Beekeeping hobby finds fans in the Northland

"A bee never sleeps," says Sam Stuart, president of the Northeast Minnesota Beekeepers. "They literally work themselves to death," he explained. "They eventually wear out their wings and die." When one bee produces only one-twelfth of a teaspoon ...

Sam Stuart's Bees
The Northeast Minnesota Beekeepers, which Sam Stuart runs, counts nearly 50 paying members, but an estimated 200 Northlanders keep bees. Beth Koralia/For the Budgeteer

"A bee never sleeps," says Sam Stuart, president of the Northeast Minnesota Beekeepers.

"They literally work themselves to death," he explained. "They eventually wear out their wings and die."

When one bee produces only one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey, who'd have time to sleep?

Stuart is a longtime beekeeping aficionado. He and his wife, Ruth, took the initiative to organize a local bee club a few years ago. The inspiration came after a larger organization, Minnesota Honey Producers, failed to establish a northern branch of their own.

"They were too big and too busy," Stuart said.


Initial interest in the new group was greater than anticipated. More than 60 people attended the first meeting. After more than two years, there are 48 active members, plus additional non-members who come to the meetings. Based on past attendance, Stuart speculates that there are between 150 and 200 beekeepers in the Twin Ports area.

The meetings of the Northeast Minnesota Beekeepers are open to the general public.

"We welcome learners," Stuart said. "In fact, we encourage it."

Members new to beekeeping receive a tutor and assistance in their adventure. Membership is $20 per year but is not required to attend meetings.

Beekeeping is "expensive to start," Stuart said, but it becomes more affordable as time goes on. This year, a three-pound package of bees costs $67, which does not include frames, boxes or any honey-making equipment. About 10,000 bees make up a pound.

Bees must be ordered in January or February of each year, and they can be ordered in three ways: a two-pound package, a three-pound package or in a "nuc box," which equals five frames of bees -- a sort of bee starter kit.

It is difficult to keep bees through winter. Roughly 40 percent of the hive will survive. Stuart jokes that his bees usually starve before they freeze.

"I leave them about 90 pounds of honey," he said. It's usually enough.


During the winter, the bees rotate around the hive to keep warm. The queen always remains in the center.

When the bees on the outside get cold, they work their way to the middle of the hive, pushing the others to the outside.

In the spring, Stuart feeds the bees sugar water until the flowers and plants begin to bloom. He also treats the bees with antibiotics. Honeybees are susceptible to parasites, but most of them can be eliminated with simple medications.

There is a new strain of mite, nosema ceranae, which is resistant to current treatments. Experts believe this strain is causing colony collapse.

You may raise bees in the city. Stuart mentions that in some places hives must be inspected, but in Minnesota there are few stipulations.

"Six or seven years ago, you needed to give notice to the state of your hives," he said, "but because of budget cuts, they also cut back on [rules]."

Stuart worries that reductions in regulations could introduce Africanized bees, a more aggressive strain, into the state.

When Stuart checks on his bees, he climbs into his head-to-toe bee suit and grabs an old metal smoker, which helps to pacify the bees. He usually places wood pellets, but he sometimes uses grass or leaves. Stuart said the carbon dioxide from human breath aggravates the bees.


"The smoke keeps them calm," he said.

Stuart does not wear gloves when he checks on the bees.

"I get stung more when I wear them," he said. Wearing the gloves makes it more difficult to feel, and he is more likely to pinch or kill bees.

His bees are surrounded by an electric fence to keep bears out.

"You always walk behind the hives," he said. The entrance hole for the bees lies in the front of the hive. It's unsafe to interrupt that path.

Bees fly no more than 2.5 miles from the hive, unless they are in distress. During those periods, they have been known to fly up to five miles.

"There's nothing to prevent a bee from stinging you," Stuart said.

"Honey bees are dumb," he said of their determined mission. "They set up a path to the nectar and you could run right into it. That's when they sting you."


The good news is that a bee can sting only once. They really do lose their stingers and die.

Stuart opened up some hives, exposing the bees and the honey. "The queen runs the whole show," he said. "The workers are all female, and the drones (males) are driven out of the hive in the fall."

Last year's ideal weather conditions made it "a good year for honey," he said.

"The least I've ever gotten was 24 pounds per hive," Stuart said, "and the best was 111 pounds per hive."

When Stuart harvests the honey, he uses a hot knife to cut off the caps, pours the honey into a bucket and strains it three times. Beeswax is what remains. The wax is as valuable as the honey.

"I have more requests for wax than I can fill," he said.

Stuart harvests honey at the end of summer, around Labor Day, which "gives bees time to fill up the boxes for winter."

Stuart believes you need 50 to 100 hives to profit from bees. Stuart has just "enough to keep busy."


Stuart does not plant anything in particular for the bees, although some people do. "I don't mow until the dandelions go to seed," he said. "When the basswood blooms, they will fill 35 pounds of honey in one day."

When asked about the best part of beekeeping Stuart said, "The honey -- definitely the honey!"

Northeast Minnesota Beekeepers will have a booth in the floral building at the Carlton County Fair, which begins Aug. 19. The group plans to have an observation hive, sell honey and answer questions.

The Northeast Minnesota Beekeepers group meets the fourth Monday of every month at Bethesda Lutheran Church at 204 Fifth St. in Carlton. For more information, contact Sam Stuart at .

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