We talk to Kristy Allen, a beekeeper who turned her love and concern for honeybees into the thriving Minneapolis business The Beez Kneez. She maintains hives, sells honey, and teaches intensive beekeeping classes to the tune of $200,000 a year, all while maintaining environmentally sustainable practices. Allen is an advocate for honeybees, whose numbers have dwindled in recent years due to mites, pesticides and the overuse of monoculture farming. Learn more in this buzzy podcast.

Beez Kneez

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SUE: (as music plays lightly in the background) Welcome to The Story Exchange. You’re listening to our series Good on the Ground...
VARIOUS VOICES: ...Good on the Ground...
COLLEEN: ...featuring women entrepreneurs making an impact in a world that needs fixing.
COLLEEN: I’m Colleen DeBaise
SUE: I’m Sue Williams
KRISTY ALLEN : Hello ladies
COLLEEN: And that is beekeeper Kristy Allen
KRISTY: I just want to see how big you are…
COLLEEN: She’s outside checking on a hive of honey bees...it’s a relatively balmy day in February in snowy Minnesota...
KRISTY (SOT) whoa, beautiful! Look at all those bees
KRISTY: Every day I get phone calls about, you know, “How do I start a beehive?” or, “I’m really interested in learning about bees.” When I started in 2010, we just didn’t anticipate the kind of growth, and, and it’s not waning.
SUE: Kristy’s business is called the Beez Kneez - and we headed to Minneapolis to find out more about it.
COLLEEN: This is not your typical “sell honey at the farmers market” type of business.
SUE: No, it’s really not
COLLEEN: Kristy’s company makes about $200,000 dollars in annual revenue — while maintaining environmentally sustainable practices.
KRISTY: The Beez Kneez is a local beekeeping organization that is pedal-powered both in honey delivery and honey extraction. We teach intensive beekeeping classes. We rent out our honey house to beekeepers. We sell beekeeping equipment and we do advocacy and education around bees.
SUE: Bees, of course, are dying at an alarming rate...
COLLEEN: ….Yet we need them more than ever...
SUE: … to eat - to eat foods, like fruit, apples pears melons, coffee require bee pollination.
COLLEEN: In this podcast, we’ll explore the plight of the bee, and we’ll talk to Kristy about the challenges and rewards of running a business, in which your assets are literally disappearing
KRISTY: your livelihood being dependent upon something that is dying or struggling to survive it’s a pretty big gamble you’re taking.
SUE: Keep on listening.
**musical interlude **
KRISTY: Honeybees have been around longer, you know, their real [relationship] with humans is longer than any other animal on the planet
COLLEEN: Kristy is originally from a small town about an hour north of the Twin Cities
KRISTY: Yeah, so growing up I really enjoyed being outside, and we had a big open field by our house. That eventually changed to development but I have memories of playing in the little wooded areas
COLLEEN: The Midwest, of course, is known for farming
SUE: It’s America’s breadbasket, where wheat was traditionally grown, not to mention a variety of grains and vegetables
COLLEEN: But since World War 11, that rich diversity of crops has dwindled. Kristy is only in her 30s but even in her lifetime she’s watched
KRISTY: ...the town change dramatically from, you know, a lot of that open prairie or traditional farms to corn and soybeans.
COLLEEN: That’s known as a monoculture, where you have a sea of single crops
SUE: Grown largely for livestock feed or ethanol
KRISTY: It’s a staggering number [pick up] how much of our prairie has disappeared since monocultures and, and pesticides started to be used on a much larger scale.
COLLEEN: Kristy graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2008
SUE: She was drawn to agriculture
KRISTY: I’m a hard worker and it’s hard work and I’ve always wanted to spend my profession majority outside
COLLEEN: But more than that, as a global studies major, she was drawn to social issues and —
SUE: perhaps idealistically —
COLLEEN: fixing large-scale problems like lack of access to affordable food.
KRISTY: it seemed very daunting, all the problems in the world
COLLEEN: So she decided to home in on one tiny piece of it.
KRISTY: Bees were something I could kind of focus on
KRISTY (SOT) Here’s a drone coming out. Look at the size of those eyes.
