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Bees travel the nation, thrive in North Dakota

Kyle Michels removes the lid from a bee colony and applies a puff of smoke to reduce any agitation at his hives north of Fryburg, N.D., in 2014. Forum News Service file photo.

BOWMAN, N.D. — The weather's taken a turn, with winter winds and low temperatures coming to roost in North Dakota, uprooting one of the state's big industries: honey production.

"Right now we're in the process of shipping our bees to California for the winter," said Tim Hiatt, a beekeeper out of Bowman. "There's specific crops that must be pollinated by honey bees because they are so concentrated that native pollinators (can't)."

There's a cycle at work when it comes to beekeeping, a practice that produces honey for sale and provides bee labor in the form of pollination services for orchards and almond growers on the balmier West Coast.

"They do double duty," Hiatt said about his honey bees. "Almonds bloom in February ... then (the bees) go to Washington (state) for tree fruit ... then in May they come back to the Dakotas for honey production."

Hiatt said he looks forward to the summers when he and his bees return north.

"It's great to go to a place where they don't spray as much," he said. "It keeps the bees healthy."

Hiatt said that in other parts of the country, high-value crops get sprayed for pests to such a degree that it becomes dangerous for bees to live there. Summers in North Dakota gets him and them away from such dangers.

"What I really enjoy about it is seeing the bees thrive," he said. "In the summers when there's rain and the alfalfa is blooming and the clover is blooming and the bees are just healthy and booming, it's the best times. I'm happy, it makes me happy."

It's not always sunshine and rainbows, as western North Dakota's drought-choked summer season attests.

"This summer, June and July were so dry ... I felt crappy all summer long," Hiatt said. "It was such a relief (to see rain.)"

The Hiatt family has been keeping bees since Tim was a child, when his father's summer beekeeping job became a full-time passion.

"He liked it so much he quit school teaching," Hiatt said. Hiatt was one of six sons and they were all kept busy. Even when the need for honey diminished in their home state of Washington, the need for pollination remained. Now, his business remains focused on the bees—they don't operate a bottling facility of their own.

"I really enjoy the outdoors and being out and watching this incredible organism, the beehive thrive and watching it grow," Hiatt said. "We're just keeping them and we help them from time to time. the bees themselves are the amazing thing."

Bees are transported from state to state via trucks, at night or during extremely cold days when the bees are inclined to remain in their hives.

The North Dakota Department of Agriculture lists North Dakota as the top honey-producing state in the nation, producing 42 million pounds of honey valued at over $84 million in 2014.