Farm Horizons, August 2008

The accidental beekeeper

Jennifer Bakken
Staff Writer

Influenced by his grandmother, a master gardener, Brian Fredericksen grew up picking berries, spending time in gardens, identifying plants and enjoying life outdoors.

“You know how it is,” Fredericksen said. “On a nice day, it’s just great being outside.”

When he left his 12 year position with 3M in material sciences research, Fredericksen was ready to put his engineering degree behind him and go back to his roots utilizing the land, but had never thought of becoming a beekeeper.

In 1994, Fredericksen purchased a 5-acre apple orchard in Watertown on Carver County Road 20, previously owned by David Bedford a research scientist who breeds apples for the University of Minnesota. This land came with a few beehives used to pollinate the trees.

“I really didn’t like bees before I got into this.“ he admitted. “I was a little scared of them, I kind of became a beekeeper by accident.”

Originally he thought the land was an ideal place for his team of sled dogs, another passion of his, but he liked the possibilities the apples offered. Eventually, he noticed that his honey tasted different from what is typically purchased at stores in the bear-shaped plastic bottle. He decided there may be a market for high quality, raw single source honey.

“The honey from the stores is mass produced,” said Fredericksen. “No one keeps track of where it came from. I’m probably one of the few who does it this way and people have really no idea how interesting honey can be.”

Now, Fredericksen has 300 beehives in 18 different locations in several counties across Minnesota. The flower in bloom while the honey is produced by the bees is used to name each honey variety. The jars are labeled with a hive number and location, enabling customers to search a database on the Ames Farm web site to find the location their honey was collected, the time period of production and its flavor profile.

Without a store on site, one may wonder how Fredericksen is able to sell apples from his five orchards, multiple varieties of honey, bee pollen and beeswax candles, but with over 50 retail locations, online purchases, and sales at area farmers markets, Ames Farms is a well-known name.

With one full-time worker, a foreign exchange student from Brazil and two part-time staff, this operation has taken off.

“I got into this at just the right time,” Fredericksen said. “I really do feel like I found my calling in life. I can’t imagine not keeping bees now.”

Articles have been written about Fredericksen and his operation in the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the City Pages. He was recently featured on Road Tested, a TV show on the Food Network and has taken part in the filming of a documentary.

A pre-screening event was conducted July 6 in downtown Minneapolis at Common Roots Cafe for the feature-length documentary, “The Vanishing of the Bees,” which takes an investigative look at the mysterious phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

Many claim that CCD is killing the honeybee because they are disappearing all over the planet and no one is certain why. With a third of our diet pollinated by honeybees, agriculture depends on the honeybee for fruits, vegetables, and to make clover and alfalfa for feeding livestock. The film attempts to raise awareness about this crucial issue.

“I’m glad they are raising awareness,” said Fredericksen, who claims CCD hasn’t really affected his bee population yet. “I don’t necessarily agree with all of the hype or the doom and-gloom message though, but we should take notice.”

While Fredericksen feels the public understands vegetables and chemicals vs. no chemicals, he doesn’t think they realize how complex bees can be or how beekeeping works.

He said industrial beekeeping is where the problems lie.

“Kinda like if you put 10,000 chickens in a building, I wouldn’t eat that stuff,” he said. “Would anyone be surprised if that wasn’t working?”

As one of the most visible honey suppliers in Minnesota, it’s no surprise that Fredericksen knows bees, and knows his honey. The plastic bears found in most stores contain honey most likely from China.

This honey is cooked so that it remains liquid all year round. Raw honey turns solid over the winter but can be gently warmed in water and it has more flavor and is much healthier.

The bee pollen sold by Ames Farm is actual pollen that the bees collect and is full of protein and vitamins.

“Bee pollen is like a super food,” he said. “You could live on that and water alone, it’s got everything in it.”

Each box on the farm or at other sites is a hive; their goal is for the bees to get through the coming winter. Fredericksen explains it’s much like a squirrel gathering food or a bear plumping up for the cold months. The bees pack in as much honey as they can. It can reach 60-80 degrees in the center of a ball of bees just from the heat they generate.

“We help get them ready for winter,” he said. “Push them together, wrap in plastic, make sure they have enough honey, then say a little prayer in November and hope they are there in March.”

One area on the farm is reserved for raising queens. The microscopic larva from the queen bee’s comb is taken and put it in a special holder; then the bees make a queen from it like they would normally do.

Each hive has a queen and worker bees. These workers live three weeks in the hive and three weeks outside of the hive collecting pollen from flowers or nectar.

“A lot of reporters make the mistake of saying that bees collect pollen to make honey,” he explained. “But, actually they drink in the liquid nectar and regurgitate it into the comb, they get air moving in the hive to dry it and condense it so it is syrupy.”

Though a worker bee will live only about six weeks, a queen bee lives three to five years, gets mated with 15 different males and can lay up to 1000 eggs each day.

“If you are losing bees naturally through old age, there’s new bees hatching out every day,” he said. “That cycle of raising brood dies off for fall.”

One thing many ask of Fredericksen and his employees is how many times they have been stung by bees during their beekeeping years.

Though it’s doubtful they can keep track after countless stings Fredericksen said with a laugh, “Well, I would rather be stung by a bee than a woman anyday, but I hope the public realizes that there are so few honey bees left that your chance of being stung by one or even seeing one, is next to nothing unless you are by a beekeeper, with all the diseases and things.”

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