Bears, Mantises and, of Course, Bees
Chatting with a fifth-generation Sioux Honey beekeeping family
X-ray technologist. Auctioneer. Inspector. They all tried different vocations. But they didn’t take.
The only thing that stuck was something that flowed through their blood from the very beginning: honey. As any beekeeper will tell you, once it’s in your blood, that love of working with honeybees doesn’t leave.
Just ask the DeKornes, a fifth-generation family of Sioux Honey Association Co-op beekeepers based in Michigan.
Caleb DeKorne, part of generation number five, was a professional auctioneer before returning to the family business. He even attended an intensive auctioneering program at the prestigious World Wide College of Auctioneering in Mason City, Iowa.
And he’s really good at it.
So good that he thinks he might even go back to auctioneering someday.
“He’ll come back to beekeeping … again,” says Caleb’s brother, Joe.
Joe should know. He returned to the family honey business after working for a handful of years as an x-ray technologist in a hospital emergency room.
“It’s in their blood – once you get it in your blood it’s hard to get it out,” says Dan DeKorne, dad to Joe and Caleb. “I mean, take Joe. He did x-rays for a while, but beekeeping was in his blood. He came back.”
For his part, Dan stayed closer to the family business. He worked as a Michigan State bee inspector before realizing that he, too, had a yearning to work with bees in the field and collecting honey – just like his dad and his dad’s dad.
“What’s not to like?” asks Jay, father to Dan. “You get to work for yourself, you’re out in nature. Just working with the bees … and the wonderful smell. You open a beehive and it just has this really nice smell. I love honey. I eat it every day.”
Dan – who now runs DeKorne Honey Farms with about 3,000 hives, based out of Kent City, Michigan – says he returned to the family business because he enjoyed working with his dad.
“Beekeeping offers independence,” Dan says. “I can be my own boss, and, with the bees, it’s always different. You’re not doing the same thing every day, day after day.
“Besides, when you’re the inspector, you’re not everyone’s favorite person. People don’t like you. But I always knew I would be a beekeeper, even before I was done with high school.”
A special kind of honey in Michigan
The DeKornes – members of the Sioux Honey co-op since 1964 when Jay joined – have always run bees in Michigan. The family, combined, currently oversees thousands of hives. Two-thirds of those hives are located in northern Michigan, near Antrim and Charlevoix Counties, on more than 100 properties of farmers, landowners and other homesteads.
The DeKornes get permission to place their hives on the properties, just like all beekeepers. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, as the bees help pollinate crops and other plants in those areas.
“We still place those hives with a handshake,” Dan says. “A handshake and a case of honey at the end of the season, just like we’ve always done.”
Their bees spend a lot of time feeding on basswood trees and star thistle, a non-native plant. “Some people call it knapweed; it’s probably the best honey plant we have in Michigan for bees,” says Dan, who became an official member of Sioux Honey in 1987 and whose son, Joe, joined in 2016.
Other nectar sources include a variety of florals, raspberries, blueberries, wild berries, fireweed and milkweed.
The result is a honey that is light and mild, and, of course, “it’s the best honey anywhere.”
Sioux Honey is happy to receive the DeKornes’ honey, and Dan says Sioux Honey – with more than 200 member beekeepers like himself – gives him peace of mind.
“That’s the whole reason I joined Sioux Honey,” adds Jay. “Sioux Honey is a great group of people to work with, and they’re fair in every way.”
Added Dan: “It’s not just a big company that we have to be at the mercy of … we’re a part of it. As a member of the Sioux Honey co-op, I can be independent but also be part of a team of people that have the same interest as us. And just hard-working families. Actual family farms, you know? Working together.”
It’s true, bears love honey
Modern beekeeping comes with many challenges that threaten the lives of honeybees: varroa mites; loss of forgeable land due to monoculture farming, as well as pesticides and herbicides that are harmful to bees; destruction of habitats that offer shelter for bees via forest fires, floods, tidal surges from hurricanes and other natural disasters.
Another threat to hives? Black bears. The increase in the honey-loving mammals in Michigan has led to the state offering assistance to its beekeepers by providing funding for fencing.
“Yeah, the bears love our honey, and there are a lot more bears in Michigan now than there used to be,” Dan says. “We’re putting a lot more electric fences around the hives all the time. They can do a lot of damage. They smash everything and eat all of our honey.”
Winters can be tough on bees, too, so a lot of commercial beekeepers have begun to winter their bees in southern climates. A lot of beekeepers also truck their bees to California in January and February to help with the pollination of almonds.
The sixth generation?
In just a few years, the sixth generation of DeKorne beekeepers will likely begin to work in the field with their dad, Joe. Joe and his wife, Elly, have six children – Nathaniel, Melanie, Madeline, Lynnette, Janae and Joel.
“They’ll be beekeepers soon enough,” says Joe.
And Caleb? Will he return to be an auctioneer again? Perhaps sooner than later if Joe keeps pranking him with praying mantises.
“He hates praying mantises,” says Dan. “We see them out in the field regularly.”
“Yeah, he REALLY hates them,” adds Joe.
“I just … I really can’t stand them,” confirms Caleb.
So, of course, that means that Joe finds ways to prank his brother. One of his all-time favorites was the day he added one of the eye-bulging insects to Caleb’s lunch.
“One day I took a praying mantis and I put it in his lunch box, and he didn’t know,” says Joe, giggling. “He went to get in his lunch box, and he had a little surprise.”
And then the chase was on. Caleb took off after Joe across a field.
Did Caleb catch him?
“No, I got winded too fast,” says Caleb. “I’ll get him back.”
We’re betting he will. Anyone want to place a bet? One dollar? We’ve got one dollar, one dollar, one dollar. Do we have two? Two dollar, two dollar, two dollar …
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