I don’t know which is more complex: the inner workings of a bee hive or the nationwide operations of Adee Honey Farms. Richard Adee tried to explain both to me one afternoon last week, and left my head spinning.
Or maybe it was the smoke when we examined bee hives. Or the ride all over Wilkinson County from one bee site to another.
Adee Honey Farms, the largest bee business in the nation, has operated in Wilkinson County since Feb. 15, 1957, when Adee bought out a local bee outfitter he had seen advertised in a trade journal.
Wilkinson County is one of many sites used by Adee over the course of a year for his vast bee operation. The company is based in Bruce, S.D.., and has operations in Vidalia, La., Newton, Texas, and Bakersfield, Calif., among other places.
I met Adee at a warehouse in Woodville. The lively, silver-haired 81-year-old greeted me with a smile as I climbed into his pickup truck for a tour.
Adee was born in Kansas and moved to South Dakota at 22. His father and four uncles were school teachers during the Great Depression, and an uncle bought six bee hives for extra income. He discovered honey was a good seller, so his brothers joined in.
Adee’s father and two brothers went commercial, and at family reunions, bees were the main topic. “I said, ‘I want to be a beekeeper’ — and here I am!” Adee said.
He started out selling raw honey in five-gallon pails. He tried retail but found he was competing with imported honey, so he stuck with wholesale and now sells honey in 55-gallon drums. He sells to three or four large packers, producing a total of 8 million to 10 million pounds a year. (Locally, Adee Honey Farms honey is sold at the Texaco station at the corner of Highways 24 and 61 in Woodville.)
But honey accounts for less than half of Adee’s business. Since honey bees are critical for pollination of crops, farmers pay Adee to put his hives among their crops. He sends 70,000 colonies to California almond farms during pollination time, and others to Washington State for apples.
“When I first started here, honey was the only income. Now pollination is about 60 percent of the income,” Adee said.
We arrived at the “queen yard” back in the woods off Highway 24 east of town. Adee’s son Kelvin leaned against a truck talking on a cell phone. Inside a blue camper-trailer were desks for grafting larvae.