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The bees' knees

The bees start at the middle of the box that is now home for the season and work their way to the edges, getting the cells ready for laying eggs and producing honey. This comb pulled from the center of the box is more populated than the one pulled from the edge shown in the top picture.1 / 4
The gillespies' yard has multiple boxes lined up with bees. Most are Winnie's but a few of them are those of people she mentors. She mentors three people on beekeeping at her house, and three more people via the phone when they have questions. She has mentored others in the past.2 / 4
GILLESPIE HOLDS A PIECE OF waxy comb the bees made just this spring. She provides the cells, so there is no need for the bees to make their own.3 / 4
Gillespie pulls out a new comb where the bees are preparing to lay eggs and eventually produce honey. Before the flowers blossomed, Gillespie fed the bees syrup (in the little holes at the bottom right of the top photo) she made to keep them alive.4 / 4

When a person goes into the store or to the farmers market and picks up a jar of honey, they may not realize the work and passion that goes into that jar.

Yes, the honey producers work hard to put that honey on the shelves, but there are the tiny producers that work even harder -- the honeybees.

"My great grandma brought it from Belgium, the art of beekeeping," Winnie Gillespie said of the trade she learned long ago and has been doing for years.

Her grandmother learned, her mother learned and Gillespie has learned. And though she considers it a hobby, Gillespie also sells her honey at Hoffman's Meat Market, the Anishinaabe Center, in Fergus Falls and to various other customers.

Her specialty is naturally creamed honey. The raw, unprocessed honey isn't heated like most honey.

Though at one time she would keep her bees throughout the winter, Gillespie, of Audubon, now orders bees each spring. She receives them shipped in a cage with syrup for the bees to live on and the queen bee, who is separate from the rest of the bees in her own little box.

"She's a beautiful little girl. All she does is lay eggs," Gillespie said.

This spring she received 33 packages of bees, with 3,000 to a hive. That's about 99,000 bees.

"By summer, two hives will make that many," she said of the number of bees.

The rest of the bees take care of the queen, bringing her food and cleaning the hive before she lays her eggs. They clean the cells in preparation for the queen to lay her eggs like a highly polished shoe, Gillespie said.

Once laid, it takes about a week before the eggs hatch.

There are three types of bees in a hive -- the worker bee, the queen bee and the drone. Each bee is fed differently, which determines what type of bee it will be.

While the nurse bees clean the cells, the worker bees go out to scout out where to get nectar.

Once found, the bees will do a dance, according to the sun, that tells the others where the pollen can be found for the taking.

When the bees take off to find that location, they take just enough nectar to fly to the exact spot and back to the hive. If there is a strong wind or they're taken off course by something else, they will die.

"A worker bee lives for four to six weeks in the summer. They wear their little wings out," she said of those that constantly fly back and forth to the hive.

One teaspoon of honey is about the payment for one bee's life from carrying nectar back to the hive those few weeks.

Other worker bees also act as guards, protecting the hive.

A hive is regulated to keep the temperature at 90 degrees at all times. In the summer, when it is hotter than 90 degrees, bees will fan their wings to cool the temperature in the hive.

When the queen bee is harmed or about to die, pheromones are released and a larva egg that hasn't hatched yet is fed to become the next queen bee of the hive.

When the queen dies, the drones mate with the new queen and then die immediately.

Those drones still living at the end of the season are pushed out of the hive by the other bees, and if they try to come back to the hive, they are killed.

Knowing the process so intimately and working with bees for so many years, Gillespie said, "I've stood by my hives and cried" when things have gone wrong in the past when she hasn't paid enough attention to her bees.

"They are insects but they have a job and they know what to do. God has made them special."

Gillespie does all of her own work with the bees and their product. Her hives produce about 90 pounds of honey per hive per year.

"I love looking at them, watching them. They are obedient to what the hive demands."

Gillespie has mentored several people on beekeeping and honey making and is mentoring more this year. Three are keeping their boxes of bees in her yard, and three others she mentors over the phone when they have questions. The interest in beekeeping seems to be growing.

"It's so amazing to me, watching them and how they sense everything," she said of her bees.

This is the first in a series on beekeeping and the art of making honey, by both the bees and their keepers. Stories will be published throughout the summer as the honey is produced.