COLLEEN: Kristy first learned about the struggles bees were facing when she spent some time after college with the Americorps program…
SUE:....working on farms in Arkansas and then Ecuador.
KRISTY: Bees pollinate a third of everything that we eat. Without bees who’s gonna do the, that very important pollination work of, of making those plants reproduce?
COLLEEN: Environmentalists have been concerned for some time about the drastic drop in the number of bees…
MARLA SPIVAK: When honeybee colonies were reported to be dying en masse first in the United States, it was clear that something was really really wrong
COLLEEN: That’s Marla Spivak, a professor at University of Minnesota and a bee expert
SUE: She’s an advisor to Kristy - here she is, explaining this devastating problem in a Ted Talk
MARLA: Bees are dying from multiple and interacting causes
COLLEEN: Part of the problem are those giant monocultures that Kristy talked about earlier…
SUE: ...which maximize profits for agro giants like Monsanto and many farmers
COLLEEN: but destroy biodiversity. So bees don’t have the good nutrition that they used to.
SUE: Then there’s disease and parasites -- and of course, pesticides
MARLA: The bottom line is bees dying reflects a dysfunctional food system.
COLLEEN: That’s what drew Kristy to bees.
SUE: When you don’t have bees pollinating our fruits and flowers and vegetables
COLLEEN: It’s not hard to imagine a world where...
KRISTY: Only the very rich would probably get to eat things like strawberries, coffee would disappear, chocolate would disappear, these things we kind of take for granted -- apples, watermelons, I mean there’s just-, any fruit would be -- would be gone. Yeah.
** musical interlude **
COLLEEN: So that’s the inspiration for Kristy’s mission-based company, the Beez Kneez, but the logistics of running a bee business are...unique
SUE: I’d actually call it somewhat terrifying
COLLEEN: You’re allergic to bees, right?
SUE: Yes, extremely
KRISTY SOT: Remember you are a surface Sue. They don’t care about you.
COLLEEN: Well, maybe this is not an industry you should think about...
KRISTY: When I was being educated about bees someone once said, “You know a real beekeeper because they lean in instead of kind of cower back,” right. And I immediately leaned in. I was just the smell, the… taste of real honey. There’s a lot of sensory. You’re outside, flowers are blooming, and they, the sound, you know, they’re buzzing all the time and it’s, it’s very meditative and you have to be present with bees.
SUE: I spent some time with Kristy when we filmed our video profile of her…
COLLEEN: Listeners can watch that on our site, www.thestoryexchange.org
SUE: And even though it was terrifying, it was thrilling, too. She took us out to some fields where she has about a dozen hives - she checked each one by pulling out the wooden frame the bees - thousands of them - cluster on.
KRISTY (SOT) They have glands, wax glands on the side of their abdomen. Like if I pick up a bee and you look underneath, and the underside, it looks like what looks like kind of like shingles.
SUE: And she did it with her bare hands
COLLEEN - That’s incredible!
SUE - Me, I was very happy to be completely zipped up in what looks like a white hazmatt body suit. Kristy pointed out each queen bee -
KRISTY (SOT) There she is. She’s much bigger. And you’ll see bees following her around.
SUE: she puts a yellow dot on each one so she can easily track it and she’s just totally at ease with them.
SUE- And she also took us to rooftop downtown where she keeps other hives - urban beekeeping, it’s a bit of a thing now. Devotees swear you can taste the difference between uptown honey and downtown honey.
COLLEEN: Right - this is part of what Kristy does at the Beez Kneez - she manages about 130 hives around Minneapolis.
SUE: Some of them are owned by local universities, who pay an annual maintenance fee to her company.
KRISTY: I’m going hive to hive checking their health, checking to make sure that they’re set up to make honey and then checking to make sure they’re gonna make it through the winter
COLLEEN: But we’re getting ahead of ourselves - let’s get back to how Kristy started her business.
SUE: In 2009, after her time in Americorps, Kristy came back to the U.S. to work for her aunt, who had married a commercial beekeeper
KRISTY: I went to work at their honey house in northern Minnesota
COLLEEN: Kristy read a book called “Honeybee Democracy,” by Thomas Seeley
KRISTY: I was really inspired by the way that bees work. It’s an all-female run organization. They dance to communicate.
