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Drought and habitat losses drive big drop in South Dakota honey production

Beehives are scattered around the Deep Creek Honey bee yard.
Deep Creek Honey
Beehives are scattered around the Deep Creek Honey bee yard.

Clovers and natural prairie make South Dakota an ideal place for honeybees to thrive, but dry conditions and habitat loss are making it difficult to produce honey. Production decreased 18% last year.

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

Deep Creek Honey employs an honors system where customers take honey from the container and pay for it on their honor.
Deep Creek Honey
Deep Creek Honey employs a system where customers take honey from the container and pay for it on their honor.

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

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

Over nearly five decades, Deffenbaugh has watched the amount of honey produced from his hives decrease. He said just a few decades ago, beekeepers would lose 1-2% of their hives over the summer. Now, they can lose as much as 20%.

“It makes it very difficult to raise a honey crop knowing that there’s all these different things that combat raising a honey crop,” Deffenbaugh said. “Like parasites, mites and chemical used in field, and weather conditions and just trying to keep a colony alive.”

Deffenbaugh mitigates these issues by looking for the best locations to raise his hives. South Dakota beekeepers have to register the location of their hives with the state, which requires them to find the best locations early in the season.

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

“When the plants don’t get moisture to grow or blossom and provide nectar and pollen, it’s pretty difficult to make a honey crop,” he said.

The price of honey increased from $1.77 per pound in 2020 to $2.28 in 2021. But Reiners said beekeepers are not reaping the rewards.

“Whenever there’s a short crop it always keeps the price up stronger, which unfortunately most of the guys don’t get to benefit from when they get a good price because they don’t have a crop,” Reiners said. “It’s kind of like a lot of things in agriculture right now. Commodity prices are up, but if they were not lucky enough to make a crop, they really can’t benefit from it.”

Kelvin Adee’s honey farm near Bruce has been described as the nation’s largest, and habitat loss is his main concern. Land in the Conservation Reserve Program is a large contributor to bee pollination. The federal program pays farmers to devote marginal land to habitat instead of crop production.

“Those contracts have expired, and they haven’t been renewed so there’s less forage out there available to honeybees and other pollinators as well, and it also effects our pheasant population,” Adee said.

The American Honey Producers Association and the Sioux Honey Association filed antidumping petitions and a lawsuit last year. Adee said it’s to prevent foreign countries from selling adulterated honey in the U.S. priced below the production cost. The companies can do so by mixing in cheaper products like corn syrup with honey to reduce costs.

The lawsuit could help smaller 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 best.”

Consuming local honey builds immunity to allergens and other pollens that plague South Dakotans.

The future of beekeeping in the state is uncertain, but Deffenbaugh will keep scraping honeycombs.

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

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

Laura (she/her) is based at the Sioux Falls Studio. She is a journalism/anthropology student at Augustana University.
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