Jarring up honey from hives in her backyard has become a November tradition for Laurie Kigner.
Earlier this month, Kigner and her friend Cynthia Tomlinson set up a daylong two-woman assembly line in her kitchen in White Bear Township. They filled and labeled 108 8-ounce jars, then sealed them with wax and ribbon.
"The honey this year is a deeper amber than in the past. It's so beautiful," Kigner said. "Maybe it's because I moved and expanded my pollinator garden."
Kigner is not a beekeeper, but she is a soldier in an army that aims to preserve and protect Minnesota's bee pollinators: She's one of about 60 hosts for the Bee Network, set up a decade ago to support the work of the internationally regarded Bee Lab at the University of Minnesota.
"We have this amazing group all over the metro area who are our ambassadors," said Bridget Mendel, director of the Bee Squad, the U's outreach team of educators, mentors and researchers. "They pay us to manage their colonies and they're set up perfectly for us to gather data and look for trends on how to help bees thrive."
With its motto of "We help people help bees," the Bee Squad pays multiple visits to tend the hives of Bee Network customers, who each pay more than $1,000 a year to participate.
The sweet part of the deal is that at the end of the season, before the colonies are winterized, the individual hosts get the excess honey harvested from their hives.
Kigner's honey will go on sale at Good Things, a White Bear Lake gift shop, on Black Friday. Kigner earns $4 from every $10 sale, money she donates to the Bee Squad.
"I write checks to charities I believe in but with this, I feel a higher sense of involvement and it brings me joy," she said. "I feel like I'm making a ripple, spreading the word about pollinators."
Sharing the buzz
In addition to its residential customers, the Bee Squad also manages hives on campuses and rooftops of businesses, houses of worship and nonprofits.
The Minnesota Independence College and Community, a program providing support and resources for adults with autism, has been a Bee Network customer for four years.
The Richfield nonprofit is located next to Best Buy's headquarters and partners with its corporate neighbor. Best Buy covers Bee Squad fees while MICC provides space and maintains city permits for the hives. The two entities divvy up the honey at the end of the season.
"We got a bang-up crop this year," said Aaron Carper, director of MICC community programs. "We distribute our honey between Thanksgiving and Christmas. We'll take some to donors as a unique thank-you gift and we'll drop off jars at the Richfield police and fire departments."
Testing and tasting
While interest in amateur and backyard beekeeping is growing, Minnesota maintains a robust number of commercial honey producers. According to the Minnesota Agriculture Department, 7 million pounds of honey are collected and sold statewide every year, generating 5% of the nation's honey supply.
There's a wide variety in the color, aroma and taste of honey collected from apiaries around the metro area, according to Clara Costello, a beekeeper, equipment manager and creative consultant for the Bee Squad.
"My colleagues call me the super taster, the honelier — what a sommelier is for wine but for honey," she said.
In her eight years field testing and tasting honey, Costello has refined her palate to identify what bees foraged on to produce it.
"Clover is what people think of as 'normal' honey, sweet with a cinnamon twist at the end," she said. "The lightest honey is basswood and there's a ton of it now; basswood overproduces nectar in drought years when it's under stress."
Costello calls darker honey more mellow. It's produced by bees foraging on asters, sunflowers and goldenrod.
"When you open the colony when bees have been on goldenrod, there's a whiff of dirty socks, but the honey itself has a warm caramel spice flavor," she said. "Buckwheat honey is so dark its almost like molasses. Straight from the jar it's a bit much, but it's fantastic in gingerbread."
Costello said the best honey is eaten "in the sunshine with the bees buzzing around," but she's also content to slather it out of a jar on her toast or in her tea at home. "Sometimes I just eat it and say, 'This is good.' That's cool, too."
Save the bees
There's a lot at stake in keeping bees healthy. An estimated three-quarters of the world's crops depend on pollination. But bees face numerous threats to their survival. Hives fail because of habitat loss, climate change, pesticides, parasites, disease, or a combination of the above.
The Bee Lab takes a multipronged approach to understand what causes bees to perish.
"If you get unexplained colony loss, you look for common factors. That's where these citizens [in the Bee Network] contribute to the greater good. They are the canary in the cave," said Declan Schroeder, a professor of virology at the U of M, who is studying how viruses contribute to the loss of honeybees.
Still, he doesn't expect a quick solution to bee loss.
"We're creating a database we can look at over time as we come to grips with all the factors. We might not see the answer for five years, 10 years, so we have to be patient."
People who are concerned about bee health don't have to keep hives to support them, said Mendel.
"They can plant for pollinators and join organizations that create habitat and work on sustainability to make a better environment for bees."
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and broadcaster.