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State of bee-ing

John Miller’s hives do their part to keep fruits, nuts, grains abundant
By: Nancyjo Riekse, Special to Home & Garden
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Fall to spring is queen-breeding time in Newcastle for beekeeper John Miller. The owner of Miller’s Honey Farms & Mandarins cites the mild winter and elevation as positives for the task. Then, when the spring thaw rolls around in the Midwest, he moves the hives to North Dakota for production and harvesting. Beekeeping has been a Miller family tradition for more than 100 years. And it all started almost on a whim. “In a moment of poor judgment, N.E. Miller traded six bags of barley for six beehives in Providence, Utah in 1894,” he wrote in an e-mail recently. “In another moment of poor judgment, Earl and Woodrow — N.E.’s sons — went into the beekeeping business.” Beekeeping passed on to Earl’s son, Neil, and then to John Miller, who took over outfits in Blackfoot and Gackle, N.D. was well as the Newcastle site. “I am the last of the beekeepers,” he said. He tends approximately 10,000 hives for honey production and pollination services, but not without help “I am ably assisted by key men and women, without whom this outfit would fall flat on its face in 30 days,” he said. Miller’s bees pollinate almonds, pit fruits of many kinds, oil seed production plants, buckwheat, sunflowers, canola, flax, citrus crops and legumes. “A third of everything Americans eat is directly related to the lowly honeybees’ work,” he said. “I am the gatekeeper of affordable food in America, along with about 1,200 other commercial beekeepers.” But beekeeping isn’t limited to the commercial sphere. “There are thousands of other superb sideline beekeepers, and hundreds of thousands of hobbyist beekeepers keeping the art of beekeeping alive,” Miller said. “The village idiot can keep bees in a box. However, there is a vast difference between a beekeeper and a bee haver. Don’t confuse the two.” Miller agrees that his chosen career is unique. “Everything about beekeeping is unusual,” he said. “Keeping stinging, fastidious insects in a box, moving them from crop to crop, season to season, halfway across a continent and back is unusual.” His operation is one of the bigger ones. “We are fairly large-size potatoes in the world of beekeeping,” he said. “I have served in state, regional and national industry groups. I have twice given plenary talks to the only international beekeeping organization — Apimondia — in Vancouver, B.C. in 1999 and in Durban, South Africa in 2001.” Most of Miller’s honey goes to Dutch Gold Honey Co. of Lancaster, Pa. “I have sold my crop to them on a handshake for 10 years,” he said. “Prior to that, my father sold the crop to (the same company) on a handshake for 25 years. My great uncle, Woodrow Miller, and Ralph Gamber, founder of Dutch Gold Honey Co., sketched out the honey bear on a napkin at dinner in 1956. Both were attending a national bee meeting. Walt Disney studios have their fingerprints on the now ubiquitous honey bear sold in stores worldwide.” Miller sells a small amount of the product under the Miller’s Honey label produced by an aunt, Shirley Miller, and her children who run Miller’s Honey Co. in Salt Lake City. “They make the best creamy honey,” he said. Locally, Miller’s Honey is available, at least temporarily, at Newcastle Produce, store owner Jan Thompson said Monday. “I happen to have some because he had bees on our property this spring,” she said. “It’s orange blossom, which you don’t get around here very often. They put the bees in big orange groves. Orange blossom is wonderful honey. We’ve got eight or 10 bottles and that will be it.” For Miller, who has been a beekeeper since 1973, the honey is just the icing on the cake. “The best thing about what I do is a day spent with the bees,” he said. “I am a lifer. I always knew I loved the bees and I still do.” But it is not all honey all the time. “The necessary evil of owning a large commercial outfit is that the owner must also become a businessman,” he said. “My grandfather would not recognize modern beekeeping. Since his passing in the mid-1980s, beekeepers have confronted Varroa Destructor and Tracheal parasitic mites. Both are bad parasites, killing their host.” And there are other lurking enemies. “My grandfather never saw a hive beetle, native to South Africa,” Miller said. “He was unaware of Nosema disease, now common to honeybees worldwide.” Likewise, Miller’s grandfather had never heard of Colony Collapse Disorder, a still unsolved mystery. “In the olden days, hive failure rates of 5 percent per year were alarming,” Miller said. “These days, hive failure rates of 25 to 35 percent are common and now built into most business models.” Predators aren’t the only hurdle beekeepers face. “The biggest challenge to honey production is lack of purity standards in the U.S.,” he said. “’Funny Hunny’ is a cancer. The Chinese have elevated adulterated honey to an art form — devastating prices. The biggest challenge to pollination of food and fiber in America is keeping our beehives alive. Varroa Destructor is the central challenge to beekeeping in North America. To that, add pesticides, loss of bee pasture, the relentless stress place on hives in the struggle for the legal tender, theft, vandalism and ignorance. Most Americans are studiously ignorant of where food comes from.” Nancyjo Riekse is the agricultural marketing director for Placr County.