• An Apiarist’s Sweet Summer

    Visuals by Thomas Whisenand

    From the Fall 2011 issue of St. Thomas magazine.

    St. Thomas junior Matthew Schmidtbauer is an electrical engineering student with aspirations of someday working for a high-performance electric car manufacturing company. He always has enjoyed electronics and boasted “the world’s largest tub of K’Nex” as his favorite boyhood building set. One might assume, then, that his hobbies include gadgets, robotics or other tinkerings with technology.

    The subjects of his pastime, however, are not motors or revolutions per minute, but tens of thousands of honeybees that he cares for each summer.

    His first foray into beekeeping began when he was 12 years old. While many boys that age are asking their parents for the latest video games, for Christmas that year Schmidtbauer asked for a beekeeping starter kit. “Isn’t it every 12-year-old’s dream to be a beekeeper?” he chuckled. “A lot of kids have ant farms growing up. A beehive is like an ant farm on steroids.”

    According to Schmidtbauer, his parents are supportive but at first weren’t sure what he was getting himself into. “They wanted to make sure I was spending my own money,” he said. “Even as a kid I was tight with my money, so they would ask ‘are you sure you want to spend it this way?’” What they didn’t realize at the time was Schmidtbauer’s beekeeping would become somewhat of a self-sustaining hobby.

    Now 20 years old, Schmidtbauer has expanded from one hive and a beekeeping starter kit to 10 hives and a full-fledged honey business. In the fall of 2010, he produced 33 gallons of honey with six hives. This year, he has six hives at his parents’ home in Nowthen, Minn., and four hives at his grandparents’ home near Buckman, Minn. “Bees are just amazing to me; there’s always something changing.”

    To talk to Schmidtbauer is to get a lesson in beekeeping vocabulary and business savvy that rivals some of the best vendors at any farmer’s market. He’ll tell you the process is quite straightforward: You pick up the bees in the spring, dump them into the hive, and basically just check on them every week or so throughout the summer until you’re ready to harvest the honey.

    The idea seems simple enough, but the process is much more involved and includes a number of steps to ensure happy bees and optimum honey production.

    Schmidtbauer’s bees arrive in the spring on a truck from California. Bees are measured by the pound and shipped in screened boxes. He typically orders three pounds, which measures out to approximately 10,000 bees, including the queen who is housed separately in the same box.

    Once he gets his bees home, he dumps them into the hive. A hive is a series of boxes that each houses 10 frames on which the bees build their comb. To distribute the bees into the box takes a special trick he picked up in a beekeeping tutorial film. “The phrase that always sticks with me is that it’s like spreading sauce on a pizza – that’s the consistency you should have,” Schmidtbauer said. “And that’s exactly what it feels like.”

    Once the bees settle into the hive and accept their queen, they’re fed sugar water.Schmidtbauer continues to feed the bees until they stop eating. “At that point, I just let them do their thing. You keep checking and as the boxes fill up with honey, you add more boxes as they need them.

    “The ‘honey flow’ is the time of season when bees are collecting the most nectar because that’s when the most plants are flowering,” he said. “In our area, bees collect most of their nectar from clover.”

    Eventually, the bees fill their comb with honey – which is created when the nectar’s moisture has been reduced to about 18 percent.

    At the end of each summer, Schmidtbauer begins the harvest process. Each frame is carefully removed from the hive and the honey extracted. He prides himself on producing the purest honey. “After I extract the honey, I filter it and let it rest so the bubbles dissipate,” Schmidtbauer said. “But it basically goes straight from the hive to the bottle.”

    In the fall, he sells his honey at festivals near his hometown. His customers can’t seem to get enough. “I think I only had about a gallon left after the shows last fall,” said Schmidtbauer. But as a hobbyist, he’s not concerned with profits. “If I break even I’m happy. I don’t do it to make tons of money.”

    When talking to any apiarist, an obvious question arises: How many times has he been stung?

