Beekeeping in Western Montana

By Jim Hamilton

Editor’s Note: Jim wrote the immensely popular story on his secret life as a bee for our December issue. As readers have told us they enjoy hearing about beekeeping in areas different from their own, we asked him to tell us about beekeeping challenges in an area different than most of us experience. All photos are courtesy of Jim. Thanks Jim!

In Western Montana, more and more hobbyist bee folk are showing up because of the open space and interest in a meaningful endeavor. Those of us living in the Pacific Northwest share some of the same issues confronting apiarists everywhere: varroa mites and colony collapse disorder (CCD). Our growing season is shorter than beekeepers further west and along the Great Basin, but with an ample supply of knapweed (where allowed), sage, alfalfa, clover and wildflowers, our bees usually survive for another season.

What makes beekeeping difficult in our neck of the woods are bear predators, dry summers coupled with forest fires, early cutting of hay and alfalfa, and undependable dandelion bloom in the spring because of cold weather. We are supplied with California bees which don’t arrive until the first week of May. Depending on the weather, this sometimes is too late for adequate buildup before the honey flow. Many of our apiary partners travel to the state of Washington to obtain nucs in April for earlier hive setup, and this has resulted with mixed outcomes. Some people have had good success and others less than a satisfactory harvest, possibly because of weak queens or varroa infestation.

I live in the Bitterroot Valley of Western Montana and am fortunate enough to be surrounded by grain fields, fruit orchards and neighbors with vegetable and flower gardens. During my first season as a beekeeper two years ago, I had two hives that produced over 100 lbs. of good honey. This past year, I was lucky to harvest barely 40 lbs. of marginal honey because of a wet, cold spring and dry summer. Persistent forest fire smoke in the valley caused anemic plant growth and lethargic bees. I lost one hive in September, probably from mites or CCD.

An invasive perennial plant, Leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula), is a weed that our bees love to feed on. Unfortunately, the honey produced from this species is colored dark brown and has an unpleasant taste. Knapweed, a thistle-like plant, is also quite invasive but the honey produced is very flavorful. The Scots allegedly brought this weed over while emigrating from the homeland and planted it to our north in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

I belong to two beekeeping clubs: the Big Sky Beekeepers in Missoula and Beekeepers of the Bitterroot headquartered in Hamilton, MT. We are also lucky to have the services and assistance of the internationally-recognized Bee Research Institute headed by Dr. Jerry Bromenshenk at the University of Montana. Despite all the challenges presented by living where we do, most of us are like farmers everywhere and are already talking about “next year.”

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