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REDGRANITE – Honey is nature’s sweetener, used by many as a spread on toast, or as a versatile ingredient that adds flavor and beneficial carbohydrates to a wide variety of recipes.

Honey also is an important part of Wisconsin’s diverse agriculture industry. It is the nation’s 16th largest honey-producing state, with 2.3 million pounds produced in 2018, despite unfavorable weather conditions, including an April snowstorm, that delayed plant growth and periods of too much and too little rain.

As pollinators, honey bees also play an important role in the success of other agricultural crops, including cranberries.

The weather and other challenges and opportunities related to raising bees and producing honey were on the minds of 80 Wisconsin beekeepers who attended the recent summer meeting of the Wisconsin Honey Producers Association (WHPA).

Kent Pegorsch, WHPA president and one of 500 WHPA members, has been beekeeping for over 40 years. He says the association was formed in 1864 to be a resource and advocate for beekeepers in Wisconsin. The organization today still embraces these goals and additionally works to educate the public about the beekeeping industry.

“One of the first major accomplishments of the organization was the passage of legislation in 1895 to create an apiary inspection program, the first such initiative in nation,” he said. Being proactive in the legislative area still remains one of the association’s objectives, the most recent being working with the legislature to establish a standard of identity for honey and creation of the Wisconsin Certified Honey program.

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The association comprises seven districts that hold regular meetings, with general membership meetings held each fall and summer.

Local focus

This year’s summer meeting featured several Wisconsin beekeepers who shared their experiences and expertise with the members who gathered at Redgranite Lions Hall.“Past meetings have featured speakers from other states,” Pegorsch said, “but we have so many successful beekeepers and honey producers here we felt there was much we could learn from them.”

The first speaker was Tim Wilbanks who owns and operates Heritage Honeybee near Sullivan in southern Wisconsin.

Wilbanks urged the state’s beekeepers to manage bees like other livestock. “Because of our challenging weather conditions we have to think outside the box in order to maintain colony numbers,” he stressed.

A significant challenge for all beekeeper is the parasitic varroa mite. “Because of that we also need to spend more time with each colony to make sure it’s at optimum health,” he added.

Beekeepers also face challenges from agricultural practices, like pesticide application and larger fields that have eliminated fence rows where bees used to be able to find their food sources of nectar and pollen.

New opportunities

Willbanks stressed the need to have a long-term management plan.

“You need to order months in advance to replace bees that are lost during the winter, and it’s important to have sufficient bee numbers to exceed your anticipated demand,” he emphasized.

He noted that consumer demand for honey is growing, fueled in part by media reports of problems in the industry, some of which are untrue.

“There a strong demand for direct marketing of specialty honey, and for sales to local restaurants,” said Willbanks.

Wisconsin producers also are seeing an increased demand for their product due to new markets like the brewing industry and specialty soda makers.

He noted that Wisconsin beekeepers can gain added revenue by renting their bees for pollinating crops, especially to the almond orchards in California.

“If you plan to be a migratory beekeeper, you need to plan well in advance in order to secure reliable transportation and a good location,” he urged.

“Whether you’re selling honey or renting out bees, be sure to set your price structure so you can be profitable,” Willbanks advised.

Commercial view

The Wisconsin Honey Producers Association includes those who raise bees as a hobby, with only a few dozen colonies up to large commercial operations that manage thousands colonies.

Doug Hauke, who owns and manages Hauke Honey at Marshfield, describes his business as a medium-sized commercial operation with 3,000 colonies.

Hauke presented an overview of his diversified that includes processing honey for wholesale in Wisconsin, leasing pollinators to almond orchards in California and raising and selling queens.

After spending most of the spring and summer months in Wisconsin, Hauke and his bees travel to east Texas where the queens are raised and colonies are prepared for shipment to California in the winter. He and the bees return to Texas once pollination is completed before heading  back to Wisconsin in early May.

“I’ve already accumulated more than a million frequent flier miles,” he said.

Looking to the future

The Wisconsin Honey Producers Association continues working to improve the health of bees by funding research into disease treatment and prevention, along with new breeding programs and efforts to improve pollinator habitat.

Much of the work helping to educate the public about the importance of honey bees and the nutritional benefits of honey is done by the Wisconsin Honey Queen, who travels to schools and various media outlets. She also presents demonstrations at the Wisconsin State Fair, Wisconsin Farm Technology Days and other events.

The WHPA Fall Convention will be held Oct. 31 – Nov. 2 at the Raddison Hotel in Fond du Lac. More information about the association is available at www.wihoney.org

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