ST. PAUL - Have you hugged a honeybee today?
Travis and Chiara Bolton have - at least, that's how the bees might see it.
The St. Paul couple has found a way to turn solar-energy gardens into money-making bee farms. They also custom breed super bees strong enough to survive Minnesota winters.
And their company, Bolton Bees, is taking flight, just like the millions of bees they have raised. This year they expect their hives to double to 600 across the state.
"It's a crazy time of year," said Travis Bolton, as he lugged new hives into an apiary in Forest Lake last week.
The Boltons are addressing a nationwide bee apocalypse - a 30 percent plunge in the population in five years, according to the nonprofit GlobalResearch. The die-off is a crisis because bees and other pollinators contribute to about one-third of the food production in the U.S., according to the group.
Until recently, solar gardens were one more way that mankind destroyed bee habitat, because the fields were covered with gravel or wood chips. But last year, Minnesota legislators passed bills encouraging bee hives in solar gardens.
Power companies responded, setting up about 2,300 acres of bee-friendly areas in solar gardens across the state, according to the nonprofit group Fresh Energy.
But the Boltons - using honey as a tool - are making those incentives a little sweeter.
They are now harvesting and selling honey specifically from one solar garden. Chiara Bolton said they are the first to do so in the country, and they are seeking a trademark on the name "solar honey."
They installed 15 hives in a solar garden in Ramsey belonging to the power co-op Connexus Energy, which serves parts of Anoka, Sherburne and Washington counties.
The entire 1-acre site has been replanted with bee-friendly landscaping by Prairie Restorations, Inc.
Co-op customers will get jars of honey, literally getting a taste of what their co-op is doing.
Bolton Bees already sells honey from particular apiaries, flavored by whatever flowers are growing by the hives. For example, honey from one area is creamy-white because of the nearby basswood blossoms, said Travis Bolton. Other jars are golden-colored to tawny brown, depending on which wildflowers are nearby.
New queen, stronger hive
The Boltons also have a way of making their hives stronger.
Travis Bolton explained that during the mating flights, the queen flies as high as a mile, and in midair couples with up to 15 drones, who all immediately die.
She then goes on an egg-laying binge, laying "many, many thousands" of eggs, Bolton said. The single queen is the mother of every bee, providing half of the DNA for every bee in the hive.
So if a hive has a high mortality rate, Bolton performs a coup d'etat - killing the queen. Then a presumably better queen takes over to improve the genetics of the hive.
It's working, said Bolton.
He can tell by the survival rate of the bees. Over a cold winter, bees swarm into a buzzing ball, trying to keep the queen and the eggs at a toasty 95 degrees all winter long.
In the winter of 2015-2016, more than half the bees died. "But last winter we had a survival rate of 92 percent, which is basically unheard of," he said. "We have seen awesome results."
The Boltons also keep honey local in another way.
Most professional beekeepers truck their hives around the country to pollinate farms as needed. For example, the almond fields of California depend on migrating beekeepers.
But the Boltons say such migration strains the bees and can spread diseases. They focus on Minnesota hives, such as the ones they visited in Forest Lake last week.
They unloaded empty bee boxes for a hive tucked into an orchard, perfumed by apple blossoms and humming with a chorus of wakening bees.
Chiara Bolton's bee-proof suit made her look like a "Star Wars villain," as she pulled out the racks for inspection.
Travis Bolton immediately spotted the queen, thanks to the white dot they had painted on her back. He then glanced at a note in marking pens on top of the hive - which said they had killed the old queen last year. It had been replaced by her daughter, poetically named M3-14.
Bolton was delighted that the hive was thriving - which meant that the queen would live to breed again.
He triumphantly held up a rack of honeycomb cells filled with healthy baby bees.