IN FOCUS: Small Business – Beekeeping Buzz

Posted on Mar 1, 2015 :: Small Business Spotlight
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

The Greenville-based Honey Bee Ware started like many businesses  — simply to solve a problem.

Wayne Gerdts, a third-generation beekeeper, found he had to drive more than 100 miles to the nearest beekeeping supplier in southern Wisconsin.

“Anytime I’d order something, the freight was typically more than what the product was,” says Wayne, who owns the business with his wife, Joan. “It would take half to three-quarters of a day. I figured, I can’t be the only one that’s having that problem.”

So Wayne and Joan (pronounced Jo Ann) started Honey Bee Ware in a shed at their home in 2010, selling both online and in person. They expanded their business to the garage before purchasing the building at their current location, N1829 Municipal Drive, in April.

Honey Bee Ware offers more than 1,000 products in its online store, and aspiring beekeepers can find whatever equipment they need to get started.

In the last two years, the company has grown about 200 percent, Wayne says.

“We didn’t expect to get this big,” Joan says.

Honey Bee Ware is expanding its offerings to include local vendors of soaps, lotions, canned goods and craft items. The store also offers classes for people interested in beekeeping, including beginners. Three years ago, the first class had 20 people and took a long time to fill, Wayne says. “This year we’re having two classes — the first one was in January and we had 51 people and turned people away.”

People from around the state as well as Michigan and Minnesota have attended the class, which is led by a University of Minnesota bee expert. Wayne leads an in-field, hands-on class in the summer.

The business has expanded as the number of commercial beekeepers declines and the number of hobbyists grows. Recent trends with bee colony die-offs may be a reason why the number of commercial beekeepers are declining, Wayne says. Both Wayne and Joan attribute the bee  die-off to increased use of pesticides and genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, which they say don’t provide the right nutrition for the insects.

University of Minnesota bee expert and MacArthur Foundation genius grant recipient Marla Spivak — with whom the Gerdts’ daughter, Jody has studied — has said that bees are being affected by a combination of problems. Diseases and parasites, a lack of flowers, pesticide use, and crop monocultures, or large-scale crops with little diversity are all impacting bee populations.

“We can understand the farmers wanting more yield, but there’s a trade-off,” Joan says.

Bees are also sensitive to extended cold snaps and varroa mites, a type of pest that infests every beehive except those in Australia, Joan says.

The problem can be resolved with organic and natural treatments. “I don’t like putting anything in the beehive that I don’t absolutely have to,” Wayne says. “We get enough chemicals in the food system. We don’t need it in the bees, too.”

Private beekeepers are getting interested in the hobby for environmental or self-sustainability reasons, or to help pollinate large or commercial gardens, Wayne and
Joan say.

Lawrence University senior Annica Mandeltort, head beekeeper for Sustainable Lawrence University Garden (SLUG), says it’s great to be able to seek advice from local beekeeping experts Wayne and Joan Gerdts, who own and operate Honey Bee Ware in Greenville. The Gerdts launched the company from a shed on their property. Photo courtesy of Annica Mandeltort.

Lawrence University senior Annica Mandeltort, head beekeeper for Sustainable Lawrence University Garden (SLUG), says it’s great to be able to seek advice from local beekeeping experts Wayne and Joan Gerdts, who own and operate Honey Bee Ware in Greenville. The Gerdts launched the company from a shed on their property. Photo courtesy of Annica Mandeltort.

Lawrence University students keep bees in the Sustainable Lawrence University Garden, or SLUG, and buy their bees and equipment from Honey Bee Ware. Annica Mandeltort, a senior anthropology major from Libertyville, Ill., is the head beekeeper.

“Bees are a great learning tool,” Mandeltort says. “They very much go with our mission of using sustainable agriculture to teach students. I know I’ve learned how to grow my own food now. And bees are something that should not be overlooked, because they help us so much.”

Mandeltort says she used to be “pretty terrified” of bees, but got to know them through a family friend who taught her beekeeping, and she carried the experience over to Lawrence. Last winter, all three of the university’s hives died out. Wayne also lost his colonies last year and says the severe winter was to blame.

Lawrence students order bees and supplies from Honey Bee Ware because it’s a locally owned business and they enjoy the expertise Wayne and Joan can provide.

“Beekeepers are interesting people. It’s always fun to go find another beekeeper and share stories and ask questions,” Mandeltort says.

The name for Honey Bee Ware came to Wayne in his previous career as a long-haul trucker.

“When you’re driving truck your mind has a tendency to wander when you’re going across these great big deserts at night,” Wayne says. “You think about this and think about that. I thought, ‘A good name for a beekeeping company would be Honey Bee Ware.’ And that’s where it came from.”

Wayne also worked in the oil fields of North Dakota before becoming a team truck driver with Joan. He’s originally from Nebraska and she’s from Iowa, and they settled in Wisconsin in the 1980s.

They have six children, four of whom live in the area. The Gerdts’ daughter, Jody, lives in Australia with her husband, a state bee inspector.

Wayne and Joan’s son Preston is a fourth-generation beekeeper who also is involved with Honey Bee Ware, and this summer, the fifth generation — the Gerdts’ grandsons — will be helping out in the store.

ON THE WEB

Honey Bee Ware: www.honeybeeware.com

To see bee expert Marla Spivak discuss why bees are disappearing, visit www.ted.com/talks and search “Marla Spivak.”