Harvesting honey at Olsen Honey Farms in Albany.
Dave LeFore runs 15,000 hives, making his bee operation in Milton-Freewater among the largest around. In the early 1990s, his family business grew to the point where it didn’t have adequate bee pasture in Oregon (only about 10% of the land in the state is suitable) so they bought a bee operation in Montana and one in North Dakota to expand their pasture. Unlike most other beekeepers in Oregon, LeFore makes about 50% of his income from honey, and the rest from pollination rental. LeFore produces about a million pounds of honey per year, selling to large wholesalers like Golden Heritage Foods in Kansas. In January, he begins to chase spring for six months: he sends 40 semi-truck loads of bees to Modesto to pollinate almonds, which brings in 35% of his revenue; then the Pacific Northwest to pollinate cherries, applies, pears and plums; Montana for clover and alfalfa honey production; North Dakota for sunflowers and canola seed. LeFore loves this migratory life. No two years are ever alike, and he is never bored.
The 63-year-old LeFore has been at this for more than 40 years. Economic margins might be thin for the beekeeper, but there are other measurements that matter far more.
“Beekeeping is something that gets in your blood. I’m not sure I can put it all in words,” says LeFore. “It becomes part of you. It’s not fun to be up at odd hours or to get stung, but there are so many parts about it that are exciting. Beekeepers are very much in tune with their bees. A beekeeper is a person keeping bees. They are more connected than most people realize.”
Though his bee loss is low, between 10% and 15%, it’s twice what it was 10 years ago. He has developed an all-natural essential oil that he uses in the brood nest mixed with a little vegetable shortening that he credits with keeping his bees healthy. “A lot of beekeepers are looking over their shoulder,” he says. “You’re hoping something unexpected doesn’t catch up to you.”
Yet it is the very expected that is catching up to this small handful of large commercial beekeepers so critical to the state’s agriculture. Like many workforces, this group is growing old, and it worries growers. “Several will retire in the next five years and I’m not sure who will replace them,” says Mike Weber of Central Oregon Seeds.
That’s a question the keepers are trying to answer themselves. Dirk Olsen is one of the younger ones at 56. He has daughters and it’s pretty certain they won’t be getting into bees. “Handling bees has become very hard, so there’s a large likelihood that the next owners would not be successful,” he says.
Dave LeFore married into a beekeeping family — his wife’s grandfather and father were beekeepers — and now his son and his grandson keep bees, while his son-in-law works for him, and he hopes to have him take over one day. LeFore “occasionally” thinks about retiring. “I think there will be enough young people around to carry the torch,” says LeFore. “But it takes a unique person to be a beekeeper. They are one in 100.”
“Beekeeping is not doomed,” says researcher Michael Burgett. “George has a couple of handsome strong sons and one wants to follow him.”
Indeed, George does. The morning that Hansen returned late from his Madras trip, son Matt was already back to work after making the trip with him. Hansen plans to retire in five years and the 33-year-old Matt is his heir. The schoolteacher who did not come from a long line of beekeepers is creating one of his own.