Whenever Hank Scott goes to church, people ask him for honey.
The hobbyist beekeeper has had an apiary of about 120 hives since the late 1970s, encompassing Hadar, Woodland Park and Stanton. But he had less honey to sell and give to friends this year — while his hives can produce up to 400 gallons, this past year’s amount was 150, he said.
“It was a brutal one,” Scott said, citing a combination of wildly fluctuating weather, less diverse flora, verillomites and insecticides as factors. He had 105-110 colonies last fall and about 53-55 survived to the spring.
Beekeepers in the Northeast Nebraska region are facing numerous challenges, making the outlook less than optimistic for upcoming years.
Scott said he saw many of his bees die after unusually warm weather in January followed by cold weather in February and March caused them to starve and freeze to death. The rainy weather throughout the year also prevented bees from making honey after the Fourth of July.
Northeast Nebraska used to be buzzing with beekeeping businesses, said Rick Dominisse of Randolph. For decades, he ran a beekeeping business that his father, Dwight, started in 1941. Rick Dominisse took over the business in 1971 and managed it until 2004 with his brother, Gary; he also maintained beehives until 2018. At its peak, the business managed 4,000 hives.
Dwight Dominisse started the business as a branch of Miller’s Honey Co. in California, which others in the area also started. In the 1940s, there was an interest in alternative sweeteners because of high sugar prices during World War II, Rick Dominisse said.
“That made a big demand for honey in the country,” he said. “People got into the business, they stayed in the business. And so, we took it over and when I graduated, we helped Dad and eventually we took it over, my brother and I.”
Rick Dominisse said bee populations continued to decline, with the winter death rate of his beehives at 30%, slightly higher than average. In the past three years, he kept hives, although the death rate rose to 80%. This prompted the contact he was buying bees from, a beekeeper who lives in Texas, to stop sending him hives.
The reason for the decision, Rick Dominisse said, was that bees weren’t adapting to Nebraska because of a shortage of “bee pasture,” or areas that encourage bees to pollinate.
Bees need a wide variety of flora to thrive, Scott said. This diverse diet allows them to have a strong immune system. Insecticides are also another factor crippling hives, and he’s seen an increase in the use of farmers spraying in fields.
Rick Dominisse said he understands the position that farmers are in and hopes that they could work together more with beekeepers to come up with something that’s beneficial for everyone.
“Farmers have to produce; it would be nice if someplace down the road, it would be good for them to come up with something that would be good for them and good for beekeeping,” he said. “They have a hard time making a living, too. They get everything thrown at them. They’re just trying to produce crops.”
THE CURRENT ENVIRONMENT in Northeast Nebraska also makes it difficult for new beekeepers to get started.
Melissa Heberer of Emerson has had hives in the past and teaches a beginning beekeeping class at Northeast Community College at West Point. She got interested in beekeeping through her line of work as a veterinarian and the connections it has with animal health.
“I had bees a couple years, but they always died over the winter,” she said. “... This year I didn’t have any bees. It seems like it just keeps getting harder and harder every year.”
Heberer wants to have hives in the future but said there are a lot of different struggles beekeepers both locally and nationally face.
Scott said more than 42% of bees died over the winter in the U.S. last year, which is costly for beekeepers to replace. He estimated that each hive costs about $200 to replace.
Rick Dominisse said the outlook is difficult for beekeepers to continue in the area.
“I’m hoping we can have bees here, but until we find a way to keep them alive, it’s going to be tough for beekeeping,” he said. “Most (people) operating them, they’re not dying from not being a good beekeeper. They’re dying from what the bees are bringing back into the hive. And it’s just gradually gotten worse.”
Plus, the impacts are greater than monetary, Scott said.
“If we do not have honeybees, our food supply would dwindle about a third,” he said. “So they are really important to the whole climate of the growing crops, reproducing flowers and the food we eat.”