Editor’s Note: This is part of our Good on the Ground series, profiling entrepreneurial women who are addressing social issues in innovative and inspiring ways. Video by Sue Williams.

Most people associate the phrase “lean in” with Sheryl Sandberg’s manifesto on women in the corporate workplace. For beekeeper Kristy Allen of Minneapolis, the term means something quite different.

“When I was being educated about bees, someone once said, ‘You know a real beekeeper because they lean in instead of cower back,'” she says. “I immediately leaned in.” She recalls being hooked by both the smell and taste of real honey. “You’re outside, flowers are blooming, and … they’re buzzing all the time. It’s very meditative.”

That was 10 years ago. Today, Allen is the founder of The Beez Kneez, a unique business that maintains hives, sells honey, teaches intensive beekeeping classes and, generally speaking, manages to thrive — current annual revenue: $200,000 — while maintaining environmentally sustainable practices.

Let's Hear it for Honeybees

Listen to our podcast episode for more of our interview with Kristy Allen.

The Plight of the Bee

This is not your typical “sell honey at the farmers market” type of business. Many beekeepers are hobbyists, tending to bees on nights or weekends while holding a job in another field. Not Allen.

A 2008 graduate of the University of Minnesota, Allen decided early on she wanted to make a living in agriculture. “I’m a hard worker … and I’ve always wanted to spend my profession outside,” she says. But more than that, as a global studies major, she was drawn to social issues and — perhaps idealistically — fixing large-scale problems like lack of access to affordable food. The plight of the bee, she realized, is intrinsically linked to public health, especially for people of lower income.

Environmentalists have been concerned for decades about the drastic drop in the number of  pollinators: bees, butterflies, bats and other animal species who pollinate food crops. In recent years, bees’ health has been severely compromised by mites, the overuse of pesticides and other factors, such as the mysterious malady called Colony Collapse Disorder. Their downturn, in turn, impacts global food security.

Bees “pollinate a third of everything that we eat,” Allen says. “Without bees, who’s gonna do that very important pollination work of making those plants reproduce?” It’s not a stretch to imagine a world where “only the very rich would probably get to eat things like strawberries,” she says. “These things we kind of take for granted — apples, watermelons, any fruit — would be gone.”

Taking a Gamble

Allen first learned to work with bees on post-graduate stints with the AmeriCorps program in Arkansas and then Ecuador. Then in 2009, she came back to the U.S. to work for her aunt, who had married a commercial beekeeper in northern Minnesota.

While Allen initially wanted to go into farming, “I was really inspired by the way that bees work,” she says. “It’s an all-female run organization. They dance to communicate.” She read a book called “Honeybee Democracy” by Thomas D. Seeley, a leading researcher, on how bees make decisions collectively. “It blew my mind,” she says. While working as a bartender to make ends meet, Allen decided: “I’m gonna be a beekeeper.”  

Figuring out her business model would be the next challenge. When your livelihood is “dependent upon something that is dying or struggling to survive, it’s a pretty big gamble you’re taking,” she says. She knew she’d need several different streams of revenue to make it.

She began that fall by selling her aunt and uncle’s honey via bicycle throughout Minneapolis. Because it was close to Halloween, she decided as a marketing gimmick to wear a bee costume. “I put on some striped socks, I got some pipe cleaners and some foam balls, and at 30 years old,” she pauses to laugh, “I dressed up like a bee and handed out business cards with honey samples.” It worked. Customers to this day include local restaurants, coffee shops and food co-ops who saw her cycle by in that getup. She dubbed her pedal-powered business The Beez Kneez.

Next, Allen decided she needed a “honey house,” a term that describes a structure where honey is extracted and processed for sale. After taking a business course via Women Venture, a women’s business center run by the Small Business Administration, Allen launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2013. The goal? Turn an old carpet factory — “a big concrete box,” she says — in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, smack in the middle of the Twin Cities, into her honey house. The campaign successfully raised close to $40,000. The property now serves as The Beez Kneez headquarters and a place hobby beekeepers can come process their honey. “We charge by the hour and do the clean-up afterward,” she says. “It’s very sticky.”

Pedal Power

These days, Allen tends to 130 hives in and around Minneapolis. Some hives are owned by local universities, who pay an annual maintenance fee to The Beez Kneez. Each spring, she and another beekeeper teach a 14-week course on beekeeping called Camp Beez Kneez. Tuition is close to $600. Last year, about 40 students signed up, and this past season, “we [had] a waitlist,” she says.

