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How Jeremiah Barnes’ business keeps him as busy as his bees

Jeremiah Barnes has an occupation that few people know exists: full-time commercial beekeeping, which includes selling honey and using his bee colonies to pollinate farmers’ fields. When Barnes is asked what he does for a living, his response is typically met with surprise.

“They don’t know that people actually do that,” says Barnes, owner of Harvest Honeybee Farm, in Hickory Corners. “We kind of are inconspicuous because you only move bees at night. Some beekeepers will do it during the day, but for the most part you move them at night because the bees go dormant — they don’t fly.”

These behind-the-scenes bee caretakers transport their honeybee hives to blueberry and squash fields, apple and other fruit orchards, and vegetable crops to engage in pollination. Barnes’ bees pollinate fields for many farms, including Harvey’s U-Pick Farm in Tekonsha, where as many as 30 kinds of crops are grown.

“I send bees there the whole entire summer,” Barnes says. “Because (when) he’s got one thing out of bloom, he’s got another (in bloom).”

From car seat to beehives

When you talk to Barnes, it doesn’t take long to recognize this good-natured guy’s passion for honeybees and his extensive knowledge of them. To him, understanding honeybees is second nature. And it should be. His first memory of honeybees was from the vantage point of a car seat watching his dad, Scott Barnes, transport, check on and take care of honeybee hives.

Before Jeremiah was born, Scott Barnes started beekeeping as a hobby, and it eventually grew into something much bigger: a full-fledged, full-time honeybee operation called St. Joe Valley Apiaries. That Three Rivers business started with two honeybee hives and is now at 3,000 hives.

When Jeremiah was older, Scott allowed him to paint the bee boxes. When Jeremiah was 11, his father allowed him more hands-on experience with the bees. “He called me a ‘tote-and-fetch,’” Barnes says, chuckling. “If he needed two boxes to put on (a) beehive, I’d go around and grab them for the hive and he’d move onto the next one.”

Eventually, Scott began educating Jeremiah about the honeybees themselves, providing lessons on how to find the queen, determine if a hive is healthy and diagnose and fix an unhealthy hive. Finding the queen can be a bit tricky at first, Jeremiah Barnes says, but following certain techniques, such as holding the frame just so, will lead to success, he says. Though beekeepers each have their own method, Jeremiah prefers holding the frame at a 45-degree angle down from his face and always in the sun.

Another important factor: Don’t smoke the bees too much.

“When smoked too much, the bees will actually scatter, including the queen, (and) some queens are very good hiders,” Barnes says.

Beekeepers use smokers, hand-held devices designed to generate smoke, to keep the bees calm — the smoke blocks the insects’ alarm pheromone. Barnes smokes a hive’s entrance, where guard bees reside, using pine needles and composite wood pellets in his smokers.

“It takes patience and experience,” Barnes says, “and after awhile you can get pretty quick at doing it. You don’t actually look for an individual bee. You don’t go bee to bee to bee looking for her (the queen). You just kind of look at the whole frame, and all of a sudden she’ll just pop out at you.”

Beekeeping takes a wide range of knowledge, which includes understanding the destroyers of honeybees, such as mites, parasites, disease, viruses and predators. Beekeepers must also know how to successfully split a hive to create more hives, and how and when to harvest honey — to name only a few things. With so much for a beekeeper to learn, one might wonder what the hardest part is to understand.

There is no one factor, Barnes says. “The thing is, it’s kind of like a compound question,” he says, “because so much goes into bees that you kind of just have to know everything. So I guess that’s just kind of what it was — getting a grasp of what it takes to make a beehive a good beehive.”

Becoming a beekeeper

Barnes did not initially want to follow in his dad’s footsteps, but that attitude quickly changed when he began working with the hives and discovered he loved working with bees.

“I worked full time with my dad every summer, and I went traveling with him after I graduated high school,” Barnes says.

When Barnes was 17 years old, his dad gave him his own crew. Barnes would head in one direction to set and check on bees; his father would head in another. Now married and a dad, Barnes still helps his father when needed, but a couple of years ago he struck out on his own. He purchased 40 beehives from his father and now has approximately 500.

Each year around Thanksgiving, the Barneses load up their bees on approximately 11 semitrucks with open-back flatbeds and take them to Florida, where they remain until returning to Michigan in the middle of April. A mature hive has 40,000 to 60,000 bees, Jeremiah Barnes says, which means that, with Scott and Jeremiah’s hives combined, they transport at least 140 million honeybees to the Sunshine State. Many beekeepers make this trek every season to take advantage of the weather.

“For the most part, beekeepers take bees down there to make splits,” Barnes explains. “They split bee hives into new ones.”

Bees increase their numbers very well in Florida, Barnes says. Next year he anticipates reaching his goal of filling two open back flatbed semitrucks with bees — approximately 800 hives — and then maintain that number rather than make it grow. That’s about all one person can handle on their own, Barnes says.

Right now all that he wants is a one-person operation, but if he ever wants to expand, qualified workers are only a phone call away.

“About everyone in the family has worked for my dad at one point or another,” Barnes says.

'Managed pollination'

Although Barnes’ occupation might not be well known, honeybees play a crucial role in the U.S. agricultural industry by pollinating crops. More than $2 billion is produced by Michigan’s fruit and vegetable industry alone, and half of that amount is entirely due to honeybee pollination, according to 2015 data presented by Zachary Huang, associate professor in Michigan State University’s entomology department. Some crops, such as blueberries, are 100 percent dependent on bees.

One of the biggest pollinations in the country occurs in California, where 80 percent of the world’s almonds grow, according to an article in Mother Jones magazine. It takes about 85 percent of all the available commercial hives in the United States for the almond pollination. Scientific American calls it the “largest managed pollination event in the world.”

