“Everyone knows something about bees. What most people know is that they sting, and they’re in trouble,” says Beez Kneez co-owner Erin Rupp. “What we try to do is give people a hands on opportunity to learn new things about bees. We want people to understand why they might sting, and why they’re in trouble.”
Beez Kneez is a small business based in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis. Owned by founder Kristy Allen and Erin Rupp, the LLC has three main components: honey production through 70 hives spread throughout eastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin; educational programs about bees and beekeeping; and services offered at their new “honey house,” like rentals of their bike-powered honey extractors. In addition, the business has spoken up to advocate for bees and beekeepers in the face of our broken food system.
Beez Kneez operates very differently from most honey producers in the US. Because of our heavily monoculture-based system of farming, there’s a huge market for commercial beekeepers to truck their bees all over the country. To understand why, imagine an almond orchard.
(Source: Anthony Dunn photography)
It’s very beautiful, and there are essentially no plants besides almond trees. When the almond trees are in bloom in February and March, it’s a huge feast for the bees. The rest of the year, there are no flowers around for the bees, which means they have nothing to eat. Almonds are completely bee-pollinated, so the whole process is dependent on bees coming in just for the pollination season. If a beekeeper wants to keep their bees in one location and contribute to the pollination of the almond trees, it would be very difficult to make that choice because bees would starve when the almond trees weren’t in flower, unless the almond farm happened to border land that flowered the rest of the year. The lack of year-round forage for bees leads to a shortage of good bee spots. When you add in the fees that farmers pay to beekeepers to bring their bees in for pollination services, the economics are weighted for moving bees around. Additionally, our current monoculture agriculture system would be impossible without bees to pollinate it. Beez Kneez and other beekeepers choose to keep their hives in one place all year, which requires and contributes to a diverse, year-round ecosystem and promotes bee health.
Erin explained that it’s hard to be a beekeeper. Beez Kneez puts on antennae bike helmets and includes education with their honey sales in order to make their business model work. They also focus on urban environments, which in many cases offer more food for bees than most rural landscapes. While rural landscapes are mostly dominated by monoculture, the urban landscape has an array of different plants and flowers, many of which are watered even during droughts.
Being in an urban environment does not protect the bees from pesticides. As you may be aware, the class of pesticides known as “neonicotinoids” (or “neonics”) has been discovered to poison bees in acute doses or to weaken and confuse them in smaller doses. (Click here for more information on the impact of neonicotinoids on bees.) Beez Kneez faced this problem head-on last September when one pesticide application killed 60,000 bees overnight in one of their hives and two nearby hives belonging to other beekeepers. (The pesticide that killed their bees was Friponil, a systemic pesticide that is not neonicinitoid.) Driven by this experience and the more widespread problems bees are facing, Erin and Kristy lobbied successfully to get two Minnesota state laws passed. One law requires that plants that are sold as “bee-friendly” not contain neonicotinoid pesticides, which will protect bee-lovers from accidentally poisoning bees. The other, the first of its kind in the country, will mean that when bees are killed from pesticide applications, the beekeeper will be reimbursed for the losses. (More on the new laws, which went into effect in July, here.)
Erin and Kristy lobbied not only on behalf of their own business, but also were able to compile testimony from other beekeepers who were out of state pollinating in California during the legislative session. Erin talked about the benefit of representing a business rather than an advocacy group: “People who wouldn’t listen to me as an individual or a lobbyist will listen to an entrepreneur.”
Beez Kneez does the work to earn their entrepreneurial credibility; they are expanding and launching new products. A particularly exciting new product is their HoneyApolis line. Hives are maintained at partner farms or gardens. The honey is processed from each individual location, producing zip-code specific honeys. A full list of HoneyApolis locations is on the Beez Kneez website.
In addition to producing high quality local honey, Beez Kneez provides education about bees, beekeeping, and how the average person can make a difference. Hands on classes on beekeeping connect participants with how their food is produced and create new understanding about the importance of bees. Erin told a story about Barb, a person who came to a beekeeping class for a friend’s birthday party, despite her extreme fear of bees. She ended up putting on a beekeeper’s suit and getting up close and personal with the bees. The sense of empowerment that comes from overcoming a fear and learning a new skill can make people feel the urgency and that there’s something to do to help keep bees safe.
Erin stressed that individual actions do matter when it comes to bees. Besides buying local honey like Beez Kneez’s, planting bee-friendly flowers makes a huge difference for bees. While in the long term, bees will need a different food system that more closely resembles diverse ecosystems, creating “bee oases” can keep bees alive. Clover, dandelions, sunflowers, and more can help feed the bees. Here’s a guide to creating a bee-friendly garden.
Beez Kneez honey is labeled P6 at Seward Community Co-op and Eastside Food Co-op. Learn more at their website, follow them on Twitter, and like them on Facebook. If you are in the Twin Cities, check out their class and events list.