Kristy Allen first became fascinated with bees at Bar Bell Bee Ranch, her aunt and uncle’s honey and pollination apiary in Squaw Lake. A University of Minnesota graduate with a degree in global studies, she spent her post-grad years working on farms in Arkansas and Ecuador.
Upon her return to Minneapolis in 2010, Allen’s uncle asked her to sell his honey in Minneapolis. She agreed to do so and soon exhibited a flair for marketing, delivering orders on a black-and-yellow bicycle, forming a company called The Beez Kneez, and on Halloween handing out business cards and samples while dressed as a bee.
Allen peddled her uncle’s brand of raw, unprocessed honey, as well as her own, for a year and a half before meeting Erin Rupp at a farm where they were both keeping bees. At the time, Rupp was teaching a program she designed about honey bees to fifth graders at the Bell Museum of Natural History in Minneapolis.
With Allen wanting to add an educational element to her business and Rupp wanting to expose students to natural hives, the two teamed up in December 2011 and soon formed an educational division of The Beez Kneez.
By 2012, the company had partnered with community gardens, urban farms, and schools to offer immersive hive experiences and had piloted programs for the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board.
Seeing the local interest in all things apiary, Allen and Rupp began dreaming of a space beekeepers could rent to extract honey.
“There’s a huge surge in backyard beekeeping,” says Marla Spivak, an apiculture professor at the University of Minnesota. But, she notes, “when you have honey to harvest, there’s a lot of expensive equipment [involved].”
In the spring of 2013, Allen and Rupp raised almost $40,000 on Kickstarter for just such a space: The Honey House, which they opened in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis that summer. By year’s end, 30
beekeepers had extracted over 2,000 pounds of honey there.
For beekeepers, The Honey House has some interesting touches. While most honey extractors rely on a hand-crank or a motor, Allen worked with a bike mechanic to create a pedal-powered version. “The best part,” says Spivak, “is they’ll clean up after you.”
The company’s strong start has been noteworthy, but the sticky situation it’s trying to address is daunting. Agriculture is an ecosystem in which bees and other pollinatorsare responsible for about a third of the food we eat. Without pollinators, food would become outrageously expensive.
If the bee population is to survive, much less thrive, beekeepers need support and protection. “Our food system is really broken,” Allen explains. “Bees are environmental indicators, and they are struggling to survive.”
After a pesticide kill in their hive and two neighboring ones in September 2013, Allen and Rupp formed a political action committee called Healthy Bees, Healthy Lives. “People want that fight to be fought,” Allen says. “We got a lot of movement right away.”
With the action committee’s help, two bills were passed into Minnesota law and took effect in July: one requires truth in advertising when it comes to labeling plants as “bee friendly,” and the other provides financial compensation for beekeepers in the case of a pesticide kill.
“That’s pretty remarkable because sometimes a bill takes several times to get passed,” Spivak says. “These were introduced and passed in one session.”
Allen says she is still learning about balancing the profit-driven side of business with the social enterprise side. “We want to be a forprofit because we don’t want to be dependentn upon grants,” she says.
Ideally, in Allen’s eyes, the business would make money and benefit its community. The Beez Kneez has been successful thus far, and she credits grassroots marketing, advocacy work, and Kickstarter for raising awareness about the business.
Allen also attributes the company’s growth to strong relationships with commercial beekeepers who have been doing this kind of work for decades. “We don’t necessarily want to become big commercial beekeepers,” Allen says, “but there’s a generation gap in people who are doing that work — and without that work, we’re going to have a problem.”
Interns and volunteers are a frequent presence at The Beez Kneez, but Allen and Rupp are the only full-time employees. They pay themselves what Allen describes as “conservative” wages.
“Owning a business is a different kind of lifestyle,” Allen says. She advises other budding social entrepreneurs to “make sure you’re motivated to do all that comes with it.” She also recommends seeking out skilled professionals for help and never being afraid to ask questions.
The Beez Kneez continues to deliver multiple kinds of honey throughout Minneapolis. Products are sourced from Allen and Rupp’s 70 hives around the metro, as well as from partnership farms in Wisconsin. Among the varieties are Buckwheat, Country Wildflower, and Honey-apolis Wildflower, a type of honey that can be sourced by ZIP code.
Allen and Rupp are abuzz, meanwhile, with ideas for the company’s future. Says Allen: “I have 14 ideas in the shower every morning.”