COLLEEN: She was particularly fascinated by a passage in Seeley’s book, about how a swarm of bees finds a new home -- scout bees will fan out and search for the perfect tree cavity
SUE: Here’s some sound of Dr. Seeley giving a lecture at Cornell University, about how an individual scout bee will dance to communicate she’s found a dream home.
TOM SEELEY: In doing this dance, she shares with the other scouts, the ones that did not find a possible home site, information about the direction, and the distance, and the goodness of what she found.
KRISTY: They all eventually go with that, that bee and then decide. They democratically choose where their new home is gonna be. It blew my mind.
COLLEEN: Kristy herself decided
KRISTY: “I’m gonna be a beekeeper” and that’s, that was the goal. I didn’t really know what it would turn into and I think that’s the typical entrepreneur’s story, right, you have this idea and then it kind of balloons into something. Yeah.
SUE: We’ll tell you how she figured out her business model, after this brief break
AD: The Story Exchange is a nonprofit media company that provides inspiration and information for women entrepreneurs. Check out our videos -- including a profile of the entrepreneur you’re listening to right now -- at www.thestoryexchange.org. And we’d love to hear from you, especially if you know someone who should be featured on this podcast: Drop us a line at [email protected] -- or find us on Facebook.
KRISTY: I think the hardest challenge for me was sort of figuring out the model and the financial model. And, and I mean as any business owner, it’s a perpetual challenge.
COLLEEN: We’ve been sharing the story of Kristy Allen, founder of the Beez Kneez. So Kristy is working at her aunt and uncle’s honey house
SUE: It’s called Bar Bell Bee Ranch
COLLEEN: and also bartending at a restaurant
SUE: Her aunt asked if she’d like to sell their honey in Minneapolis
KRISTY: and I was like, “Oh, that sounds like fun.”
COLLEEN: She had a bike…
KRISTY: and I was like, “It’s close to Halloween. I should paint my bike like a bee and dress up like one and, and hand out, you know, honey samples,” and, and I just went with it.
COLLEEN: I love this idea
KRISTY : I put on some striped socks, I got some pipe cleaners and some foam balls, and at 30 years old I dressed up like a bee
COLLEEN: I think the striped knee socks - bright yellow and black stripes - were a particularly good touch
SUE: Yes. She stood out.
KRISTY: I actually started by delivering to people’s doors, doorsteps. I had this nostalgia for a time when I wasn’t alive when the milkman would come to your door and you had this interaction. And, and, you know, I’d get my picture taken, and kids would get really excited about it.
COLLEEN: And this worked - she picked up a number of clients, not just individuals but restaurants, coffee shops, food co-ops...
SUE: She dubbed her new business the Beez Kneez
KRISTY SOT: So this is this year’s harvest. It’s a little different than what he was getting. But it’s super delicious and drizzles real nice.
COLLEEN: Kristy didn’t know a ton about business, so she took a course at a women’s business center, run by the Small Business Administration
KRISTY: I took a, like a six-month… like consultation through Women Mentors, which is a local non-profit that helps women business owners as they start and as they continue.
SUE: Kristy was resourceful
KRISTY: I worked three jobs until about 2013 when we did our Kickstarter when I started the business all of the money would go back into the business and so I, I never took a salary or a wage and then I took a very, you know, modest one
SUE’S QUESTION FROM TAPE: What was the Kickstarter campaign?
KRISTY: The Kickstarter campaign was to open the space and we raised $40,000.
SOUND FROM KICKSTARTER: We need a headquarters, a hive of our own… Your Kickstarter donation will help us ‘revive the hive’ by making the honey house a reality for our community…
COLLEEN: With the money raised, Kristy turned an old carpet factory
SUE: A big concrete box, smack in the middle of the Twin Cities
COLLEEN: into her honey house.
KRISTY: So it paid for the-, everything, the walls, the—not the walls, I’m sorry, the ceiling, and the floor, and the extractors, and the sinks, and things like that. Mm-hm.
