As bees buzzed around his head, Will Nissen was all smiles on a Monday afternoon.
Nearby his wife, Peggie, and his three sons were almost oblivious to the bees. But they did pay close attention to the product the bees made honey, and lots of it.
As the owners of Five Star Honey in Minot,N.D., the Nissens dedicate their lives to bees, 400 million bees to be exact.
Since 1978, Will Nissen has lived the life of a beekeeper, working for someone else for more than a decade before striking out on his own in the 1990s. The business has grown to include the entire family and covers two states. During the spring in summer, the bees and the Nissens are in North Dakota with the goal of producing honey. In the winter, they spend a lot of time in California, keeping the bees alive and making a little money using the bees to pollinate crops.
The year-long work across two states has a singular mission, to produce tons of honey, literally, every fall. Nissen said last year his bees produced 600,000 pounds of honey. That equates to approximately 50,000 gallons of honey or close to 30 semitrucks full of the delicious treat.
And for Nissen, it's a way of life, Minot Daily News reported.
"It's all I've ever done," Nissen said. "You have to enjoy it or you can't do it."
Nissen is one of 220 registered beekeepers in North Dakota. The average beekeeper maintains between 1,000 and 1,500 colonies. Combined, they make North Dakota the No. 1 producer of table-top honey in the nation.
For many, raising bees sounds easy enough. Put a box in the yard, leave it alone, let the bees do their magic and claim your honey in the fall. But in reality, there is so much more involved.
"You need to put in some hard work," Nissen said. "There's too much in it."
The No. 1 requirement -- you can't be afraid of bees. Yes, you will get stung occasionally, but much like guard dogs, bees can sense fear. If you are afraid, your chances of getting stung go up quickly.
"If you can't get over it in the first couple of hours, you need a new job," Nissen said.
If you can overcome the fear, the work begins. And in reality, it never ends.
Right now, beekeepers around the state are in harvest mode. They are collecting honeycomb full of honey, bringing it to warehouses, extracting the honey, filtering the honey, packaging it and shipping it off. Most beekeepers belong to a co-op of sorts where the honey is shipped and eventually sold.
The Nissens are involved with the Sioux Honey Association, and on the afternoon of Sept. 22, they were loading 700-pound barrels of honey into the back of a semi to be hauled to Sioux City, Iowa. Once there, the honey will be processed and packaged for sale as Sue Bee Honey. The Sue Bee Honey is sold nationwide, including at grocery stores in Minot.
By the end of October, honey collection will be finished and the last barrels will be shipped off. Once the final barrel is shipped, the Nissens have two weeks to collect their bees. The bee colonies are placed in nets and driven on flatbed trailers from North Dakota to California. The move is made every year for one major reason -- the bees would not survive the brutal cold of North Dakota winters.
The Nissens drive the bees themselves, setting up the colonies in the foothills of California. With the bees safely in place, the Nissens are able to return home for the holidays -- usually from Thanksgiving through New Year's Day. But even that is not a vacation. While they are not monitoring the bees, the time in Minot allows the Nissens to do maintenance on their equipment.
In early January, the family returns to California and begins to move the bees around, placing them near farmland so the bees can pollinate crops in California. The bees are primarily used to pollinate almonds, berries, citrus and crops like avocados. Farmers pay to have the bees do their natural jobs as a way to ensure the next year of crops will be successful. Around March 1, the Nissens collect their bees and return them to the foothills. They then begin working toward returning them to North Dakota.
Once the bees are in the foothills, the Nissens split the hives and begin making new queens. The process is delicate and highly scientific, as the Nissens work to create high quality queens that will maintain colonies for years.
"We have to be done with our queen yard by the fifth of April," Nissen said.
By May, the colonies are back in North Dakota, and the Nissens begin the process of spreading them out to 235 locations in nine counties. Almost all the bees are placed on farmland, where they begin the process of seeking out flowers to collect nectar that is turned into honey. Most of the bees collect nectar from sunflowers and alfalfa, creating a consistent, delicious honey.
Between May and November, the biggest challenge is keeping the colonies thriving. Raising bees has become a difficult process, and losing colonies is part of the job.
"In 1978, a pretty big bee operation was 1,500 to 2,000 colonies," Nissen said. "These days we're running about 10,000 colonies to keep 6,500 alive."
In 2014, 1,500 colonies were damaged in California and another 1,100 were hurt when they were sprayed by insecticide while in field. Nissen said the damage does not kill all the bees, but it does deplete their numbers to the point they won't produce honey for harvest.
"When we first started going to California, we lost in single digits," Nissen said. "You would cry if you lost 10 percent. Last year, we lost 43 percent. The year before that was 30 percent, and we thought that was good."
Once the bees are in the fields, they are monitored closely. Most years, an early harvest is done by July 15, giving the bees an opportunity to make two stockpiles of honey.
Despite the challenges, Nissen said he enjoys what he does and he loves being able to provide good, clean honey around the nation.
"There's a shortage of good honey," he said. "U.S. beekeepers have kept honey clean. Bacteria has a hard time growing in honey."
While most of their honey is sold as Sue Bee Honey, the Nissens do offer some for sale at Five Star Honey. Peggie Nissen said Asian visitors frequently stop by because the honey is a higher quality than they can find at home. The Nissens' honey is also sold at Home Sweet Home in Minot.
While the end product is delicious and popular, the reality is that being a beekeeper still requires one unpleasant task -- dealing with bees every day. Nissen said some hives are more aggressive than others and being stung is part of the job, but he wouldn't change a thing.
"In all the colonies we have, there's no two that are alike," Nissen said. "They have their own personalities. Some are more aggressive."