Busy bees: Urban beekeepers raising money for new HQ

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March 5, 2013
By: Michelle Bruch
Michelle Bruch

The urban beekeeping gals at Beez Kneez have netted national attention in recent weeks as they work to crowdfund a "Honey House" headquarters in the Longfellow neighborhood.

The campaign earned the coveted "project of the day" spot on Kickstarter's homepage Feb. 23, and the founders are now fielding far-flung messages from supporters — one Canadian donor said she can't wait to wear her new beeantennas out rollerblading this summer.

"We could have taken out a loan, and not do this visible thing," said Kristy Allen, founder of Beez Kneez. But she said the campaign has proven to be an "awesome way" to spread the word and foster a larger sense of community.

"This is kind of how bees work," she said.

Beez Kneez is a two-man show run by Allen and Erin Rupp, who has worked with the Youth Farm and Market Project. Allen estimates they do the work of four-six people. They have logged over 2,000 miles deliveringraw, local, unprocessed honey by bicycle, in full bee-helmet regalia. They provide hives and training for a new beekeeping club at Blake School's upper campus, near the Walker Art Center. (At Blake, they use a special bee species that's mild-mannered and bred to brave Minnesota winters.)

And they work with  urban hives across the cities, educating anyone who is interested in caring for fragile beehives.

"It's not as easy as putting chickens in the backyard," Allen said.

The bee-bikes crisscross through much of Southwest — in all seasons — reaching 150 homes, two farmers' markets and 20 businesses. Beez Kneez sells honey at the Fulton Farmers' Market, the winter markets at Bachman's, and venues like The Lynn on Bryant, Anodyne, and Head to Toe Salon.

Lee Carter, Bull Run Coffee's lead barista at 34th & Lyndale, created the specialty drink Black Miel using Beez Kneez' honey.

"It's still sweet, but it has darker, earthier tones to it," Carter said, describing the buckwheat honey. "It's like nothing else I ever had tried before."

Another occasional client of Beez Kneez is BryantLake Bowl, which hosted the Kickstarter launch party. Allen was a longtime employee of Bowl owner Kim Bartmann, and Bartmann has served as a mentor for the business.

"Urban farming is on the rise," Bartmann said. "I don't think it's a fad, I think it's a trend. ... We need bees in urban areas in order to pollinate everyone's gardens and trees."

Bees are a resilient species, Allen said — bee fossils date from the age of the dinosaurs 100 million years ago — but they are sensitive to the pesticides people use for everyday jobs like spraying dandelions.

"It's proven that bees are affected by it," Allen said. "They lose their memory. They can't find the hive, and they don't remember where the flower source was."

Another strain comes when commercial beekeepers load their bees onto trucks to pollinate crops, she said. Climate change can also play a role, she said. Drought, for example is hard on bees, and weakened bees are more prone to disease.

As a result of such factors, Minnesota is losing 30-40 percent of its hives each year, Allen said.

Before Allen found a passion for bees, she traveled and volunteered around the world. She eventually landed work at a ranch in Arkansas, following an interest in social justice and food.

"It's one thing where I thought I could make a difference," she said. "Everybody needs food. We can find common ground there."

While in Arkansas, she heard a professor describe bee colony collapse, which left a lasting impression on Allen. She went on to ­manage Finca Urkuwayku, an organic production and demonstration farm in Ecuador, and joined the local beekeeping club there. Upon returning home, Allen's aunt and uncle, who operate the Bar Bell Bee Ranch in Northern Minnesota, asked her if she'd be willing to sell their honey at farmers' markets in Minneapolis. The job sounded fun, and Allen, a longtime bike commuter, thought she might combine it with cycling — her winter bike was rusty and in need of a paint job anyway.

"Why not paint a bee on it?" Allen said.

To further promote the honey, Allen donned a bee costume for Halloween.

"A friend asked me, 'Are you going to dress like that all the time?" Allen said. Thinking of Galactic Pizza delivery guys, Allen thought it wasn't a bad idea.

"It seemed like an effective marketing tool," she said.

One big fan of the bee costume — a bee researcher and an entomologist, naturally — was the University of Minnesota's MarlaSpivak.

Spivak and Allen are joining forces to provide a place for the U of M Bee Squad to extract honey. That's where the $35,000 Kickstarter campaign comes in. The new Honey House will feature a bike-powered honey extractor that works like a salad spinner to whip out the honey. The method retains the comb, so bees can save energy and reuse the honeycomb, rather than rebuild it. The House would include retail space to sell honey, and according to a city report, a market garden would grow food for local restaurants as well.

The Honey House would also provide a support group of sorts for beekeepers. It's easy for new beekeepers to become discouraged if their hives die out, Allen said, and she wants to encourage people to keep trying.

"You don't have to be afraid of them," she said. "Beekeeping has been around for a very long time. There aren't enough beekeepers."