A Hive of Five
Meet Sioux Honey beekeeper Will Nissen of Minot, ND
Five Star Honey is truly a family business, named after Will Nissen, his wife Peggy, and their three boys – Matt, Levi and Evan – who are all actively involved in day-to-day operations. Every morning, the family meets for what Will calls the “board meeting,” where they map out their plans for the day.
Will is pleasantly surprised that all three of his boys have followed him into the honey business.
“I figured one of them would stick around, for sure. But when you send them off to college, and they get degrees, maybe they would want to step out in the big new world,” says Will. “But I think they can see that there’s a future in bees, and it’s a good, solid future.”
Will got his start in beekeeping through fate – being in the right place at the right time. His construction job had ended, and he was at the unemployment office when a beekeeper called in looking for a hand building a wall and other odd jobs.
“He said, ‘I’m looking for somebody to help me pull honey. I don’t know if you’re strong enough.’ You didn’t have to tell me twice. I’ve never been laid off since,” Will said.
Will spent several years learning the ins and outs of the bee business from his mentors.
“There’s a lot of ways to run bees, and a lot of ways to make it work” he says.
For example, beekeepers traditionally paint their hives white – it’s the classic look we’re all familiar with. Five Star’s hives, however, are a rainbow of colors, like a field of Easter eggs. That’s because Will saves money by buying mistinted paint at the local hardware store, using whatever color is available.
“I never met a bee that gave a darn what color the hive was,” he says, laughing.
Over the years, Will has developed a patient approach.
“The first thing you do when you open the lid on a beehive is just listen. Just look at the bees and listen. You can tell a lot by the sound, just the way the bees are moving,” he said.
“Some people can never work bees, because their temperament’s not right. You’ve got to be really relaxed, just smooth. You know, it’s just like a rhythm with them … I work for the bees, and the bees work for me.”
It’s clear, he respects his bees. “They’re just amazing insects. Even after 40-some years, I learn something new all the time.”
Will loves every aspect of his chosen career, despite the hard work and long hours.
“You gotta have fun,” he says. “If you don’t like what you’re doing, don’t do it. You start getting in the 12-, 16-hour days, it’ll wear you down. But you always know in the back of your head, it’s not forever. You’re going to just have to get through it.”
In a typical summer day, Will’s sons and their crew will drive 200 miles or more, visiting bee yards northwest and southeast from their base in Minot, ND.
Largely agricultural, the northern prairie is rich with the kinds of flowers that bees use to produce top-notch honey – alfalfa, sweet clover, canola, sunflowers and more. North Dakota’s warm days and cool nights are conducive for nectar production in these plants.
But come winter, the harsh northern climate is too much for the honeybees, and so the Nissens load their hives onto trucks for the 1,700-mile drive to California, where the bees go to work pollinating that state’s expansive almond orchards.
“The hardest part of the job is going to California for months at a time,” said Will’s son, Matt. “The family stays here in North Dakota, and we go with the bees. The physical work stuff is probably the easiest, but being away from home, that’s hard.”
But the family knows the end result is worth all of the effort.
“I like it when I see people in the grocery store who actually take a bottle of honey and hold it up just to look at it,” Will says. “I love to turn it upside down, just to see how fast the bubble goes. I’m just amazed at how many bees it took for that honey to get from the hive to that store shelf.”
Ask him about the Sioux Honey Association Co-op, and he’s unequivocal.
“The co-op is probably the best thing that happened to Five Star Honey Farms. We’re proud of our product, and what we put out. With Sioux, we trust where that honey’s going.”
You Might Also Be Interested In