Drought and habitat loss lead to steep decline in honey production in South Dakota

Clovers and natural grasslands make South Dakota an ideal place for bees, but dry conditions and habitat loss make it difficult to produce honey. Production fell by 18% last year.

Doug Deffenbaugh and his wife, Brenda, own Deep Creek Honey.

Deep Creek Honey uses a system where customers take the honey from the container and pay it on their honor.

Deffenbaugh said they plan to have about 200 hives near Wall Lake this summer when the bees arrive from Texas. The Deffenbaughs sell honey to businesses such as local coffee chain Coffea in Sioux Falls, but most of their honey revenue comes from an honor system. A honey stand is located at the end of their driveway, stocked with honey and a can of coffee that customers pay for.

“We keep the honey in our honor system 24/7/365,” Doug Deffenbaugh said. “There is always honey in there. It lifts up and there’s a coffee can in it and people are honest.

For nearly five decades, Deffenbaugh has seen the amount of honey produced from his hives dwindle. He said that just a few decades ago beekeepers lost 1-2% of their hives during the summer. Now they can lose up to 20%.

“It’s very difficult to grow a honey crop knowing that there are all these different things that fight growing a honey crop,” Deffenbaugh said. “Like pests and mites and chemicals used in fields and weather and just trying to keep a colony alive.”

Deffenbaugh alleviates these problems by researching the best places to raise his hives. South Dakota beekeepers must register the location of their hives with the state, requiring them to find the best locations early in the season.

State apiary program specialist Bob Reiners said severe drought conditions across the state were to blame for the dwindling honey production.

“When plants don’t get moisture to grow or flower and provide nectar and pollen, it’s quite difficult to harvest honey,” he said.

The price of honey has fallen from $1.77 a pound in 2020 to $2.28 in 2021. But Reiners said beekeepers aren’t reaping the rewards.

“Whenever there’s a short crop it always keeps the price higher which unfortunately most guys don’t take advantage of when they get a good price because they don’t have a crop,” said Reiners said. “It’s like a lot of things in agriculture right now. Commodity prices are up, but if they haven’t had a chance to harvest, they really can’t take advantage of it.

Kelvin Adee’s honey farm near Bruce has been described as the largest in the country and habitat loss is his main concern. The lands of the conservation reserve program contribute greatly to the pollination of bees. The federal program pays farmers to dedicate marginal land to housing rather than agricultural production.

“Those contracts have expired and they haven’t been renewed, so there’s less forage available for bees and other pollinators as well, and that’s affecting our pheasant population as well,” Adee said.

The American Honey Producers Association and the Sioux Honey Association filed anti-dumping petitions and a lawsuit last year. Adee said this was to prevent foreign countries from selling adulterated honey to the United States at less than the cost of production. Companies can do this by mixing cheaper products like corn syrup with honey to cut costs.

The lawsuit could help small producers like Deffenbaugh stay in business. He said it could also help the consumer.

“Your local honey is your best source of honey for your natural immune system,” Deffenbaugh said. “It works better.”

Consuming local honey boosts immunity to allergens and other pollens that plague people in South Dakota.

The future of beekeeping in the state is uncertain, but Deffenbaugh will continue to scrape the honeycombs.

“It’s in my blood,” Deffenbaugh said. “They are just fascinating to work with.”

South Dakota produced about 12 million pounds of honey last year, behind North Dakota, which produced about 28 million pounds.

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