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Bee keeping is exciting, addictive

Nissens operate Five Star Honey Farms

Andrea Johnson/MDN Will and Peggy Nissen are owners of Five Star Honey Farms in Minot.

Bee keeping is a family affair for the Nissens, owners of Five Star Honey Farms in northeast Minot.

Will Nissen said he started beekeeping in 1978 and he and his wife, Peggy Nissen, launched Five Star Honey Farms in 1998.

Their three grown sons, Matt, Levi, and Evan Nissen have joined the family business and a 16-year-old grandson is receiving on the job training by helping out with the operation, which has expanded.

“If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have what we have,” said Peggy Nissen.

Five Star Honey Farms is a member of the Sioux Honey Association Co-Op, an American cooperative that markets Sue Bee Clover Honey and other varieties.

“North Dakota is the number one tabletop (honey) producer in the nation,” said Will Nissen.

Nissen estimated that there are more than 200 registered bee keeping operations in the state and more than 700,000 bee colonies.

Like most other operations in North Dakota, the Nissens spend their winters in California, where they also have a farm, and the spring and the summer in North Dakota.

In California, producers pay for bees to pollinate crops such as almonds, blueberries and cherries.

In North Dakota, the bees fly over the fields in 300 locations across nine counties in search of nectar. Then the bees – and the Nissens and their employees – will be hard at work producing honey that will eventually make its way to the table.

Bee keepers have run into some challenges in past years.

Will Nissen said that honey prices are down, which is hurting bee keepers. Tariffs are not likely to have much impact on bee keepers, as the United States has never produced enough honey to meet all the demand for the sweet spread. Tariffs on Chinese made honey meant that more honey is being imported from countries such as Vietnam. American-grown honey is often blended with honey from other sources to create the table top honey.

Nissen also said that bee keepers are worried about parasites such as mites that attack bees. The Nissens, like other bee keepers, must use Food and Drug Administration approved chemical strips to treat bee hives for mites.

They have also noticed that chemical exposure seems to be having an effect on the bee keeping population. Years ago, a queen bee might last four or five years.

“Now it’s hard to get a year out of them before they flop,” said Will Nissen. “Or two (years).”

Peggy Nissen, who grows queen bees as a side business in California, said that a queen bee is supposed to lay about 2,000 eggs each day.

“If she doesn’t, we boot her out and put a new one in,” said Peggy Nissen.

The Nissens have also hired foreign workers who received special visas to work in the bee keeping operation. Especially during the years of the oil boom, they had trouble attracting American born workers for bee keeping, which they said can be physically hard work that also requires travel.

The bees they use in their operation are specially bred not to be aggressive, but bee keepers still can expect to be stung.

The Nissens said they love their unique business, which people may not know much about.

“That’s one thing about bees. If you want to go into a business that’s not black and white, go into (the) bee business,” said Will Nissen. “It’s like, I suppose it would be like a gambling addict going to Vegas …I mean, like we come up here, we throw the bees across nine counties, hoping somewhere they’ll hit a honey crop, but you know, there’s no guarantees, there’s no backup, there’s no insurance policies. You just basically just got to stand on your own. It’s exciting.”

“It takes you awhile to learn it and to like it, but once you like it, you get addicted to it,” said Peggy Nissen.