ORION, Okla. (AP) — Despite rain and possible snow, some 35 people met recently at the Orion Volunteer Fire Department, tucked among the red cedars of western Oklahoma, to discuss the business of beekeeping.

Led by 2018 Oklahoma Beekeeper of the Year Jimmy Shobert of Laverne, the group of prospective beekeepers wanted to know how to construct hives, maximize their profits and prevent their bees from dying.

"I started out with five hives and I am now down to one," Kristine Almack, of Enid, told The Journal Record. At first she thought it might be due to beetles or lack of food, but now she is searching for answers.

Shobert, who is beginning his fourth decade as a beekeeper and maintains between 30 and 50 hives each year, said there are a number of reasons that bees die.

"I placed my hives once near a cornfield and I lost all of them due to the pesticides they were using in the field," said Shobert.

Nationwide, beekeepers have seen a significant decline in bee populations. The U.S. was losing roughly 50% of all its beehives annually. Today, that number has improved to some 30%.

One culprit is a bee parasite known as the varroa mite that made its way to the United States in the 1980s.

Shobert said the mites have been a problem for Oklahoma beekeepers. However, he said, the primary factor causing bees to die in Oklahoma has been drought.

"During a drought, you're not going to get good pollen," said Shobert. "And pollen is what the young bees eat. They only shift over to eating honey when they have matured."

He said the state is averaging 40 pounds of honey per hive due to drought conditions. Under normal conditions, the average is about 68 pounds. A pound of natural honey can bring a beekeeper from $8 to $16. A quart jar of natural honey sells for about $20.

Shobert emphasizes the word "natural" because commercial honey is normally diluted.

Usually, beekeepers sell their honey wholesale or just to friends, said Shobert. But some are licensed by the state Health Department to sell their natural honey through retail outlets. Shobert has such a license. His honey can be found in stores in Laverne and Woodward.

Honey, though, is just one revenue source for beekeepers. Another is providing a pollination service to growers.

"I had a farmer by Cherokee who wanted to see for himself how important bees were for his crops," said Shobert. "So he had me pollinate one field of canola, but not the other. The end result was that the pollinated field yielded 25% more than the nonpollinated field."

A third source of revenue is the sale of beeswax for such items as candles and soap. Honey is also used as a healing ointment for burns and wounds.

John Sharpley of the Oklahoma State Beekeepers Association said there are roughly 2,000 beekeepers in the state, divided into 13 regional associations.

"The metro areas like Oklahoma City and Tulsa have a large number of hives because of the number of hobbyists trying it out," said Sharpley. He describes Oklahoma as a "parking" state because pollinating services by beekeepers run coast to coast.

"The almond crop in California takes the efforts of nearly 90% of the nation's commercial beekeepers to pollinate it," said Sharpley.

Despite the challenges of keeping bees healthy and productive, beekeeping has grown in popularity in Oklahoma. Sharpley said the state Beekeeper Association has added 81 members over last year.

What makes Oklahoma honey unique is its diversity, Sharpley said.

"The state has quite a diversity of floral sources for bees," said Sharpley. "For instance, the state has some 83 different native grasses. It's the reason you see items like alfalfa honey here in the state for sale."

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Information from: The Journal Record, http://www.journalrecord.com