Raising honey bees is a sweet way to live

Jim Oberton has worked with and raised bees since he was three years old when his father, Gary, purchased his first hive. Today Jim along with his father and brother Will, have 2,500 honey bee hives, which produce approximately 250,000 pounds of honey a year. All their honey is shipped to a beekeepers co-op Sue Bee Honey.

By Liz Verley, Staff Writer 

It has been said the honey bee produces nature’s most perfect food product.

Jim Oberton would probably agree.

Oberton, along with his father, Gary, and brother Will, own 2,500 honey bee hives that are placed around Central Minnesota during the summer and the almond orchards of California during the winter months.

Jim said, “I have been around bees since I was two or three years old. My dad was a dairy farmer. He read some books on beekeeping, purchased a couple of hives and it grew from there.”

During the summer the Obertons place their hives at approximately 90 different sites in central Minnesota.

Harvesting of the honey is done in August and September.  The Obertons have all the equipment necessary to extract the honey from their numerous  hives. The extracted honey in its final stage  is put into 55-gallon barrels that weigh 670 pounds and are shipped to the beekeepers co-op, Sue Bee Honey. Jim said in an average year the bees produce about 250,000 pounds of honey. In a good year around 300,000 pounds.

The Obertons’ bees are of European descent. Jim said, “We raise our own queen bees. If done right you don’t have to purchase replacement bees or queens.”

One nuisance that can become a disaster for the bee industry if not controlled is the  “Varroa mite.”

The Obertons’ sons each have their own beekeepers suit. Pictured in their head protection gear are: (from left) Elliott, Michael and Alexander. Michael has already expressed that he plans to become a beekeeper when he grows up.

According to Wikipedia, “Varroa destructor is an external parasitic mite that attacks honey bees Apis cerana and Apis mellifera. The disease caused by the mites is called varroatosis.

“Varroa destructor can only replicate in a honey bee colony. It attaches at the body of the bee and weakens the bee by sucking hemolymph. In this process, RNA viruses such as the deformed wing virus (DWV) spreads to bees. A significant mite infestation will lead to the death of a honey bee colony, usually in the late autumn through early spring. The Varroa mite is the parasite with the most pronounced economic impact on the beekeeping industry. It may be a contributing factor to colony collapse disorder.”

“The mites live in the hives but through medication they can be controlled. One way is a medicated pad placed in the bottom of the hives. There are also sprays and other medicines available,”said Jim

The life expectancy of a honey bee is approximately six weeks. Jim said, “When the weather is warm the queen lays her eggs and regenerates the hives. The workers work themselves hard. What is really unique is with 20,000 to 30,000 bees in a hive they all know what to do. As they age their job changes. They also  keep their hives clean if it is a healthy hive.”

After the honey harvest is done in the early fall, the Obertons’ bees are prepared for the journey to California Almond orchards.

Jim said, “We hire six or seven semi-trailers to haul the bees to California. Corn syrup is placed in the hives to serve as food when preparing the bees for the long trip. Each hive is inspected to make sure it is healthy and will make the trip safely. Will, his wife Carmen and daughter Isabella will spend about three months each winter in California placing the bees in the orchards and checking the hives regularly to see that the bees are doing well. Will has done this for several years.”

Gary and his wife, Susan, go out for a couple of weeks in the fall and Jim and his wife, Elizabeth and children, Michael, Alexander, Elliott and Emily will be flying out to check on the bees, help prepare them for the trip back to Minnesota and take a vacation this spring.

The bees return in April from their winter home and are placed out in their summer spots in May.

Jim said, “When they arrive back home we will take the good hives and divide them in half. We will leave the old queen in one hive and put a new queen in the second hive and the process begins all over again.”

According to Sue Bee Honey, “All Sue Bee Honey sold to consumers in the United States is 100 percent  American and 100 percent pure. Private label or store brand honey packaged by Sue Bee Honey also is 100 percent American and 100 percent pure. Sue Bee Honey is able to produce and sell only pure American honey because of its unique position as the world’s largest honey marketing Cooperative.

“Its individual cooperative members, located throughout the United States, are all beekeepers with family-owned honey production operations. Together, these members produce 35 million to 40 million pounds of honey annually.”

The only exceptions to “American grown” honey are two five-pound containers sold by a club store and “organic” honey which by definition cannot be produced in the United States and originates in Brazil.

Jim holds a degree from the University of Minnesota in agricultural economics. “I really enjoy working with bees. The bees are  my job. I do not work anywhere else,” said Jim.

His wife Elizabeth said, “I think it is really nice for Jim. He loves it. It is good for our family and he is home in the winter.”

“The boys love going to work with dad. They each have their own beekeeper suit and I would guess Emily will have one when she gets older,” she said.

Elizabeth said, “Honey is good for many uses. I make an oatmeal cookie using honey that seems to be a favorite for many.”

Jim and Elizabeth also have some honey they sell from their home, as well as beeswax for those that are interested. For more information one may call (320) 616-6800.