Bryant Honey, Family business continues sweet success
Worland – Bryant Honey began in 1916 with a box of bees and some dairy cows that arrived in Worland from Colorado with Bob Bryant’s great grandfather in a boxcar. has. Its expanded to over 6,000 colonies in seven counties throughout the Big Horn Basin and southeast Wyoming.
Now in their fourth generation of beekeeping in the Basin, the Bryant family continues to expand their honey production and pollination services.
“When my grandpa, Robert Sr., took over he built it up to 600 colonies, and when he passed my dad took it over, building it to 1,200 colonies,” says Bryant. “In 1984 my brother Don and I took it over, and we’re running about 6,000 colonies now.”
For over 50 years Bryant Honey has marketed their product through the Sioux Honey Association, based in Sioux City, Iowa. Robert Sr. was an original member of the co-op. Although most of their honey is shipped east to Iowa in 55-gallon drums, the family does market some locally with the Bryant Honey label.
The barrels of honey produced each year vary, but Bryant says the Wyoming state average is 71 pounds per colony per year. “This last year was a very low year for us, because it was too wet and cold. The farmers couldn’t get their hay baled, leaving it in the fields or down for longer periods. It was a hard season.”
“If you run out and see the alfalfa fields bright purple, and they smell purple, that’s what we want,” he says of ideal bee conditions. “That’s when you look across a field and there’s a cloud of bees.”
Although the average cutting stage for alfalfa is 10 to 15 percent of flower, Bryant says it depends on the farmer and whether their goal is tonnage or quality. “If they’re going for tonnage, they’ll let it grow longer, but if they’re going for dairy quality a lot of them will cut before it even gets to the bud stage,” he says. “The longer the bloom, the better it is for us.”
Bryant Honey employs 12 people in the summer, while only a few work through the winter in Wyoming on various tasks, including building hives. Other family members follow the bees to California, where they’re trucked to generate income as pollinators for the almond trees.
“Since we began migrating to California we get a lot more dry rot,” says Bryant. “It’s good because we get paid for the pollination, but our equipment takes a toll. While a hive might last 50 years in Wyoming, sometimes it’s five in California.”
“We like to send ours south in the first part of November, when it’s cool,” says Bryant, adding that makes it easier for the truckers because the bees don’t overheat and come out of their hives.
“The bees keep each hive at about 90 or 92 degrees year round, and if you stack them all on a truck they’re producing heat and there’s no airflow or water to cool them,” he says, adding, “Some truckers will lay a soaker hose down the top of the truck immediately when they stop if it is warm. The bees suck up that water and start fanning their wings, and it’s a swamp cooler.”
Bryant says some truckers do arrive mid-day. “It’s a nightmare,” he says. “You take that net off the hives and a cloud of millions of bees goes into the air. They don’t know where to go, and there’s a lot of mortality. We try to teach the truckers why we do what we do.”
The bees produce no honey while they’re in California. “They live from day to day and bring in a little nectar to get the queens to lay their eggs,” explains Bryant. “We feed a lot of corn syrup.”
He explains they fill one-gallon cans with corn syrup, setting them upside down on the hives and letting them drip slowly down.
During the winter the Bryants who travel to California combine colonies to get the best ones in the orchards. Bryant says the colonies are rated and they’re paid according to how many bees there are.
Bryant says this year they’ll have extensive winter loss, estimating a loss of 70 percent because of last summer’s cold wet weather. To rebuild their colonies Bryant says they prefer to use their own stock, making splits from the old stands, but they also get “package bees.”
“We go to California and shake bees from the stronger colonies, putting them in crates that hold two or three pounds of bees,” says Bryant. “We bring them back to Wyoming and shake them in a hive with a queen, starting a new colony.”
This winter is the first time the Bryants have shipped some bees to potato cellars in Idaho for the first part of winter, where they’re kept dark and at a precise temperature.
“The bees stay cool and don’t use a lot of honey – we’re trying it this year to see how we like it,” says Bryant. “When you put them in that environment they don’t do a whole lot – they just exist and it saves feeding later on. The first of February they’re loaded back up and sent to California, and so far the ones that have gone to California have a lot more honey on them.”
Bryant says a big predator is skunks, but he says they’re “fascinating to watch” when they hunt bees.
“They will come into the yard and scratch on the colony, which makes the guard bees come out. The skunks swish their tails back and forth and the bees get loaded in their tail, then they turn around, flip their tail up and pick the bees out and eat them,” he explains. “They’ve got just a drop of honey in them, and they just eat the honey. They can eat a lot of bees in a night.”
Bryant says they used to trap a lot, and at one point his dad, in the early 1980s, trapped over 500 skunks in a three-county area one summer. He says now it’s harder to control them because of the limited means available today.
“Now it’s a matter of waiting for one to go out of the yard before you shoot it,” he adds, noting they also encounter damage from bears, which he says are becoming more prevalent.
“They can devastate a yard, and carry 80-pound hives half a mile away,” he says. “We work with Game and Fish extensively, and they give us electric fences to put up on yards that have been hit before.”
Whatever the challenges to beekeeping may be, Bryant says his family likes it in the Big Horn Basin.
“The weather is normally very mild here, without the hail and heavy rains that come through in the Lingle/Torrington area. It seems like we’ve always produced good honey – it’s a mild, light white honey, and it’s seems like that’s what everyone wants.
Three years ago the Bryants put up a new building with automized extracting equipment, which Bryant says is much better than the hands-on approach his dad and grandfather had to take. “Now we hardly touch the combs as they come through,” he says. “It cuts down on the stickiness, because a little honey goes a long way. We’re constantly washing and trying to keep things clean.”
He adds the best investment they ever made was a pair of forklifts, which are used to move pallets of hives when hay producers spray for insects instead of lifting them all by hand.
As for the future of the family business, Bryant says his brother Don’s two sons, Brandon and Brady, each have a few colonies of their own, while he says his own son Bobby is 13 and helps in the summer.