And Allen is most proud of a device she invented called the Beez Kneez Honey Cycle, which she more recently put on the market. Many beekeepers use a hand-crank, something like a butter churner, to extract honey, which is “really awkward to use,” she says. Allen worked with a mechanical friend to design a pedal-powered version, which looks something like a stationary bike with a giant tank on it, for extracting and filtering honey. She has sold a few extractors (retail price: $2,000) and hopes to raise funds to properly advertise the product. 

“I don’t know any other bee operation running like this,” she says. “I hope it grows to a point where it can sustain itself, and continue to do really good work with community.”

(This story has been updated.)

Read Full Transcript

Kristy Lynn Allen – Founder + CEO – The Beez Kneez

Kristy I can’t remember how much of our prairie has disappeared since monocultures and, and pesticides started to be used on a much larger scale. Bees are insects. So if you spray a crop and a bee gets exposed to it or if it gets in the water or onto other plants you have a big problem.

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.

TEXT Kristy grew up on the outskirts of Sauk Rapids, Minnesota.

Kristy Growing up I really enjoyed swimming, and camping, and, and being outside, and then I saw the town change dramatically from, you know, a lot of that open prairie or, or traditional farms to big box stores or strip malls.

TEXT After high school, Kristy was eager to see the world.

TEXT She grabbed an opportunity to teach English in China.

Kristy I took out a loan and went to China for three weeks and it changed my life. It just opened my eyes to how big the world was.

TEXT When Kristy returned home she began a degree in global studies at the University of Minnesota.

Kristy I started working in restaurants and then gradually finished my degree but it took a while because I, I was sort of addicted to traveling and I kept taking trips. I felt like I was learning a lot more that way about myself and the world than I was in school.

TEXT Kristy finally graduated in 2008. She worked on a farm and began to learn about beekeeping.

Kristy When I was being educated about bees someone once said, “You know a real beekeeper because they lean in instead of cower back,” right. And I immediately leaned in. I was just, the smell, the taste of real honey and 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.

TEXT In 2009 Kristy’s aunt and uncle, who run a commercial beekeeping operation, asked her to sell their honey in Minneapolis.

Kristy I was like, “It’s close to Halloween. I should paint my bike like a bee and dress up like one and hand out honey samples.” So on Halloween I, I did that. I actually started by delivering to people’s doors. And in an age of technology where there’s always a screen in front of who we’re interacting with I was really thirsty for, “Who’s my community? Who are these people? Let’s talk about bees,” and it worked.

TEXT Kristy started Beez Knees in 2010.

Kristy I think the, the hardest challenge for me was figuring out the model and the financial model. And, and I mean as any business owner, it’s a perpetual challenge. But your livelihood being dependent upon something that is dying or struggling to survive, it’s a pretty big gamble you’re taking.

TEXT Bees pollinate one-third of the world’s crops and most wild plants.

TEXT But bee populations everywhere are collapsing.

SOT Let’s see if we can find the queen. She’s right there. And you’ll see bees following her around. She’s got her own little contingent.

Kristy Bees used to make 100 to 300 pounds of honey per hive and now they make 40 to 60. One of the things really impacting bee health is the overuse and misuse of pesticides. They impact the bees’ ability to forage. They forget what they’re doing, they forget to feed their young and then the entire colony is in trouble.

TEXT Kristy has taken business courses, consulted with advisors and used a Kickstarter campaign to build Beez Kneez.

TEXT She has developed pedal-powered honey extractors that local beekeepers rent or buy.

SOT It’s like a washing machine. The centrifugal force pulls the honey out of the cone. There’s a filter built inside the machine so the really, like, huge benefit of this machine is that it filters while you’re extracting honey.

TEXT Kristy and her staff run classes throughout the year.

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. I hope it grows to a point where it can sustain itself and, and continue to do really good work with community.

TEXT Beez Kneez earns about $200,00 a year, enough to support herself and her small staff.

Kristy We have a political environment that is not friendly to the environment. But 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, that’s number one.

SOT So this is this year’s harvest. So it’s going to be a little bit different than what he was getting, but it’s super delicious and drizzles real nice.

Kristy Number two is we’re not involved in our political system nearly enough. Pick something that really matters to you, planting flowers is a very simple thing that lots of people can do. Remember, “If you’re not at the table you’re on the menu.”