Each February, Barnes and his father join the ranks of beekeepers from across the nation who ship some of their honeybees to California for the almond pollination. Those bees remain in California through the middle of March. After that, they are shipped to Florida where the Barneses will make splits with those hives. In the middle of April, all of the Barneses' honeybees return from Florida to Michigan. Barnes says it takes almost two million beehives to pollinate the almonds.

“There’s 900,000 — almost one million — acres of almonds, and it takes two beehives to an acre on average,” he says. “So anywhere between 1.5 to 2 million beehives are out there every winter from February to March, just those four to six weeks.”

Barnes admits that “getting bees out to California is a huge process.”

The strongest hives are selected and prepared for travel. The outside of each bee box, the lids and pallets are power-washed, because the trucks carrying the beehives must stop at California’s agricultural inspection stations before entering the state.

“If they’re not clean enough, they’ll reject them at the line and the bees just traveled 2,500 miles for nothing,” Barnes says.

The beehives are placed on wooden pallets for transport, with four beehives fitting on one pallet. The Barneses place their bee boxes on a 48-foot-long open-back flatbed semitruck — with more than 400 hives typically making up one semi load — and drop a net over the top of the bees and tie it down with bungee cords.

When they arrive in California, inspectors pull up the bee net and set out traps to see if fire ants or any bugs not native to California come to the traps. If the inspectors find too many bugs, the truck driver has to either turn around or allow the inspectors to power-wash the bee boxes for a hefty fee of up to $2,000 per truck.

Getting the honeybees to California also requires hiring a good shipping company. This is key, Barnes says, because the drivers must care for the bees during transport. For instance, if the trucks get held up in a traffic jam or break down on the side of the road, the bees require being sprayed with water to keep them cool.

“The guys that haul for us, they have a few beehives themselves, and they know bees and they kind of take it personally,” he says. “They make sure to take care of them for us.”

Honey production

Although Harvest Honeybee Farms performs pollination work, honey production is its main focus. Barnes sells quite a bit of honey at farm stands, he says, but 90 percent of his product is sold wholesale to big buyers, who purchase honey from beekeepers and put their label on it. Other major customers for Barnes these days are breweries.

“This year is really popular for breweries,” he says. “The brewers take a lot of honey (to brew beer).”

In Michigan, honey comes during the summertime in spurts that beekeepers call honey flows, Barnes says. To prepare for honey crops, Barnes places two smaller boxes called “supers” on top of the larger boxes that contain a beehive. These supers are 6 5/8 inches in depth, with eight frames inside, and are specifically used for collecting honey. When full, each frame can hold up to six pounds of honey. Bees like to store their honey “upstairs,” he explains, while the queen lays her eggs in the hive below.

Prepping the hives for honey production also allows Barnes to tend to the hives.

“If I’m going out there and getting them ready for a honey crop and putting extra boxes on top, I might be putting some protein in and be putting essential oils in them to kind of help with the bees’ overall general health,” Barnes says.

Each time a beekeeper gets into the hive, he or she risks killing the queen, so Barnes tries to do at least three things when he has to open his beehives, such as adding the essential oils, putting in protein and placing items that will catch insects like certain beetles that wreak havoc on beehives. After this, he leaves the hives alone.

"You come back a few weeks later and they might have 100 pounds (of honey)," he says. "That's just neat to watch every year."

In early June, Barnes places three to four supers on top of the bee boxes. When he comes back a few weeks later, each super will contain between 20-40 pounds of honey. If the hive and the honey flow are strong enough, that one hive alone can produce 100 pounds of honey, Barnes says.

To harvest the honey, Barnes uses a heated fume board that pushes fumes up through the hives, and bees up and out the top of the supers. He removes the supers and leaves the bees and queens residing in the beehives safely below in the parent boxes.

Inside each of the supers reside the frames dripping with honey. Barnes takes the frames to another local beekeeper, Brian Hannar, owner of B. Hannar Apiaries in Schoolcraft, who has an extraction facility. Bees ingest nectar and on the trip back to the hive add enzymes that create honey, he says. They then dry it and cap it in storage cells and cover it with wax, and that’s where Hannar’s extraction comes into play.

“It’s pretty much a process of decapping the thin wax that’s over the cells,” Barnes says. “That’s the real simple version of it.”

After the honey winds up in a storage tank, any wax that remains in the honey — after going through extractions, a series of pumps and a machine that separates the wax from the honey — will float to the top.

“We barrel from the bottom,” he says. “That’s considered raw honey.”

Tips for hobbyists

For anyone interested in beekeeping, Barnes emphasizes the importance of doing research before jumping into it, such as attending Kalamazoo Bee Club meetings. The meetings are free and open to the public, with schedules posted online. If someone interested in bees knows a beekeeper, Barnes says, ask the person questions and pick his or her brain because beekeeping — even as a hobby — is not a cheap endeavor.

“The initial start-up cost is quite a bit,” he says. “For just a couple beehives, you’re looking at $500-plus, but that’s because you have to buy the woodenware (the bee boxes and the frames inside).”

Barnes also sells beehives. When those new to beekeeping come to buy a beehive, he offers some key advice: Buy at least two the first year.

“More than likely one of them is going to die,” Barnes explains. “You just learn every year what to do better, what to change and what to try. Some things work, and some things don’t.”

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Moving 100 million bees

Each year around Thanksgiving, the Barneses load up their bees on approximately 11 semitrucks with open-back flatbeds and take them to Florida, where they remain until returning to Michigan in the middle of April. A mature hive has 40,000 to 60,000 bees, Jeremiah Barnes says, which means that, with Scott and Jeremiah’s hives combined, they transport at least 140 million honeybees to the Sunshine State. Many beekeepers make this trek every season to take advantage of the weather.