It all started 18 years ago, when Mike and Georgia Guite wanted to improve the low-producing raspberry plants on their Cloquet property. They ordered two colonies of honey bees to help boost pollination and the fruits of their labor were soon obvious. Plants and trees saw noticeable improvement.
Once the Guites saw the improved produce, they became believers and continued to raise and expand their hives to the six they currently maintain.
They started by taking a beekeeping class at the University of Minnesota to learn the basics.
Mike laughingly refers to himself as a "bee haver," not a beekeeper.
They order most of their bees from professional beekeepers in California or the South.
They order either a bee package or a bee "nuc" — a nucleus colony. The bee package contains a fertilized queen bee and 3-4 pounds of workers and drones.
The queen is put into a tiny box called a bee cage so the beekeeper can find her. The Guites usually keep their queen in her little cage for two days before freeing her to insure the colony will recognize her.
"You're kind of ahead of the game here because there are larvae in here, but there's not as many bees," Mike explained.
Other times they order a bee nuc. There are more bees in the nuc, which can be ordered earlier in the year than the package. According to Mike, the nucs he orders contain around 3,000-5,000 bees packed inside.
There is only one queen bee allowed in each colony. If the queen is not producing enough eggs, sometimes the bees will replace her by finding a young larvae to change into the next queen. They do that by feeding the new larvae a diet of only royal jelly in her specially constructed queen cell. Without enough eggs, the colony will be smaller and there will be less honey.
The queens only duty is to mate and lay eggs. Many beekeepers replace their queen every year. Mike usually replaces his every two years as long as they are producing
The hive begins with a bottom box a brood box and frames. The frames are where the honey is made and larvae laid. As the bees fill up the frames, another brood box is stacked on top of the first one and more frames are added. The bees get busier during the summer, so more boxes are needed. By the end of the summer, most of Mikes hives are stacked six boxes tall.
"When I change frames," Mike said, "I put the queen in my pocket to keep her warm before putting her in the new frames."
Another way to start a new hive is by collecting a swarm. A swarm is usually formed when there are two queens in a hive. One queen takes a portion of the swarm and relocates. While the bees are looking for a new home, they form a large group around the queen. One such swarm recently made the news in New York when they decided to visit a hot dog vendor. The police department has a beekeeper department on staff. They go out and relocate the swarms.
Mike said he has relocated a few swarms.
"The queen is in the middle of the swarm, so you gently sweep them into a cardboard box," Mike said as he demonstrated. "All of the other bees will follow her, so you hope she is in the box. You watch and see if the bees all leave the box and go back to the swarm, then you know she's not in there. But if the bees stay, there is a 95 percent chance she is in the box."
Mike peeks in on the bees every seven to 10 days to make sure everything is going well and the queen is still in residence and producing eggs.
"I get stung a lot," Mike said. "I put on the full bee suit, gloves and veil and I still get stung."
The majority of the hive is made up of worker bees. They are infertile females. The worker bees do everything, including gather nectar, create honeycombs, tend to the larvae and of course take care of the queen. The queen bee can't leave the hive and her workers attend to her every need.
"The queen mates with four or five drones," Mike said. "It's a one-time deal. She goes out and gets impregnated, then she never leaves the hive again. She's carrying all of the sperm from that mate. Then she lays eggs for the next year."
By July she is laying about 1,000 eggs a day. By the middle of July, there will be 30,000-50,000 bees in the colony.
"The queen bee doesn't do anything for herself after that," Georgia explained. "The worker bees clean her, groom her, feed her. After she lays the eggs, they seal the cells. They do everything."
The males are called drones.
"There can only be one lady in a hive," Mike said. She can have all sorts of husbands, but there's only one queen.
The drones are larger than the other bees in the hive. They're job is to eat honey and fertilize the queen.
"They're just there to get fat," Mike said. "The males don't work, they just wait for a new queen to inseminate, then they die."
"It's very organized," Georgia said.
When summer draws to a close and food becomes more scarce, the worker bees chase the drones from the hive and they eventually die.
In the fall, the bees get a little more aggressive as their food supplies dwindle. Georgia can usually mow around the hives without a problem, but in the fall, she wears the bee suit to prevent being stung.
The Guites make honey a few times each season.
They explained that honey usually varies in flavor and looks depending on what type of netar the bees use. That also changes with the season and the location the bees gather nectar from.
Georgia said there was a honey booth at the Carlton County Fair in August. There were seven beekeepers present with samples from area towns and they were all slightly different.
Georgia said she has had customers tell her eating a teaspoon of honey a day has helped lessen their allergy symptoms. She explained the honey made in the fall can contain nectar from plants such as ragweed, which often trigger allergy symptoms for sufferers. If a person with fall allergies eats local honey made from the nectar of the offending plants, some people see a decrease in symptoms, she claims.
However, doctors have not seen consistent proof. The Mayo Clinic website explains a possible reason why allergy sufferers feel better. It says honey may have anti-inflammatory effects and has been studied as a cough suppressant. The site also stressed not to give honey to children under 1 year old because it can cause infant botulism.
The Guites also became active in the Northeast Minnesota Beekeepers Association, which they said has been helpful and informative. The meetings are at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet. The next meeting is Sept. 24.
The Guites can be found Saturday mornings at the Carlton County Farmers Market, 904 Minnesota Highway 33 South, Cloquet, and Wednesday mornings at the Duluth Farmers Market, 1324 E. Third St.