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Bee Day in Hackensack: Here are your bees, don't kill 'em

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Betty Thomas said that she loves the smiles when people pick up the bees.
Betty Thomas, co-founder of Mann Lake Bees, said that she loves to see the smiles on customers' faces when they pick up their new bees.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News

Don't tell Jack Thomas that you talk to your bees.

Also, don't mention that you think of the honeybees you're buying from him as pets. He will not be with you.

While Thomas loves selling bee starter kits to amateurs, and his beekeeping supply business is rolling thanks partly to the heightened concern over bee health, he's less interested in your spiritual connection to the creatures than he is in making sure you keep them alive.

Jack and Betty Thomas
Not yet fully retired, Betty and Jack Thomas remain president and vice-president of Mann Lake Ltd. to ensure the company's continued success and a smooth transition to full employee ownership.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News

"We got a lot of hobby beekeepers. They say, 'I talk to my bees. They're not going to get mites.' And we say, 'OK, good luck,'" Thomas, 81, laughed as his staff handed over boxes filled with bees Saturday in what's become a popular annual rite of spring here known as Bee Day.

More than 600 beekeepers of varying expertise picked up boxes of bees from Thomas to replace ones that died over the winter, or to start new hives. Each package costs $140. Thomas had an employee prowling the parking lot to make sure people knew how to keep the bees cool so they would make it to their new homes alive.

"I've had people wrap them in sleeping bags and put them in Yeti coolers to keep them warm," explained Thomas. "I said, 'You ever take a bee course? What do you know about bees?' They tell me, 'I went on the internet.' Geez, gimme a break."

Having escaped their crates, worker bees try to take care of the queen.
Having escaped their crates, some worker bees try to take care of the queen still in her tiny wooden cages.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News

Large commercial beekeepers with hundreds of hives are the sweet spot for Thomas. But the hobby market has been a shot in the arm for his north-central Minnesota company, Mann Lake Bees, which sells beekeeping products across the U.S. and in 25 countries and claims to be the largest beekeeping equipment supplier in the world.

Fifteen years ago, the company might have sold a couple hundred packages of bees, Thomas said. This year 1,800 shoebox-sized packages of 10,000 bees are stacked in a warehouse in Hackensack, headed for backyards and farms around the region.

"I would say our hobby market has probably grown 10-15 fold," he said.

Queen bees are kept in individual little wooden cages.
Queen bees are kept in individual little wooden cages before each is put into one of the crates that are picked up by customers.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News

Mann Lake has a factory in Hackensack where they build bee hives and other products. There are also factories in Pennsylvania, California and Texas.

This year's bees were trucked in from California. They're pre-ordered by mostly hobby beekeepers and picked up on Bee Day. When they're gone, they're gone. Those who procrastinate might end up with an empty hive.

Thomas said the company has its own sugar refinery to make the sugar water used to feed bees. The company also sells pollen substitute cakes that provide protein for bees, and various treatments for disease or pests that plague nearly every beekeeper.

Thomas says there are more small beekeepers east of the Mississippi and more very large commercial operations west of the Mississippi in states like North Dakota, California and Texas.

Jesse Koskiniemi concentrates as he carries two crates full of bees.
Jesse Koskiniemi concentrates as he carries two crates full of bees, each surrounding their queen and a can of sugar supply. Jesse's father had already picked up three more crates.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News

Thomas urges newbies to take a beekeeping class offered by the University of Minnesota, or to find a mentor who knows bees to teach them the ropes.

While some clearly aren't ready, Thomas thinks the growing interest in beekeeping is good because it keeps attention on the plight of bees, which have been under immense stress in recent years from disease, mites and habitat loss.

Amateurs also help the bottom line. Thomas won't divulge company revenues other than to say they are "substantial." He just returned from a trip to the Middle East nation of Dubai where he said business is booming.

On Bee Day, people travel from across Minnesota and surrounding states to pick up bees in Hackensack. On Saturday, that included Luann Kasper, a new beekeeper who last year had a single hive on a small farm near Pierz, Minn., and hopes to expand to two hives next year.

Patrick Montague from Mann Lake hands over a set of bee crates.
Patrick Montague from Mann Lake hands over another set of bee crates to a customer.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News

"I have gardens so I like to have the pollinators on the farm too and I really do think it helped," said Kasper who noticed improved production in her garden and harvested honey last fall as a bonus.

But all of her bees died over the winter, so she'd come to Hackensack to pick up a package of 10,000 and a new queen to start over.

She admitted she was ill-prepared for the challenges of keeping bees.

"I need to learn almost everything, so I have to get a good book, maybe bees for dummies would be a good one for me," she said.

Mann Lake is a global supplier in the beekeeping industry.
Betty and Jack Thomas say that they didn't know anything about beekeeping when they started. Today, Mann Lake is a global supplier in the beekeeping industry.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News

The long winter was tough on even experienced beekeepers.

"We've been doing it about five years now and we had a little bit of a rough winter just because it was such a long drawn out winter," said Joel Hoogland as he loaded bees into the back of an SUV.

Hoogland and Paige Coryell plan to have a half-dozen hives this year on property near Maple Plain in western Hennepin County. The bees help pollinate fruit trees and gardens and the hives generate a lot of interest.

"We have a lot of people ask about bees once they find out we're beekeepers," said Coryell. "One question will lead into another question into another question and it's like, really?"

Hoogland likes to sit near a hive in the evening and watch the bees return loaded with pollen. He calls watching bees work "tranquil."

Thomas and his wife Betty started Mann Lake Bees 35 years ago after he sold his Twin Cities engineering firm and they moved north to a cabin. It's employee-owned, so workers earn company stock. They see that business model as the best way to ensure the future of the operation, which has about 450 U.S. employees.

Betty Thomas said most of the year the company deals in products, but on Bee Day they get to meet the people who buy and care for the creatures.

On Saturday, she stood near the warehouse entrance, answering questions and voicing support as people picked up bees.

"Have fun," she told them. "Make lots of honey, and some good pollinating ahead."