A Sweet New Year: An Interview with a Beekeeper

“One of the things I most admire about bees is their tireless work ethic. They literally start working from day one and work until their wings fall off.” 

SM: Justin, how did you get started in beekeeping? 

Justin Engelhardt: In 2011, I was driving to my roofing job, and listening to NPR. An interview with Professor Thomas Seeley of Cornell University was on the broadcast. He had just published a book called, Honeybee Democracy. The book outlines a series of experiments Professor Seeley conducted to discover how bees make collective decisions. It all sounded so fascinating, I thought that I should get a hive! Things just grew from there. 

SM: Describe your operation today. 

Justin: We have about a hundred hives and we keep them in Woodbury and Plymouth counties. The hives are placed near good nectar sources. Although bees can fly up to six miles from the hive to find food, they generally forage within a two-mile radius, so location is important. We generally harvest twice a year. The timing depends on the nectar flow and the flow depends on the weather. We don’t use any heat whatsoever when we harvest; this is important because heating the honey can adversely affect the taste. We use an old-fashioned uncapping fork, and a hand crank extractor to keep the enzymes that give the honey its full flavor. We then bottle and seal it at the kitchen table. 

SM: Tell me about your relationship with the bees? 

They are very beautiful creatures. One of the things I most admire about bees is their tireless work ethic. They literally start working from day one and work until their wings fall off. So I certainly admire their work ethic, it’s very moving. 

It’s also very neat to see how the bees interact with each other. Sometimes a bee gets hurt and it’s moving to see her sisters come to her aid and try to help her. They also clean each other, it shows that they are beautiful creatures. When you see them excited, it’s really a treat. If you go to a queenless hive, and you put the queen in, you can hear the buzz of excitement. They are very communal.   

Another trait I find fascinating is the bee dance. When a bee finds a nectar source, it flies up into the hive and climbs onto the comb and performs the Waggle Dance. The dance indicates both the direction and the distance to the nectar source. All the bees will stop what they are doing and watch. And if the bee does the dance again and again and again, they know it’s a really good source. They are really amazing. 

SM: How did you convince stores to carry your product? 

Justin: I walked in the door with samples, a product listing, a squeeze bottle of honey, and some fresh bread so the owners could taste the product. At the end of the day, it’s easy talking about something you really enjoy, and a product you love. After we were in two stores, we were then contacted by others. 

SM: In December of 2017, vandals destroyed all your hives. Have you recovered and what did you learn from the experience? When starting over, did you do anything differently? 

Justin: We have recovered, and it is in large part due to the generosity of the people of Siouxland. Several Go-Fund-Me sites were established, and thanks to kindness of the people of this community, we had enough capital to rebuild. We received so much support because the people in this community have a lot of heart, have a connection to agriculture, and value local small businesses. I think we also received the kind of support we did because we have very high standard when it comes to the quality of our product.  

When we re-established our hives, we did so with an eye on security. We placed them carefully so that they are completely inaccessible to passersby, and directly observable from houses of people we trust. We also set up cameras. The technology is amazing – you can see and hear what’s going on in your beeyard any time. 

SM: Declining honeybee health has been in the news for several years now. What’s going on, and have there been any recent developments? 

Justin: The honeybee decline is caused by multiple factors. Certainly, the widespread use of neonicotinoid pesticides has had an impact. Some research indicates that exposure to these pesticides affects the ability of honeybees to fly and impairs the reproductive health of male honeybees. Practically all corn in Iowa is treated with this type of pesticide. More than a third of all soybeans are, too. Honeybees also have fewer wild areas in which to forage.  

SM: Is there anything people can do to help? 

Justin: Installing pollinator friendly plants in your landscape is a good start (there are lists online to guide you). This is good not only for honeybees, but for native bees as well. We have mint, echinacea, anemone, salvia, sage, anise hyssop, and sedum in our front and side yards, and they attract an array of pollinators.  

SM: What are some of the health benefits of honey? 

The health benefits of honey to people with allergies are well documented. By eating local honey, someone with allergies is exposed to trace amounts of pollen. A local honey contains the pollen of the local plants which are causing the allergic person to suffer, so it’s important to get honey from nearby. Honey is also antimicrobial. It has a chemical composition similar to that of hydrogen peroxide. However, it tastes quite a bit better!  

GRAPHIC NOTE (color block) Fun fact, honey is the only food that never spoils. It will harden, eventually; but heat it a little, and it will melt back into a liquid. Or, you can eat it after it has hardened, or “sugared up”. Some people really enjoy it that way.  

SM: What different types of honey do you have? 

Justin: In addition to our raw, liquid honey, we also make creamed honey, and cinnamon creamed honey. Creamed honey is honey which has crystallized to a consistency of soft butter and is a spread. It tastes great on bread and pancakes. 

SM: Where can our readers purchase your honey? 

Justin: Wild Hill Honey is for sale at Sioux City Gifts, Coffee Works, Palmer Candy, Stone Bru, and Health One. We’re also excited to partner with local Siouxland businesses and restaurants. 

SM: Any parting thoughts? Why honey? 

Justin: Because it’s fantastic! When you hold a pound of honey in your hand, you are holding the nectar gathered from about two million blossoms. To get the nectar for this one pound of honey and bring it back to the hive, the bees travel a collective 55,000 miles. In a good year, an outstanding hive might produce 100 pounds of honey. That’s a lot of flowers, and a lot of miles. 

Justin Engelhardt is the owner of Voluntas Construction and Co-Owner of Wild Hill Honey with his wife Tori in Sioux City, IA.