Beehive of Your Own

The Door County Beekeepers Club is buzzing

For Door County Beekeepers Club (DCBC) co-founder Max Martin, beekeeping was a “bad hobby.”

It started with Martin’s work at the US Potato Genebank. There, he pollinated potato flowers by hand, but he asked Sturgeon Bay beekeeper Paul Eggert about the possibility of using honey bees for the job. Starting with Martin, the honey bees refused to help him, but led to an increased interest in beekeeping.

Soon, Martin’s first bee box became two, and two became three — and now, 24 years later, Martin has 24 hives that produce about 1,500 pounds of honey a year. That’s about 14 five-gallon buckets of produce he sells to Welsing’s Foodland, The Clearing and farmers markets in Sturgeon Bay and Fish Creek.

In addition to keeping his own bees, Martin has passed this skill on to other locals through the DCBC, which currently has about 85 members.

DCBC Provides Hive Mind for New Beekeepers

Aimed at beginning beekeepers, the club meets monthly to discuss ways to keep hives healthy and troubleshoot problems that arise.

DCBC members also go “hive diving” before their meetings, going to a member’s home, dressing up in beekeeper costumes and breaking open the host’s bee boxes to look inside. Learning the inner workings of the hive firsthand is especially beneficial for new beekeepers, Martin says.

So is having a network of experienced mentors, said DCBC co-founder Gretchen Schmelzer. Without this, beekeeping can be a difficult hobby to start.

When Schmelzer received his first package of bees (DCBC members can order bees through Martin, who picks them up in Sullivan, Wisconsin, and delivers them to Door County), he eagerly put them in the back seat of his car and nervously listened to the bees. the box buzzed on the way home.

“I was like, ‘Who does this?'” Schmelzer said.

But when he got home and let the bees out with his son, who is also a beekeeper, he was impressed by his new hive.

“I’d have a chair by my hive and I’d just sit there and watch them fly away,” Schmelzer said.

In addition to helping new beekeepers, the DCBC holds awareness events to educate the public about bees. One such event was the Aug. 20 Community Honey Harvest, where Schmelzer and other DCBC members immersed visitors in the world of beekeeping.

Doing so was a multisensory experience. At one booth, attendees could taste fresh pieces of honeycomb plucked from a sticky-sweet sheet; a spoonful of bee pollen – high-protein, nutty-tasting granules; and small cups of tea, a wine-like drink made from fermented honey.

At another booth, guests could feel thin layers of wax before being rolled to make candles, or pour wax pellets onto fabric to create reusable food packets.

Outside, the stars of the show could be heard walking in and out of their boxes. Visitors watched as DCBC members harvested honey using a flowing hive that allowed the honey to pour from a box, tube and into the beekeeper’s waiting jar.

Beekeepers collect honey from the hive while visitors watch. Photo by Sam Watson.

The Benefits of Bees Are Everyone’s Wax

One of the goals of the event and the club in general is to educate the public about how bees help them. In addition to producing wax and honey, both of which have healing properties, bees pollinate native plants, commercial crops, and gardens. In doing so, Schmelzer said, they help both the environment and the local economy flourish.

Despite these benefits, even Schmelzer was nervous around bees at first. But he said stings aren’t as dangerous as some people think. In his eight years of beekeeping, Schmelzer said, he’s “only been stung when I’ve been stupid.”

In fact, bees don’t want to sting you. This is usually a defense mechanism used when they feel trapped or threatened by the hive, and it costs them their lives.
When a honey bee stings, the stinger sticks to the skin of a perceived human threat. When the bee moves away after stinging, it cuts off the lower part of its abdomen by itself, leaving a gap inside the sting recipient and at the tip of its abdomen. It’s a horrible death they obviously don’t want to avoid.

But sometimes, as Schmelzer puts it, beekeepers’ “stupidity”—moving too quickly without checking the hive or accidentally grabbing or stinging a bee—can lead to stings.

After 24 years of random bugs, Martin has developed an immunity to bites. When he was stung now, he said, “after about five minutes I couldn’t tell where the sting was.”

The frustration of beekeeping often hurts more than the stings.

“It’s a very, very difficult hobby as things change,” Martin said.

For example, he has done extensive research on “overwintering,” or how to keep the hive alive during the colder months, but sometimes, despite his best efforts, large numbers of bees die before spring.

Still, according to Martin and Schmelzer, the satisfaction of beekeeping is worth the trouble: She enjoys watching her hives, and he enjoys learning bee behavior and passing on his knowledge to others. They love what they do – even when it hurts.

Learn more or join the DCBC by visiting doorcountybeekeepersclub.org. The club’s annual membership fee is $20 per person or $30 per family.

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