Andy Drange isn't bragging, he's simply stating a fact. On a head-per-head basis, he oversees more livestock than any other agricultural producer in Yellowstone County.
Here's another way to put it: Drange Apiary of Laurel owns about 3,000 beehives, each home to somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000 bees. Depending on the season, Drange's "herd" numbers somewhere between 180 million and 200 million.
What's more, each year Drange's bees cover more territory than the far-ranging Texas longhorns that loped the Chisolm Trail from Texas ranches to railheads in Kansas. As 2012 dawned, Drange's bees were resting in a potato cellar in Caldwell, Idaho. The cellar remains at a constant temperature of 41 to 43 degrees.
"The bees just kind of sit there and vegetate," Drange said. "You don't have to feed them as much, and you don't have to keep them warm."
On Jan. 20, Drange's bees were loaded onto trucks and traveled to California, where they generated income by pollinating the state's $2.3 billion almond crop. Around March 10, Drange's bees were off to Washington, where they were busy pollinating apple and cherry orchards.
In late April, the bees were on the move again, returning to Montana where the honey-making season is shifting into high gear.
The long journey by these hired pollinators illustrates the crucial role that apiaries play in the nation's food supply. Without help from billions of bees, most fruits and vegetables couldn't be grown in the vast quantities that stock American grocery stores.
Honey bees add $15 billion in value to the nation's agricultural output, and one-third of the food supply benefits from honey bee pollination, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Montana ranks fifth in the nation in honey production. Last year the state produced 13.3 million pounds of honey valued at $21.8 million. By comparison, the 2010 season yielded 10.6 million pounds, worth $18.3 million. Drange said each Montana beehive produces about 90 pounds of honey per year.
During honey season, Drange distributes his hives to 130 locations throughout the Yellowstone Valley from Big Timber to Hysham. The bees seek out dandelions and flowering fruit trees early in the season. Then they move to alfalfa, clover and domestic crops such as squash and cucumbers.
Commercial beekeeping demands plenty of labor from men and bees. When flowering plants are in full bloom, a worker bee can forage three to five miles from the hive. Seemingly tireless worker bees die by the time they're between six and eight weeks old.
"Their wings just wear out," Drange said.
At a bee yard near King Avenue West between Laurel and Billings, beekeepers Ehrin Stevens and Shawn Shifley donned protective suits to check on hives that are literally buzzing with activity.
"Montana honey is some of the best because it's really light and sweet," Stevens said, pointing to golden-hued cells in the frame where bees have deposited their sweet treasure.
Honey forms when foraging bees gather nectar from flowers. After visiting a flower, the bee stores the nectar in a specialized organ, known as a honey stomach, where enzymes convert complex sugars into more simple sugars. When the bee returns to the hive, it regurgitates the nectar, which is ingested by another worker. The hive worker then deposits the honey into the cell of a honeycomb. It thickens by fanning motion from bees' wings. Once it's full, a cell is capped in beeswax.
Most people don't realize that water plays a crucial role in beekeeping, Shifley said. When temperatures soar into triple digits, the wax combs inside the hive can melt. When that happens, bees stop carrying nectar in their honey guts and start packing water instead.
Water released inside the hive amidst thousands of furiously beating wings evaporates, cooling the surroundings.
When temperatures fall, bees huddle together to conserve warmth, Shifley said.
Beekeepers have to keep on top of a host of environmental threats that can affect crop pollination and honey production. Drange uses vitamins and food-grade essential oils to combat parasitic mites and to keep his hives healthy.
And like other agricultural producers, beekeepers are largely at the mercy of the weather. It's no surprise that honey production plunges during drought years. Alfalfa weevils and other pests can also take a toll on production.
Colony collapse disorder, a mysterious phenomenon characterized by unusually high bee losses or even the disappearance of entire colonies, has been in the news in recent years.
Robb Cramer, an assistant professor in the Department of Immunology and Infectious Disease at Montana State University in Bozeman, said most research indicates that colony collapse disorder can't be pinned on any one cause. Increasingly, scientists believe a variety of factors may be at play.
"Things haven't gotten much worse, but they haven't gotten much better," Cramer said. "One reason you haven't heard much about it in the press is that it hasn't gotten worse, but there hasn't been much progress made in identifying a cause. Studies have been done, but all of them have come to different conclusions."
Despite the challenges facing commercial apiaries, more hobbyists are turning to beekeeping.
Publicity about colony collapse disorder and other challenges facing the industry have generated a tremendous amount of interest in beekeeping, said David Baumbaur, who teaches beekeeping classes at MSU.
"If there's anything good from this, it's growing public awareness of the role that honeybees play as pollinators," Baumbaur said.