Kristy Allen had no idea what she was getting into a few years ago when she agreed to sell honey produced at her uncle’s Bar Bell Bee Ranch in Squaw Lake, Minn., northwest of Grand Rapids.
It was Halloween 2010, and she opted for a bee costume, decked out her bike in black and yellow, and attached antennae to her helmet. She pedaled around Minneapolis handing out business cards with honey samples attached to them. Customers ordered the honey, so Allen loaded up her bike trailer with carefully packaged glass jars and delivered straight to their doorsteps.
Allen created quite a buzz-pun intended-and the Beez Kneez was born.
“On a business level, it’s probably not the most efficient thing [timewise], but I really like that kind of interaction,” Allen said. “Having someone come to your door is pretty special.”
Evan Roberts, a longtime customer, agrees. “It’s an interesting business model and certainly worthy of support,” said Roberts, who has honey delivered regularly to his Minneapolis home. “It’s a good way to support local business, and local bees.”
Although positive responses like Roberts’ are the norm, Allen, 31, occasionally receives blank stares, dirty looks and innuendo-laden shouts of “Hey, Honey!” that can be irritating, she said. But the good puns outweigh the bad, she said, like the one uttered by an older man in the elevator while she was making a delivery at the V.A. hospital. “To bee or not to bee,” he mused as he looked at her.
Allen expanded her business in the summer of 2011 to include the Kingfield Farmers Market in south Minneapolis, biking her honey there every Sunday. She also started selling honey to stores and restaurants, and last summer added the Fulton Farmers Market in southwest Minneapolis to her schedule. This year she will be selling at both the Kingfield and Fulton markets, she said.
The Beez Kneez customer base includes about 200 individuals and nearly 30 restaurants and stores.
An educational mission
Delivering honey isn’t the only goal of the Beez Kneez.
Allen and her business partner, Erin Rupp, are on a mission to “revive the hive.” Honeybees pollinate roughly one-third of the food we eat. Yet increasingly since 2006, beekeepers have been losing about 30 percent of their hives annually to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).
“Bees are really in a lot of trouble … and if we lose bees, we lose food security and a healthy diet,” Allen said.
That’s why Rupp, director of Community Bees on Bikes, the educational arm of the Beez Kneez, focuses on teaching classes with hives that she and Allen helped establish throughout the Twin Cities.
They operate experiential learning sites at schools, in parks and on urban farms. People can put on a bee suit, watch the inner workings of a hive and learn more about the crucial role that pollinators play in our ecosystem.
More than 150 children and adults took the classes last year, and “tons of classes” are being offered this year, as well as field trips, Rupp said.
“I think people look at what Erin and I are doing as a hopeful thing, instead of a dire thing,” Allen said. “We’re adding a little bit of silly, a little bit of fun, to something that can be overwhelming. We are both very passionate about it.”
The honey hub
It turns out that Allen and Rupp aren’t the only ones passionate about reviving the hive.
They recently concluded a successful fundraising campaign on Kickstarter.com in which they raised nearly $40,000 to support the Beez Kneez Honey House, which will serve as a hub for beekeepers to share equipment and as space for honey production, storage and classes.
The building in south Minneapolis’ Longfellow neighborhood was purchased by restaurateur Kim Bartmann, a supporter of the Beez Kneez and of the urban farming community.
Allen had worked for Bartmann at her venues Café Barbette and the Bryant Lake Bowl for eight years, until business at the Beez Kneez picked up enough to support her.
And soon they will be working together in a new way. Bartmann is opening another eatery, The Tiny Diner, and plans to use the Honey House’s lot and an adjacent one to grow produce for her restaurants. The Beez Kneez hopes to eventually operate hives on the lot, as well.
Allen, meanwhile, will focus on refining the Beez Kneez’ bicycle-powered extractor so that it is ready for use at the Honey House.
Allen had inherited a broken hand-crank extractor-a device used to spin honey out of honeycomb.
Rather than simply fix it, she worked with a bike mechanic to develop the Beez Kneez Honey BeeCycle, which extracts honey with a combination of pedal power and centrifugal force.
With the fundraising campaign complete and conversations with building contractors underway, one might think Allen could hang up her bee bike for a while and relax.
Instead, she has started a part-time job as a lab assistant to beekeeping researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Bee Lab.