The NexGen: Adventures of two dairy daughters

Bees: Agriculture’s backbone


Spring is perhaps our favorite season on the farm. After the long doldrums of winter, most northerners can attest to the anticipation and excitement that accompanies spring. There is much to be done during this season of planning and preparation. To say farmers are “busy as bees” is correctly put.

One of the most anticipated tasks of our spring season is beekeeping. We have been beekeeping for the last decade, and to tell the truth, it is quite an adventure. If you know anything about bees, they are fascinating.

We keep three to four hives on the farm. The bees are not only producing delicious honey, but they also pollinate our fields, grasslands, and market vegetable and flower gardens. We’ve learned so much about beekeeping; each new season is a new adventure.

Bees work together to find the best sources of nectar and communicate that information with a specific dance.

There are two specific dances that a worker bee will perform. The “waggle” dance is performed at the opening of the hive, where bees are coming and going to quickly communicate the source of the nectar to foragers leaving the hive.

The longer the dance, the further the distance to the nectar source. The more vigorous the dance, the richer the source. Also, and this is the most incredible part, the angle of the dance, deviating from an imaginary line drawn from the sun, will direct the bees to where the mother lode is located.

A second dance is also performed, the “shake,” when the nectar source is so rich that more foragers are needed. A returning worker bee will perform this dance inside the hive in front of non-foraging workers to tell them a rich source has been found and they need to venture out and help haul in the load. We’ve seen this firsthand, and it is incredible.

Watching a bee’s precise and coordinated dance, communicating the location of the nectar to other bees in the hive, is captivating. It is also amazing to witness how well it works. 

Several years ago, on a beautiful day, Ellen left her newly extracted frames in the back of her Gator parked in her open garage, not thinking anything of it. What started as a bee flying here and there throughout the yard and garden on a lovely day quickly became Interstate 94, heading north, on the Fourth of July. Hundreds of thousands of bees were flying in, covering the frames, taking every tiny little bit of honey off the frames and hauling it back to the hive. Her garage was like the Minnesota State Fair on a sunny Saturday, gridlocked and humming. We could hear the bees buzzing from across the yard in the house. Nothing was to be done until later that evening, when the bees had settled down and she could drive the Gator and frames out of the yard to let the remaining bees finish the process. Several days later, the frames were as good as new, scoured immaculately clean, and the bees had collected every morsel of honey off of them.

Another fascinating fact is that the area from which the bees harvest affects the color and flavor of the honey. Bees travel in about a 2-mile radius from the hive but will venture up to 5 miles to collect nectar. To make 1 pound of honey, bees must fly about 55,000 miles and tap about 5 million flowers, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Our bees feast on a mix of basswood, alfalfa and clover. The resulting honey is a light, golden color with a very mild, sweet taste. A beekeeping friend of the family places his apiary in North Dakota close to a buckwheat field each year. The resulting honey from those hives is almost black. It has a robust and rich flavor with notes of molasses and malt.

Bees are critical to our success in agriculture. According to the USDA, they pollinate upward of $15 billion worth of crops each year. Many commercial beekeepers move their hives from Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota in the summer season to the mild climate of California’s almond farms or Washington’s apple orchards in the winter before they return. They are a critical component in the pollination of fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts. One-third of the food we consume as Americans is derived from crops pollinated by bees.

On our farm, the bees are critical to the pollination of our fields, fruit trees and market gardens. They also produce delicious honey, which we sell at our summer farm market. As the spring season draws to a close, we continue through our Minnesota seasons to summer where you’ll find us farming — in the barn, garden and market — also busy as bees.

Megan Schrupp and Ellen Stenger are sisters and co-owners of both NexGen Dairy and NexGen Market in Eden Valley, Minnesota. They can be reached at [email protected].


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