The story of a love sick beekeeper
By: Kristy Lynn Allen Owner and founder of The Beez Kneez, LLC Minneapolis, MN USA
I will never forget my first date with honey bees. It was in August of 2009 at my aunt and uncle’s bee ranch. My uncle took me out to check some of his apiaries. The minute he cracked that first hive, the sweet smell of nectar, wax and smoke filled my nostrils, millions of little fuzzy bodies were flying above my head, thousands of workers moving strong among the frames and I had my first taste of real, raw basswood honey. It is cliche to say, but I fell in love. I could not get enough. The way they communicate by dancing, how the hive functions as a superorganism, the fact that all the workers are female, that they collaborate extremely well to do incredible things, that they help flowers reproduce and make honey...what is not to love? The more I learned the more I wanted. I was love sick for honey bees.
Shortly before my first date with honeybees, I had learned of CCD (colony collapse disorder), honeybee decline and the vital role they play in our food system. I had just spent a year working on a ranch in Arkansas for Heifer International, an experience that opened my eyes and changed my direction. There were a few hives on the ranch but I was never formally introduced to them. I was a recent graduate of the University of MN seeking the next step after getting an ambiguous degree in Global Studies-a combination of anthropology, sociology, political science, and history. It was a degree that taught me how to think and analyze systems of power, the haves and have nots, but it did not give me a tool kit for fixing the many overwhelming problems we face as a growing society sharing resources.
It was at that ranch that I shifted from a lost college grad thirsty for answers and experience to a woman driven by a new-found passion for agriculture. I knew I wanted to be a farmer, connected to the land, working outside and in communities focused on food and social justice but I had not grown up on a farm, I did not have any money to buy land and I needed way more experience. Since organic and sustainable agriculture practices were my focus I decided to move to Ecuador for a year to work on a farm, another life changing experience that pushed me closer to a future dedicated to bees. In addition to managing the vegetable production, helping with the cow, the cuyes (guinea pigs) and the two beehives, I joined the local beekeeping club and toured around the countryside listening to the members talk about bees in a very romantic way and it wasn’t just because spanish is a romantic language. They loved their bees as real beekeepers do, love at first sight, sniff, taste and sound.
After spending nine months abroad, my funds were low and I needed to come home. Excited to absorb anything and everything about bees and agriculture, I returned to Minnesota, got a seasonal job on an organic vegetable farm and spent another August at my family’s Bar Bell Bee Ranch. That was when my Aunt asked me a question:
“Kristy, how would you like to sell our honey in Minneapolis?” “Sure!” I replied, idea wheels instantly spinning. Pedal power turned the light bulb on. Since the mid 2000’s, I had been commuting by bicycle year round. What if I delivered honey on my bicycle? I could paint my bike like a bee, dress up like one on Halloween, and hand out honey samples with my business card. And so without thinking much more about it, that is what I did. On October 31st, 2010 I started my business combining a love for bees and bikes. The Beez Kneez, a pedal-powered honey delivery business with a “bee-cyclist” bringing honey to your home or business dressed like a bee. I built a bike trailer, designed my own honey label and started my first hives. As it grew, all the profits went back into the business so I could quit my other jobs, grow and manage my own bees and produce my own honey.
Seven years later, I am a full time beekeeper managing 150 urban and rural hives, an educator and pollinator policy advocate running a bona fide pedal-powered honey business that does so much more. Many things happened along the way to solidify my business’ mission of Reviving the Hive for Healthy Bees, Healthy Lives including 2 confirmed pesticide kills on our hives, one in the city in 2013 and one in the country in 2015. As a result of those kills, we formed an advocacy campaign called Healthy Bees, Healthy Lives that helped to get two important pollinator friendly laws on the books in MN. We continue to do legislative work and educate through speaking engagements and events.
In 2013, we completed a successful kickstarter and raised $40,000 to build the Beez Kneez Honey House; a community hub for beekeepers where we rent our custom pedal-powered honey extractors and run a retail shop for honey and beekeeping supplies. We also started a network of Urban Apiary Partners which consists of museums, food co-ops, universities and other supportive organisations that host our hives in exchange for honey labeled with their name and zipcode. Last but not least, in 2015, we started Camp Beez Kneez, a 14 week intensive beekeeping course designed to teach new and seasoned beekeepers how to manage and overwinter hives focused on sustainable and best management beekeeping. In addition, we partner with local beekeepers to breed locally adapted bees and queens to help supply our own apiaries and in the future, our students.
Looking back at my first date with bees, they pedaled me into a future I could have never anticipated. When you are love sick and determined, you will do whatever you can to protect those you love, even if it means dressing like a bee. I see a precarious environmental forecast as we are losing pollinators and many other species at alarming rates. When connecting bees to systems of agriculture, I know we have so much more to learn from their ability to collaborate to do powerful things and for that, I will always be love sick for bees.