Sam Wüstner blew smoke into one of his hives up in Miller Creek, subduing the honeybees that power his business. It was late September, and the honey-producing season was essentially over. Carefully pulling out a rack of honeycombs, he gently brushed away the bees and examined the combs for larvae, and checked the hive’s honey reserves.
Sam, 35, and his brother, Jacob, 34, own about 300 hives in the Missoula area, which make up the root of their family business, Wüstner Brothers Honey. They learned the trade from their father, Bert, and have been pretty successful since joining the local retail market in 2011. But this summer’s weather hit them hard.
Their honey yields are down 50 percent from last year, and climate change could mean more of the same. Extreme drought and record-setting wildfire smoke are both factors Wüstner pointed to as culprits.
“This is the roughest year we’ve seen in two generations of beekeeping,” Wüstner said. “Of course we have to leave enough honey for the bees to survive the winter, so it’s kind of throwing a wrench in our business model.”
The issue isn’t just affecting the Wüstner Brothers. Montana is the third-largest honey producer in the United States, behind only North and South Dakota, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent statistics. Montana beekeepers grossed $21.5 million last year, more than chickens, eggs and oats combined.
Montana has been largely spared by some of the problems facing beekeepers elsewhere, such as parasites and colony collapse disorder, but the drought experienced across the state is taking its toll on the bees.
Scott Debnam, a doctoral candidate at the University of Montana specializing in pollination ecology, said bees in Missoula produce all their honey for the year in just a couple of months, but drought is shortening that time even more.
“If a drought occurs, the first thing a plant does is shut down reproduction in order to save energy and water to survive. Stopping reproduction means stopping nectar production, which is what bees make honey out of,” Debnam said.
“It used to be every 10 years, then it was every other year, now it seems like it’s every year that there’s a drought in the summer. Now everything is already dead the last two weeks of July and August, so all of the nectar needs to be collected in a month and a half less time," he said.
Bees need to produce honey to last them through the winter, Debnam said. If nectar stops being produced in July, then bees must start drawing from their honey stockpile early. This means that not only do the bees have fewer weeks to collect nectar, but they have to rely on their honey for longer.
The smoke that pooled in the Missoula Valley for weeks at a time as wildfires burned this summer could have had an effect as well. No scientific studies have been done on bees and wildfire smoke, but Debnam said he observed some startling behaviors this summer.
“We have a hive on a scale, and so we can weigh it in the early morning and in the afternoon, and see how many bees are out foraging during the day,” he said. “When it wasn’t smoky, the hive was 15 pounds lighter during the day. When the smoke really got bad, it was only 2 pounds lighter in the middle of the day. We’re talking a 90 percent decrease in flight activity.”
That’s just one hive, so it can’t be relied on as scientifically accurate, but Debnam said it was, if nothing else, very interesting.
Most people assume that beekeepers use smoke when working with hives to calm bees down, he said, but actually it preoccupies them. They think a fire is approaching their hive, so they frantically consume honey for the energy to flee. Extreme smoke this summer could have meant bees not only spent less time producing honey, but ate more of the honey they collected earlier in the year.
The Montana Climate Assessment, a two-year study published this month, forecast decreasing summer rains in years to come, along with an upward trend in temperatures, leading to more severe summer droughts. However, the study expects spring and autumn rains to increase, but this could pose problems for bees and other pollinators as well.
Laura Burkle, a leading researcher at Montana State University, said the changing climate affects the life cycles of bees and plants. The cycles are not lining up as well as they have in the past, which means the flowers are blooming and nectar is available when the bees are less active.
People can help bees and other pollinators by planting a mix of crops and flowers that bloom at different times of year, state entomologist Alyssa Piccolomini said.
As for the Wüstners, they have to roll with the punches. They made the decision to keep their bees in Montana year-round, rather than shipping them to pollinate winter crops in California. That state's vast monocultures, or orchards of a single type of crop, strain bees, which thrive in the diversity of vegetation found here. This means less income for Sam and Jacob Wüstner, but healthier, happier bees.
Sam Wüstner said the company will have to put off doing repair work on its outdated warehouse because of the decreased honey and profits. He is also looking into selling more beeswax products, rather than the raw honey the business is centered around now. Less honey means less work for his few employees as well, and less money to pay them with, which keeps Sam busy throughout the year.
“It’s a tough job, not nearly as romantic as people think,” he said. “I’d like to have a more relaxed, healthy work lifestyle, but the setback of the drought is making that a little harder.”