Susan Rester Miles is a retired Washington County, Minn. judge. She lives along the St. Croix River in Scandia.
Honeybees, and the honey they produce, are creatures of their environment. Honeybees of the St. Croix River watershed yield sweet goo-eyness that reflects the water, flora, and trees of the local Scenic Riverway.
Kristy Lynn Allen, founder and owner of The Beez Kneez, LLC in Grantsburg, WI, considers the watershed to be a superior honey terroir. That’s a French term often associated with wine but applies with equal force to honey, corn, coffee, and chocolate.
Locating 150 hives at 14 apiaries throughout Minnesota and Western Wisconsin, Kristy’s bees produce three blends of honey: Wildflower, Country Wildflower, and Buckwheat. Country Wildflower is sourced from hives at eight sustainable farms situated between Grantsburg, Frederick, Amery, and Osceola in Western Wisconsin, where the bees collect nectar from wildflowers and trees watered by the St. Croix and its many tributaries. The Western Wisconsin area worked by the Beez Kneez crew is protected by a patchwork of national and state parks, scientific/natural areas, and community land conservancies, greatly diminishing the risk of contamination by pollutants. These bees have it pretty good.
The Beez Kneez began in Minneapolis in 2010, with most of its hives located in the Twin Cities metro area at museums, universities, and co-ops. Pesticides loomed as a threat in some unprotected areas near operations using conventional spraying. After losing several hives to pesticides, moving closer to the St. Croix River just made good sense. Where the bees went, Kristy and her husband Kyle followed, relocating the business to a 30-acre former horse farm which straddles the Trade River in the Grantsburg area.
Working from hives strategically located at multiple small farms throughout the Valley, Beez Kneez worker bees dine on nectar from a wide variety of local fruit, vegetables, trees, and cover crops. Forming one-on-one relationships with the farmers who host her hives allows Kristy to plan honey collection around seasonal blossoming and mowing schedules. Farmers realize greater incentives to plant cover crops, knowing the benefit to the soil and pollinators.
Variations in honey flavors can be discerned, Kristy says, because she sells her honey raw and unfiltered. Raw honey is not heated when processed, and is similar in density to soft ice cream, great for spreading on baked goods and using as a glaze on meats and vegetables where flavor really counts. Unfiltered honey contains some pollen, evidence that it is the real deal and has not been adulterated with extenders such as sugar syrup or corn syrup.
Terroir, the flavor unique to a specific locale, determines the flavor profile. While it might seem that the St. Croix Watershed has unique distinctions from other locations, there are “micro terroirs” within the valley. Variations in honey taste and color reflect differences within the watershed caused by soil type, rainfall, and local composition of prairie, woods, and forest.
Although Beez Kneez wildflower honey is offered as a “collective” honey not distinguished by farm or season, Kristy keeps detailed records of the source and timing of each batch and can select specific jars to match her customers’ personal preferences, even by zip code. Two types of wildflower honey, the lighter-colored Camp Beez Kneez Wildflower and the darker Country Wildflower, differ from one another in taste as flowers differ from berries.
Camp Beez Kneez is a summer school for experienced and beginning beekeepers who tend bees at hives in Western Wisconsin and Fridley, and, under Kristy’s guidance, collect and process the eponymous honey.
Earthy colored Buckwheat honey, collected late in the year, has many fans who relish its musky flavor and claim that it provides more nutrients and protein than its more common wildflower brethren. Hives at a sustainable vegetable farm in Northwestern Minnesota generate this one-of-a-kind honey.
Diversity of crops and flora and availability of clean water are critical to the production of distinctive honey flavors. Plants need water from above and below ground to produce nectar. Bees extract the water-saturated nectar and partially dehydrate it by sucking it in and then excreting it from their stomachs, adding enzymes to create the honey. The flavors of the remaining water content show up in the final product.
Mention of the possibility of a Commercial Agricultural Feeding Operation (CAFO) residing about five miles away from her Grantsburg farm darkens Kristy’s face. Bees and the flavor of their honey could pay a steep price if crop diversity is eliminated and water takes on the smell of manure.
My current jar of Country Wildflower honey, purchased in the spring (it’s a big jar), is reminiscent of caramel, berries and fruit. Spread on a slice of HoneyCrisp apple, it’s sweeter than any brownie I’ve ever made. Buckwheat, spread on broiled pineapple slices, makes for a tasty evening snack. Beez Kneez products, including beeswax candles, can be purchased on-line, at local food co-ops, and at some farmer’s markets.
Kristy views the success of her bees as dependent on the overall health of the sustainable farming community of the St. Croix Valley. She is one of the organizers of the St. Croix Valley Food Alliance, a group of sustainable farmers who are creating a consortium of food producers, providers, and eaters “to strengthen and promote a thriving, resilient, and equitable local food economy in the St. Croix River Valley.” Healthy bees and other pollinators are a vital part of a balanced, organic food supply, which led Kristy to protect bees and producers by successfully lobbying the Minnesota Legislature for bills to protect against pesticides and other chemical kills. As a believer in modernizing hive design to meet the increased needs of bees over winter, she has partnered with another beekeeper to collect temperature and humidity data on 80 of her hives for a study funded by the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education.
With her eye on the future integrity of the St. Croix Watershed, the need to protect pollinators, and the art of creating superior honey, Kristy has cultivated a fifty-fifty partnership with her bees. Together, their efforts are blossoming to the benefit of the land, the water, and the terroir of the St. Croix Watershed.