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Utah beekeepers stung by drought

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 11 2012 5:00 p.m. MDT

Sean Murray removes hive frames from a machine at Yack Bros. Honey in Roosevelt that frees the honey from the frames for processing. Robert Yack, one of the company's owners, says he expects his hives to produce 50 percent less honey this year because of the drought.

Geoff Liesik, Deseret News

BALLARD, Uintah County — Robert Yack found very little to be happy about as he checked hive after hive in one of his "best bee yards."

"Here's a hive that's virtually empty," the third generation beekeeper said Monday. "There's very little honey in this hive."

Yack, one of the co-owners of Yack Bros. Honey Co., cares for more than 2,000 hives of his own throughout the Uintah Basin. He has no doubt that this year will be a tough one for honey production. He also has no doubt about the cause.

"The main factor we're facing this year is the drought," Yack said. "There were no blossoms, there were no crops for the bees to collect the nectar and pollen from.

"We're at the end of the harvest season," he said. "On an average year, we hope to get 50 to 60 pounds of surplus honey that we're able to harvest."

This year, Yack said, he'll be lucky to get half that amount.

"I consider it half of a crop," he said.

Yack's experience matches what Cory Stanley is hearing from other Utah beekeepers.

"Most of the beekeepers that I'm talking to throughout the state are saying that they're getting a smaller honey crop this year than they have in years past," said Stanley, an entomologist with Utah State University Extension.

"About a third of them are saying they're not getting a honey crop at all, which is the case with my hives," Stanley said.

The result wasn't what beekeepers were expecting.

"We thought it would be a good bee year because we had a fairly warm winter," Stanley said. "It was a nice spring and then the weather heated up, it dried up the nectar and the plants ... and there wasn't enough borage for the bees.

"I've spoken to some old-time beekeepers that actually told me that this is the worst honey production they've seen in 40 years," Stanley added.

The lack of natural nectar — and the resulting decrease in honey production — has put many beekeepers in a sticky spot going into the winter.

"About this time of year, we look at how much honey is in the hive and if there's not enough honey to get the bees through the winter we'll feed them sugar syrup," Stanley said, noting that a hive can go through 25 pounds of sugar per week. 

"That expense can get very challenging," said Yack, who supplements his bees' diet with a corn-based syrup.

Drought conditions in the Midwest aren't helping to reduce that expense either.

The nation's corn crop has been hit particularly hard, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In a report released Aug. 31, the agency predicted the cost of corn for the 2012-13 marketing year would range from $7.50 to $8.90 per bushel because of the drought. That's up from the 2011-12 price of $6.20 to $6.30 per bushel.

The added expense feeding bees through the winter, coupled with the lack of surplus honey to sell this year, could sting consumers in the pocketbook, Yack said.

"It's just part of business," he said. "We have to be able to recuperate our expenses and hopefully provide for our families at the same time, so prices probably will go up."

For producers like Yack, the key thing now is to keep their hives healthy through the winter, Stanley said.

"There's nothing we can do other than hope that next year will be a little better," she said. "Rain and moisture is going to be a key thing that we're going to need. Another hot year will just create similar conditions."

E-mail: gliesik@desnews.com

Twitter: GeoffLiesik

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