hives. Today, his Foothills Honey Company in Colton is a $2 million operation with 5,000 hives. He makes 75% of his revenue off pollination services; 20% from honey; and about 5% from bee sales and wax, a fairly typical breakdown for beekeepers. Sixty years ago, most just produced honey.
Modern farming and other factors have decimated wild pollinators, so growers now depend on beekeepers like Hansen. “They call us, give us 48 hours to pollinate before they spray [pesticides] and then we leave.”
His bee loss is extremely low, only 5% to 10% per year, while some beekeepers are reporting losses of up to 30% to 40%. His taciturn response to that is to wonder if it isn’t just bad colony management.
“We ask a lot of hard work of bees and put a lot of stress on them,” says Hansen. “If I did nothing we would lose 30% or more. That’s what we don’t allow.”
Fellow beekeeper Dirk Olsen says it straight out.
“A lot of beekeepers blame CCD for bee losses when it’s poor management,” says Olsen, who owns Olsen Honey Farms in Albany. Olsen began keeping bees in 1971 when he was 17 as a way to put himself through OSU. His family-owned operation is now a $1 million-plus business and manages up to 6,000 hives. “We’ve got mites and they’ve become resistant. They can get out of control real quick. Beekeepers will blame that on CCD,” he says.
Large beekeepers still in the game at this point know what they are doing. Like farming everywhere, success means good stewardship, an unwavering dedication to your animal (or insect). The best beekeeper spends the money to address the myriad assaults on the bee, with nutrition being among the most important ways to keep a bee healthy. “We are very strong on nutrition,” says Jan Lohman of Vazza Farms in Hermiston, which keeps 2,200 hives. “That’s the up and coming thing in the bee industry.”
Nutrition is a big focus for OSU researcher Ramesh Sagili, who replaced longtime OSU bee expert Michael Burgett, who retired in 2002. Sagili is also studying the bee’s immune system, treatment thresholds and the ever-present mite. In a survey of hives this spring, he found that 22 Oregon commercial beekeepers who managed 37,000 hives reported average losses of 25%; nationally the rate was 34% for total bee loss over this past winter.
Burgett, now an OSU emeritus professor, is a devil’s advocate about CCD and doesn’t see the losses as catastrophic. “The health of the bees is great,” he says.
In his 2008-2009 study on bee mortality, he found losses in the region were “above average but not by much. Most of the beekeepers made up their losses. So there are now more hives in Oregon than before CCD.” This is not to diminish the seriousness of bee loss and finding ways to prevent it, but the important thing that has resulted, says Burgett, is more money for research.
“Now we’ve discovered new pathogens. We’ve found a new virus, and a new nosema [parasite],” he says. “Increased funding is allowing us to find out more about what makes bees sick.”
Hansen puts great effort into keeping his bees healthy. His approach demands his unwavering dedication (he rarely takes a day off) and it is expensive: “I do not really allow the bees to fail,” says Hansen. “We are giving bees a whole lot more than we used to give them. We don’t depend on nature giving them anything anymore.”