On the Iberia peninsula of Spain, Mesolithic rock paintings depict two honey foragers collecting honey and honeycomb from the nests of wild bees. The paintings are at least 8,000 years old. This shows that humans have enjoyed honey for a long time. Thank goodness honey collecting today is a lot easier than it was back then.

We were recently inspired by an article in The Dickinson Press about North Dakota beekeeper Todd Whitney, living on the fringe of the prairies. He shared some wisdom about how he keeps his honeybees alive and healthy during the brutal winters of North Dakota.

He packs up his female honeybees around October each year and ships them southwest for half the year until April, to spare them from the frigid winter by leasing them to a California beekeeper. This happens around the time the male drones are kicked out of their hives, to save resources for winter. Since drones are incapable of surviving the cold, they die.

Then around March, when his female bees are doing major pollination work, he goes to California to get them ready to ship home to North Dakota for the summer. This clever plan of his keeps his female bees from freezing to death in the North Dakota winters.

This unrelated 1:41-minute video by DK Books shows some other fascinating facts about honeybees:



To keep his thousands of bees healthy so they can produce honey to their full potential, Whitney medicates them in April, October and while they are in California. He credits this as one of the best things he does to keep them healthy.

Bees are clean insects. Their tendency towards cleanliness helps Whitney keep Varroa mite parasites under control so there is less chance of infection. Whitney mixes the medication with vegetable and canola oils and applies this on towels in the hives. Bees groom each other regularly, so as they run across the towels, they get oil on them and ingest and spread it when they groom each other. This way it eventually spreads throughout the entire hive. The bees tear up the towels to dispose of them, as they don’t like foreign substances in their nest.

Tracheal mites can get into an adult bee’s lungs while they are foraging and slow them down. Whitney uses a sugar and tylosin solution to prevent the fungus foul brood. Medicating the bees is physically demanding work. The more hives you’ve got, the more exhausting it can be to lift 60- to 80-pound hive boxes (2 boxes make a hive) and move them around.

He also gives his bees an expensive vitamin booster supplement in their feed (Prohealth). It helps keep their stomachs clean in winter when they are dormant for about two months. This is cost prohibitive for large operations with 10,000 to 20,000 hives and employees.

Whitney has 800 hives and is a one-man show. He medicates his bees and pulls the honey all on his own. One hive has 60,000 to 80,000 bees living in a massive community, where half the bees never leave the hive. They can go from one clean frame to having it overflow with wax and honey within three days.

Honeybee worker bee foragers have a special second stomach called a honey tummy that is separate from their food stomach. The honey stomach is where they collect flower nectar, which goes through a chemical process for the sugars in the nectar to be broken down. As bees return to the hive, they throw the liquid up into a honeycomb cell. The term bee vomit is not really accurate because it has gone through a chemical process in a separate stomach.

The lifespan of each honeybee averages 32-36 days. They only undertake foraging during the last phase of their lives because it requires them to leave the hive, so it is the most dangerous job they ever do.

The Dickinson Press is doing a three-part special on Todd Whitney. To check it all out, along with some photos of Todd Whitney and his bee operation, click here.