Don’t let size fool you—they‘re crop production powerhouses!
Fresh out of college in 1975, Mike Mulligan was able to find a job working for local almond grower Hubert Holtermann in Wasco, California. Having taken a class at UC Davis for beekeeping and with a passion for insects, Mulligan hit the ground running. After a brief year and a half of working, the farmer surprised Mulligan by asking if he was interested in buying his business. To Mulligan (who was only 23 at the time) it was a huge risk, but one that he decided to take. Looking back he remembers it being “an incredible decision but it was the best decision for the business we ever made.” With a loan from the Federal Land Bank for $60,000 he was able to purchase the company. “It just seemed like an impossible amount and I was living on almost nothing. Within two or three years I had paid it off. I had a great uncle be my cosigner and I paid him off and then we just started slowly building up the beehives and the equipment that we were able to purchase in any given year.” He chose to call the company Glory Bee. “It seemed like that was something that I could do to tie my faith into the company and give glory to the Lord. He has helped us tremendously through the years just for a little nothing business to start and make it, especially with something as fragile as bees.
“We started off with about 400 beehives and bought us a truck and put up a shop to operate out of right on the edge of town, and that’s kind of how we got started,” Mulligan explained. With the business now in his name, he had to put in a lot of hard work to help his company succeed. “It seemed like it was two steps forward and one step backwards. For years and years I used to do everything by myself. Everything that needed to be done, I was the one who did it.” Mulligan was able to slowly build up the business, eventually hiring someone part-time to help out. Now with about 12 full-time employees and between 6,500 and 7,500 beehives depending on the year, he emphasized how much labor and money is involved in trying to keep the bees healthy with the increase in bee diseases (such as Colony Collapse Disorder) which threaten his livelihood. “When we first started pollinating the almond crop my first payment for the beehive rentals was $9.50 back in 1975, and this last year our average price was probably about $185 per colony. We just never dreamed it would be like that but we never dreamed how expensive it would be to raise healthy honey bees.”
You may have heard about the mysterious death of millions of honeybees across the United States, something that dominated the news a few years back. Unfortunately, this is something that Mulligan has experienced first-hand. “We sure found out this last winter what we didn’t know. We were just a little bit off on our timing of our disease prevention programs and we just had catastrophic losses over the winter. Thousands of our beehives died in October and November and that’s not unusual for beekeepers. I think the national average hovers between 25 to 45 percent of all beehives that are lost every year and beekeepers struggle to make up those numbers the following year or two years and it’s just very critical. We’re trying to look into hiring a full-time person to help us with our bee diseases, to monitor them and help us with figuring out how to treat them most effectively.” And while they can use miticide, antibiotics, and different microbial solutions to treat the various diseases threatening the bee population, they are nowhere near as effective as in years past. Mulligan said, “We used to just be able to control it with one application per year for almost over a decade and now I think you almost have to think about it every couple of months if we’re going to try and treat these diseases.”
Mulligan reflects that while the Kern County community has been a great place for Glory Bee for many years, the ever-changing landscape has presented challenges for his business. “The almonds are right here and it used to be that the alfalfa and cotton was here but that’s changed. We’re not too far from where we winter at the Central Coast and we’ve traditionally gone from producing citrus honey in Tulare County, so it’s a good central location for the beekeeping business, and we’ve found that Shafter and Wasco are just wonderful places to live.” However, Glory Bee is adapting to the transition from traditional crops such as alfalfa and cotton to tree crops. “We’re trying to reach out and purchase a beekeeping business in North and South Dakota to help us survive the summer months here in Central California. It’s not good beekeeping country anymore in the summer because so much of the acreage has turned into tree crops: pistachios and almonds and grains. The traditional crops that we survived the summer with and did well on—alfalfa and cotton—cotton is almost gone and alfalfa is losing acreage pretty rapidly so that we’re trying to find a way to go. Many beekeeping companies have Midwest connections for honey production, which also helps keep the bees healthy in the summer for the following fall and winter.” This would mean transporting a significant portion of their operations across the country every year, making it a risky prospect, but ultimately one which could help keep the colonies healthy for years to come.
From all of the hard work of pollinating crops, Glory Bee’s busiest workers produce about a half of a million pounds of honey each year. And while some of their honey is available for purchase at their Shafter headquarters, 99 percent of it goes to Sue Bee Honey where it is repackaged and sold in grocery stores.
The focus of almost all commercial beekeepers in the United States is the almond bloom which runs from January through March every year. This peak season is especially important for Glory Bee as they also serve as a bee broker, meaning that in addition to their own hives they also help manage other companies’ colonies. “I help other beekeepers rent their bees to farmers that I’ve contracted with and just to work all those numbers out we contracted out about 40,000 hives in addition to our own beehives around various almond orchards and cherry orchards and other areas in Kern County. It’s just a lot of relationships, phone calls, prayers, and trust to make all those things work out.”
Mulligan’s wife, Susan, manages the business operations from their home in Shafter. “She’s the backbone of everything. I have a little office next to hers in our home. She is just a genius with the computer and with her business knowledge and she’s also a lawyer so she helps us in unimaginable ways with running the bookkeeping, the taxes, the insurance, and the legal things, always with a smile. And we have seven kids; so she also manages the household very efficiently with love and compassion.”
Also attributing some of Glory Bee’s success to its employees, Mulligan explained, “I’ve had the best workers possible, probably, in my opinion, the best workers in our industry and a wonderful relationship with my employees.”
It is easy to see that Mulligan loves his job even after all these years. “One of the really fun parts for me is that you get to go out in the country and in the mountains and see flowers and plants and trees and hills and know that this business is raising bees [which are] not only important for our whole society and our food production, but it’s also a fascinating deal to think that bees [have the ability to] collect nectar from flowers, which nothing else can do, and store it in a way that produces something versatile like honey.”
Running a bee business isn’t all roses, but with a positive attitude like Mulligan’s and a hard-working family and crew at Glory Bee, you can see how this company has handled the thorns to find sweet success.
Photos by Gregory D. Cook