    “Normally, I only get stung once or twice a year – no big deal,” Schmidtbauer said. “In fact, I don’t think I’ve been stung at all for at least a year and a half.” He hasn’t always been so lucky.

    When Schmidtbauer brings his honey to sell at local festivals, he likes to bring a small glass beehive with some of his bees to display. It was the night before he was supposed to sell at a festival a few years ago that he quite literally felt the sting of bad  beekeeping.

    “It was late and I was trying to get everything ready to take to the show at 8 a.m. the next morning,” Schmidtbauer said. During the process, he broke three cardinal rules of beekeeping: Never handle the bees when it’s cold, when it’s getting dark or when it’s raining. The trifecta of missteps led to angry bees who took out their frustrations on  him.

    “They basically covered me from top to bottom. The first one stung me on the sock.So I swatted at it, then I opened up my pant leg and they started crawling up my leg.And then they just started stinging.”

    Schmidtbauer estimates he was stung about 50 times that day. “I had never hyperventilated before in my life, but that day – it was bad.”

    Even after such a painful experience, he still feels a connection with his colony. “I wouldn’t say it’s the same level as owning a pet, but I take a lot of pride in my bees,” he said. “I feel some attachment. Most beekeepers in the area usually let their bees die in the winter. I personally can’t do that. I would rather leave enough honey in the hive for them to live off of to at least give them a chance to survive.”

    But the realities of sometimes-harsh Minnesota winters take their toll and his bees often don’t make it. “You can protect your hive from the elements to a certain extent, but it’s tough. If you keep the hive too warm, the bees think it’s warm outside and they fly out and freeze. If you keep it too cold, they become immobilized and can’t reach their food, even if it’s only an inch away.”

    With such an admiration for bees, it could be assumed that Schmidtbauer would pursue a future in biology or other natural sciences. The electrical engineering student sees it differently. “I’m a technology guy. I love computers. I love technology. This is an escape to nature. You just go outside and listen to bees buzz. It’s just so different, but I like it.”

    While Schmidtbauer has become quite adept at beekeeping, he has been surprised by the additional skills he has picked up from his hobby. He has become an entrepreneur in many senses of the word. “Bees have gotten me into everything. You initially start and it’s kind of like a science project. But then you move on and it becomes a business venture. And all of the sudden it’s a website thing – I didn’t know how to build a website before I started www.MattsBees.com. Then you have to realize all the plants that are flowering. I didn’t know anything about plants in the beginning.”

    The residual benefits will stick with Schmidtbauer as he moves on to the next steps in his life. “It’s taken me in so many different directions that it’s been a really educationally fulfilling hobby.”

    And it’s a hobby he has passed along to others, including his grandfather. According to Schmidtbauer, “My grandpa’s a farmer; he dabbles a little in everything.” Once Schmidtbauer began keeping hives at his grandparents’ farm, it only seemed natural that the two began bonding over the hobby.

    “Matt asked me for money to buy a beehive when he first got started,” his grandfather said. “When I found out how much they cost I said, ‘Holy catfish! I’m not paying for no beehive.’” But Schmidtbauer persisted and eventually his grandfather conceded. “He’s a good kid – anything to keep him from causing trouble.”

    Schmidtbauer’s grandfather wasn’t surprised when his grandson’s hobby became an important part of his life. “Once he sets his heart to something, he does it.”

    While Schmidtbauer and his grandfather enjoy challenging each other about the best way to tend to their hives, there’s no family rivalry when it comes to selling their product. Schmidtbauer’s grandfather gives most of his honey away and donates it to his church bazaar. He’ll even give a little to his grandson to sell when he runs low, perhaps as a gesture of gratitude for introducing him to a new pastime. “Matt taught me 99 percent of what I know about beekeeping.”

    The next couple of years will be telling in regards to his future. He will graduate and move into a career that could take him almost anywhere. While that part is uncertain, he is sure of one thing: “There might be lulls every couple of years, but I plan on being a beekeeper.”

    For as much as he discovered a passion for his bees, the unexpected stinger, as he puts it: “I really don’t even like honey that much.”

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