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North Dakota: The Energy to Keep Things Buzzing

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted August 22, 2017

“Busy as a bee.” There’s a reason for the saying – the winged insects are at it all the time. The bee hive is literally abuzz with activity, right? When we call the steady-Eddie type in the office a “worker bee,” it’s a compliment, because they’re reliable producers. Just like the real worker bees!

Download: Energy is North Dakota

Throughout our “Summer of Energy” series, we’ve explored the ways energy – natural gas and oil – play important roles in various activities and enterprises, in many cases improving them. Because that’s what energy does, it makes things better. Bees – and more specifically, honey-making – are no exception.

Consider that every day in the U.S., more than 2 million tractor trailers haul everything from heavy machinery to toothbrushes around the country. Each summer, some of them head for North Dakota with a very fragile cargo that makes all our lives a little sweeter: millions of honeybees. They’re bound for North Dakota’s rolling fields of alfalfa, clover and wildflowers, where they produce millions of pounds of honey – 37.8 million last year – enough to make the state the largest honey producer in the nation. Fuel is part of that, but energy’s contribution is much, much more than that.

North Dakota Powering Pollination Infographic

Providing Protection with Petroleum

Honeybees make a lot more honey than their colony needs. That means beekeepers may collect the surplus the harvest. Which is not to suggest the bees cheerfully give it away. Beekeepers must wear protective gear to avoid getting stung. Since a bee’s stinger is powerful enough to penetrate most clothing, beekeeper-wear must be strong but flexible so the person inside can work comfortably. That’s where oil and natural gas come in.

Rubber bee handling gloves are made from petroleum products. They’re insulated, long-lasting and easy to sterilize. In addition, beginner and experienced beekeepers alike often wear full-body suits made with polyester, a fiber manufactured with chemicals isolated from petroleum, with hat and veil. Some advice from one experienced “beek”:

No matter what style veil you go with, my recommendation is to select a suit where the veil zippers to the body of the bee suit. Zippers are much more secure than the elastic and strings alternative, plus you can put them on and take them off much more quickly. Getting a bee in your veil is probably one of the most unnerving things that can happen to a new beek! Keeping your zen while beekeeping is an important skill and it’s made a whole lot easier when you are in a secure bee suit. 

Exerting Energy to Bottle Honey

Honey Bear

A hive will produce approximately 65 pounds of surplus honey each year. Beekeepers harvest this honey by collecting the honeycomb frames and scraping off the wax cap that bees make to seal off the honey within each cell.

Once the wax caps are removed from the honeycombs, the frames are placed in an extractor, which spins the frames until the honey moves to the outsides of the extractor, where gravity pulls it to the bottom.  Once the honey has been extracted from the honeycomb, it’s time for bottling. And again, energy is a necessary component.

Designed in 1957, the honey bear bottle is an American classic. These iconic clear bottles are made from petroleum terephthalate (PET), a clear, strong and lightweight plastic created from petroleum-based feedstocks.

A Hive to Call Home

During North Dakota’s winter months, trucks take the bees west to pollinate California’s almond trees. Petroleum-derived diesel is crucial for getting a truck full of 15 million bees to California and back to their home state. With 30 billion bees traveling from different states across the country to California each winter, 2,000 truckloads of bees make the West Coast trek.

That’s just for bees coming in and out of California to pollinate almond trees. Bees from North Dakota are also hauled by truck all over the country to pollinate crops from oranges to cucumbers. This intricate bee transportation system impacts many different industries and is only possible because of energy.

Given a honeybee’s transient lifestyle, it is important that the hives are lightweight but durable. Hives used by professional beekeepers are composed of a hive roof, a hive floor and several layers of hive body. Often, these hives are made from polystyrene, a thermoplastic made from petroleum.

A bee colony is a complex workforce in which all bees have a job that benefits the entire colony. Like the remarkably sophisticated bee colony, North Dakota’s honey industry also is a multi-dimensional system, one that pollinates alfalfa, clover and wildflowers in in the state while also producing all that honey. Then there’s the added work helping to pollinate crops in other states.

So, whether you’re adding some sweetness to your summer, or involved in the production process, energy helps to keep North Dakota’s honey industry buzzing.

North Dakota All Sweet with No Sting infographic

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Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.