The Sweet Side of Agriculture
Summer 2020 by Amy Grisak photos Amy Grisak
…in a land of bees and honey
Commercially raising bees fits perfectly into Montana’s rich agricultural and ranching heritage. It just involves dealing with smaller livestock.
But even with beekeeping’s significant contribution to the Montana agricultural scene, it’s not all honey and sunshine. Inclement weather affects beekeepers just as much as any ag producer. Disease, mites and pesticide use all take their tolls, too, not to mention what happens on the world markets.
“Honey prices are not great,” said Mark Jensen of Smoot Honey, a well-known and much-loved fixture in central Montana since 1964. Despite these challenges, Jensen and the rest of the Smoot Honey crew learn from the last season and look forward to the next.
“We run between 5,000 and 5,500 hives most years. We’re kind of a medium-sized operation,” he said, pointing out that there are Montana apiaries that run upwards of 40,000 hives over several states.
The Smoot Honey operation is a little different from many commercial beekeepers. Instead of trucking hives to warmer states for almond pollination during the winter, they start with new bees in the spring and focus on honey production. “Everyone is really nomadic, except for our operation,” Jensen said.
“There are a lot of headaches that goes with pollinating almonds,” Jensen said. “The advantage is we get to stay home in the winter.” This was particularly important to the Smoot Honey operation while raising their families because they wanted to be part of their children’s activities.
There is ample planning and preparation during the winter, including finding enough packages of bees to install in the spring. A package of bees consists of two pounds of bees with a mated queen suspended in a separate cage within the larger screened box. Each box also has a can of sugar water to provide nourishment during the journey from California to Montana.
Once the packages arrive in April, it’s all hands on deck to shake the bees into their new homes. With an experienced crew, feeder cans are pulled from the packages and placed within the hive body. A cork keeps the queen within her cage, and before she’s placed within the frames of the hive, the beekeeper pulls out the cork and replaces it with a scoop of honey and wax. It will take the worker bees a couple of days to chew through this concoction, giving them enough time to accept her before she is free. Finally, the several thousand worker bees are literally shaken into their new home.
After 10 days, they check the hives again, pulling the original feeder, but adding a frame with feed and another with pollen. They’ll also add a couple of empty brood combs, and check to make sure the queen is alive. If she died, they replace her with a new queen.
“Somewhere in there, the dandelions start blooming,” Jensen said, and by the end of May they have hauled the hives to their summer homes within a 90-mile radius of Great Falls. By the first part of June, they put on a second hive body to give the colony plenty of room to expand.
After the dandelions, fruit trees and early blooming plants, Jensen says, there’s sometimes a lull in the local flowers, but in ideal years leafy spurge, a noxious weed most people hate, saves the day.
“They love leafy spurge. It’s great for building up hives,” he says. Although the flavor isn’t his favorite, when the bees have it as their own food source until alfalfa and other plants start blooming, it is a good use for an otherwise despised plant.
By mid-June, they are setting on honey supers, the boxes on top of the bottom two brood hives that hold all of the honey. And by the end of the month, each hive typically is stacked with a total of five boxes to make room for the alfalfa, clover and sainfoin nectar.
July is a critical month, with the crop completely dependent upon the weather. If the weather is hot and dry by the middle of the month, the clover stops. If it rains, it can be a bumper crop, but it’s never a guarantee.
“Most of the years we like to start taking off honey the end of July,” Jensen said.
Once extracted, Smoot Honey is sold to food and beverage businesses throughout the region, as well as at retail outlets for home consumption.
“We have a really good, loyal customer base,” Jensen said. “And we’re glad we can provide the honey. Locals want to buy local stuff.”
As with most ag producers, optimism abounds for the upcoming season.