Food Service & Agriculture and Small Business & Startups

Kent City operation is the bee’s knees

Kent County apiary is honored by Michigan ag officials.

May 8, 2015
| By Pete Daly |
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Michigan Bee Co.
John Ebers, left, and Joe Vidatech manage about 1,000 colonies of bees that can produce up to 48,000 pounds of honey annually. Photo by Johnny Quirin

The Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program has recognized Michigan Bee Co. of Kent City as a verified farm in the Farmstead System for implementing appropriate pollution prevention practices.

Michigan Bee Co. is a third-generation family honey production business that has been keeping bees for more than 90 years.

The program, part of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, assists farmers in complying with state and federal environmental regulations and with Right to Farm practices. Technical assistance was provided by the Kent Conservation District.

“I am pleased to announce that Michigan Bee Co. has taken the steps necessary to become an environmentally verified operation,” said MDARD Director Jamie Clover Adams. “Michigan is leading the way nationwide in effective stewardship practices with the voluntary, incentive-based MAEAP program. This continued effort shows agricultural producers’ long-term commitment to protecting the environment while maintaining economic success.”

MAEAP is a collaborative effort of farmers, MDARD, Michigan Farm Bureau, commodity organizations, universities, conservation districts, conservation and environmental groups and state and federal agencies. More than 100 local coordinators and technical service providers are available to assist farmers as they move through the process toward verification. An average of 5,000 Michigan farmers attend educational programs annually; 10,000 Michigan farms have started the verification process and more than 2,000 verifications have been awarded to date.

Michigan Bee, owned and operated by father and son Joe Vidatech and John Ebers, manages about 1,000 colonies or hives, and in a good year can produce up to 48,000 pounds of honey. Much of it is sold in Spartan-Nash stores, as well as at Aperitivo at Grand Rapids Downtown Market and Martha’s Vineyard, 200 Union Ave. NE.

Ebers said the honey is packed in one pound jars bearing the company’s label.

Michigan Bee is an old family business, but its name is fairly new; previously it was known as Videtech Apiaries. The new name is part of Ebers’ plan to develop a brand.

Ebers, 35, said the business, started by his grandfather and long headed by his father, has been located on the same Kent City farm on the Fruit Ridge since 1922.

“We still have the original honey house,” said Ebers, describing the operation as small to midsized compared to other apiaries in Michigan.

Michigan Bee is an evolving business model. Videtech Apiaries only sold its honey wholesale in bulk, but now the company is experimenting with retail sales.

“All the honey we sell is our honey; we don’t buy from anybody else,” said Ebers.

He said the honey is raw and unfiltered and not mixed with any other producer’s honey. He said some honey producers add Asian honey or even corn syrup to give the end product a consistent color. People seek out Michigan Bee honey because the pollen has not been filtered out of it, he said. Some believe pollen gathered by bees is beneficial to health.

According to the U.S.D.A., Michigan produced 5.7 million pounds of honey in 2014 at an average price of $2.50 a pound. The crop at the farm gate was worth $14.3 million, and Michigan was the eighth-largest producing state in 2014.

The value of what bees do is not limited to production of honey. Michigan apiaries also earn money from farmers by placing their hives in orchards, berry patches and vegetable fields to pollinate the blossoms. Ebers said the going rate for pollination service in Michigan apple orchards ranges from $80 to $100 per hive.

It can be a capital intensive business, however. In April, Ebers was in Georgia, buying bees to replace colonies Michigan Bee Co. had lost. Each package is about 10,000 bees, typically costing from $100 to $120, and Michigan Bee may buy 200 to 300 packages some years.

Bees are known to be excellent pollinators for apples because they are “loyal,” said Ebers. A hive’s scouts that have located an apple orchard in bloom share that information with the hive and all of the bees concentrate only on the apple blossoms, or on the blueberry blossoms, if that’s where they are located.

A few years ago, a spring drought in Michigan held down honey production, according to Ebers, so that year it was the revenue from pollination service that got the beekeepers through.

Colony collapse disorder has been big news in the agricultural world and continues to be the biggest concern in the beekeeping industry in North America.

“We’ve had that. I think every beekeeper has had it,” said Ebers. He said colony collapse means the entire hive dies suddenly, even though the bees have stored honey in the hive and starvation is not the cause. He said in some cases a collapse probably is not the mysterious CCD but rather is due to disease sweeping through the hive or to an infestation of bee-killing mites.

The USDA and major agricultural universities are spending time and money to pinpoint the causes of CCD and come up with a way to fight it.

Chemicals in the environment are suspected as a cause, according to Ebers. He said in years past, farmers were not aware of the potential impact of chemicals on bees and often sprayed when bees were pollinating their blossoms. He said there is now a heightened sensitivity about the importance of honey bees among the general population, and that is especially true of the farmers on the Fruit Ridge, where many of Michigan Bee’s hives are placed in the apple blossom season.

According to the USDA Agricultural Research Service, in the fall of 2006, some beekeepers began reporting losses of 30 to 90 percent of their hives. Some colony losses are expected each year, but this was an unusually high magnitude of loss. However, USDA notes there have been reports of virtual disappearance of honey bees in the 1880s, 1920s and 1960s, and there is no way to know for certain if the causes are the same for today’s CCD.

The total number of managed honey bee colonies in the U.S. has decreased from 5 million in the 1940s to 2.5 million today.

The American public should care, says USDA, because bee pollination is responsible for more than $15 billion in increased crop value each year. About one-third of the food consumed in the U.S. benefits from honey bee pollination.

As noted by USDA, honey bees are not native to the Western Hemisphere; they were brought from Europe by the first settlers. There are other insect pollinators native to the U.S., but honey bees are more prolific and easier to manage commercially.

To become MAEAP-verified like Michigan Bee Co., farmers must complete three comprehensive steps, including education, a risk assessment on their farm, and development and implementation of an action plan regarding potential environmental risks. Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development conducts an on-farm inspection to verify program requirements related to applicable state and federal environmental regulations, Michigan Right to Farm guidelines and adherence to an action plan.

To remain a MAEAP-verified farm, inspections must be conducted every three years and action steps must be followed.

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