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Bees abuzz with spring honey production in Park Rapids

Brett Kent searches the hive for the queen, considerably larger than her peers. He seeks advice from a beekeeper mentor and the Internet "chat lines." Last summer learned of a bee vacuum, used to retrieve a swarm 30 feet up in a tree. (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)

Twenty-five years ago Brett Kent, working as a Highway Patrol deputy in Roseau County, was introduced to beekeeping.

A chief deputy asked if he might put a couple of hives in the Kents' yard.

The bee colonies' caste system, from the queen, the guards, workers, scouts, nurses and foragers - all females - to drones - the males - captured his imagination and piqued his entrepreneurial spirit.

Three years ago, Brett and Brenda Kent became beekeepers - apiarists -maintaining the colonies and collecting honey, Double "B"ee Honey now available at area markets.

The experience has been one of trial and error. The first year all the bees succumbed to Minnesota's frigid temps when he tried to take them through the winter.

Last fall, the Kents headed to Kansas with the bees, a rancher allowing them to take up residence. But traveling with the honey producers is trying - and expensive. Gas prices and bees departing when the truck stopped derailed future plans to head south. The bees will winter in the garage, come autumn.

Nineteen out of the 25 hives survived the Kansas winter, however, returning north in April. And more beehive inhabitants are now enjoying spring. Thirty thousand bees reside in a single hive.

Beekeeping is "labor intensive" in the early spring, Brett said. But once the mercury climbs above 50 and the nectar flows, "the bees take over."

The bees fly free during the day, returning with nectar and pollen. The pollen is fed to the larvae; nectar becomes honey or wax.

The queen lays the eggs - 1,500 a day - which hatch in three days and remain as larvae for a week. The bees are in a cell for 21 days before chewing out and taking flight. "It's the same process as the butterfly," Brett explained.

Twenty-two hives were producing honey last year, with seven swarms caught, an "exciting" endeavor. The Kent bees produced 3,000 pounds of honey last season, 60 five-gallon buckets. He estimates there will be 40 hives this summer, with the splits.

"People are sympathetic to bees," Brett said of calls to the sheriff's department to locate a "rescuer" when a swarm is cited.

A colony is comprised of a stack of boxes, which rise in number as the bees multiply. In the course of the summer, the bee population will quadruple. Inspections are done every seven days to determine if another box is to be added.

When pollen starts coming into the hive, the queen kicks into "egg-laying mode." Fall or a drought will trigger the end of it.

The mortality rate is high, Brett said. A worker bee lives for a month, its wings worn out having traveled hundreds of miles. A queen, however, can survive up to two or three years.

When a queen begins to fail, she lays an egg and worker bees feed it royal jelly, a richer nectar. The egg, which hatches sooner, has origins no different from her contemporaries; food determines the exalted status.

"There are so many intricacies in the bee world," Brett said, including a "built-in GPS" that allows them to triangulate their location. Bees are moved at night (in-town lawns their preferred habitat). They fly out of the boxes, come morning, and within minutes have reoriented to their location.

Come winter, bees form a cluster to provide heat for the queen. As the bees in the outer perimeter become chilled, the inner population rotates to the outside.

Brett enters the bees' domain wearing a veil and gloves. In three years, he's been stung just a half-dozen times.

The Kents do the processing - extracting, filtering and bottling the product holding natural sugars, minerals, vitamins and antioxidants. It's also been found to build immunities to allergies.

The secret: It has not been pasteurized, as has "store bought" honey, which annihilates health benefits.

"In a blind taste test, ours wins."

Double "B" Honey is available from the Kents at 21489 CSAH 1, Northland Feed, grocery stores in Nevis and Osage, Emmaville Store and the Farmers Market on Main.