COLLEEN: It’s a place where hobby beekeepers can come and process their honey
SUE: Kristy charges by the hour and handles the cleanup afterward
KRISTY: It’s really rewarding and sticky.
KRISTY (SOT) That knife isn’t working very well. Let me get you a different one. It’s getting too hot. That shouldn’t happen.
KRISTY: Today I have about four employees that are part time and, and two of them are seasonal
COLLEEN: They manage hives, sell honey, and also teach a 14-week course on beekeeping called Camp Beez Kneez.
KRISTY: we charge, you know, around $600 for the course per person so that’s a good chunk of money in the springtime.
SUE: Last year, they had a waitlist for the class
KRISTY: It’s been amazing to see the attention around bees and, and people who wanna save the bees by becoming a beekeeper.
KRISTY (SOT): They build all this wax that’s in here. It comes out of their bodies and they grab it with their teeth and they form perfect hexagons. And they angle them so that stuff doesn’t fall out of them. And join them together right. How can you not love these animals! They’re just brilliant.
** musical interlude**
KRISTY: My role in the company is, is changing. As I get older I can’t be hauling as much honey around on my bicycle.
COLLEEN: One last thing we wanted to mention is an invention that Kristy has come up with…
SUE: It’s called the Beez Kneez Honey Cycle
COLLEEN: Many beekeepers use a hand crank to extract honey
KRISTY: ... kind of like a butter churner that sits on the side of the machine but it’s really awkward to use
COLLEEN: Kristy thought there must be a better way
KRISTY: I went to my, my bike mechanic friend, Carl Stolzener, who’s got a brilliant engineer mind and I said, “Help me make this pedal powered.” And so I literally gave him a six-pack of beer and we sat in his garage and, and just noodled around like, “How can this be the best for the beekeeper?
COLLEEN: They came up with something that looks like a stationary bike with a giant tank on it
SUE: It’s used for extracting and filtering honey -- while we were there a young man was pedalling away on a bike with a very large circular vat on the front of it. As he pedalled honey slowly streamed out of a hole near the bottom and into a large bucket.
KRISTY (SOT) The cells are now empty. And then the other side still has honey in it. And we turn them around.
SUE: It’s clear Kristy’s years biking around, delivering honey, inspired it and it’s great because using your legs is way less tiring than extracting honey by hand.
KRISTY (SOT) So it only takes a minute to two minutes to empty one side of the frame.
COLLEEN: I asked Kristy for an update recently on the Beez Kneez Honey Cycle
-- she has sold a few -- each one retails for about $2,000 -- and she’s hoping to raise funds to properly advertise it.
KRISTY: Yeah, we’re just seeing the, the potential of the equipment sales. (PICK UP) this year we had a really good year for honey. The weather was just kind of nice for flowers and so we’d been very busy with extractions this year.
SUE: Kristy hopes her company
KRISTY: grows to a point where it can sustain itself, and continue to do really good work with community.”
**music to signal we are coming to a conclusion **
COLLEEN: If you are not up for starting your own bee business but are concerned about the plight of the bee, Kristy has some advice
KRISTY: we as consumers have a ton of power and it’s the only power that we seem to have right now , and, and so using it wisely, supporting small businesses, small beekeepers, farmers that are growing food in, in a sustainable manner, and number—that’s number one
COLLEEN: We thank Kristy for spending time with us
SUE: And we thank you for listening
OUTRO: COLLEEN/OUTRO: This has been The Story Exchange. Join us next time to hear more stories about innovative and inspirational women doing the things you’d never dream of. Or...maybe you would. If you liked this podcast, please share on social media or post a review on iTunes. It helps other people find the show. And visit our website at TheStoryExchange.org, where you’ll find news, videos and tips for women entrepreneurs. And we’d love to hear from you, especially if you know someone who should be featured on this podcast: Drop us a line at [email protected] -- or find us on Facebook.
Sound editing provided by Nusha Balyan. Production coordinator is Christina Kelly. Interview recorded by Sam Shinn. Executive producers are Sue Williams and Victoria Wang.