Petal Power Meets Pedal Power

The Beez Kneez

When the phone call
came in, Kristy Allen and
Erin Rupp’s hearts sank.
A friend and beekeeping
hobbyist in the
Kenwood neighborhood
had alerted them that
the bees in her backyard
hive were suddenly and
inexplicably dying. With
dread setting in, they
rushed over to their
own hive housed at the
nearby Blake School,
and found their worst
fears realized.

Their bees were dying, some of them dropping out of the air on their flight paths and then writhing in
circles on the ground before going still. Others scrambled to get out of the hive on foot before finally
succumbing, their tiny bodies piling up at the foot of the box. Acting swiftly, Rupp and Allen called the
University of Minnesota Bee Lab, who deployed their “Bee Squad” to the site of the kill. The squad took
samples and put them on dry ice to run tests back in the lab. The next day the Minnesota Department of
Agriculture also sent a team out to launch an investigation. “It was an incredibly sad day,” said Rupp.
“But we were also very lucky to discover [the sick and/or dying bees] when we did.”

Pesticide residues degrade within 24 hours to a point where they’re no longer testable. If Rupp and Allen
had come a day later, it would have been too late. Test results would eventually reveal the culprit: a pesticide
called Fipronil, meant to be sprayed on building foundations to protect against termites, but that had most
likely been sprayed onto flowering plants, killing Rupp and Allen’s bees and any other wild pollinator that
would have come in contact with the affected area. There was no way to find the source for certain because
records of pesticide applications are not currently available to the public. And even if they were, there’s no
direct way to hold anyone accountable for pollinator deaths nor to compensate the beekeepers who lose
hives. At least not yet. But Allen and Rupp are working to change all that through two pieces of ground-
breaking state legislation
currently moving through the Minnesota House and Senate.

One of these, a truth-in-labeling provision, would forbid people from labeling plants or nursery stock as
beneficial to pollinators if they have been treated with a detectable level of lethal insecticide. It would also
require the development of a list of pesticides with active ingredients that are lethal to pollinators. Passed
by the House in April, it awaits a vote by the Senate. The other bill, versions of which are still moving in
committee, would provide compensation for bee deaths caused by pesticide poisoning, as well as establish a
pollinator emergency response team for the state.

Neither Allen nor Rupp ever saw themselves as the types of people who advocate for new laws and testify
in front of committees, but they were mobilized out of their experience with the pesticide kill. Together,
they run The Beez Kneez, which started out as a bicycle-based delivery service for their honey, but has since
grown to include an education program and community beekeeping organization as well as an advocacy
campaign to support pollinator health. More than one-third of the world’s food crop species depend on
bee pollination. Without bees, we couldn’t have things like almonds, watermelons or pumpkins. But since
the 1940s, America has lost more than half of its managed bee colonies due to a variety of environmental
stresses brought on by industrialized commercial agriculture. As Rupp says, “It’s hard to be a bee
these days.”

Which is why understanding the importance of pollinators and the challenges they face is a big part of what
Rupp and Allen do at The Beez Kneez. They partner with community gardens, urban farms, city parks, and
schools to establish and maintain educational apiaries, teaching immersive classes to groups of beekeeping-
suit-clad participants. This summer, they’ll have 12 host sites for their hives scattered around Minneapolis.
And come fall, those hives (each one of which has about 50,000 honeybees inside during peak season)
will produce honey that Allen and Rupp will harvest in their Honey House, using bicycle pedal-powered
extractors and a lot of leg muscle. Then they’ll bicycle around the metro area, making honey deliveries
while wearing antennae-clad helmets and bringing visibility to the important work of pollinators.

Their passion for bees has led them to work at this nexus of education, community, sustainability, policy
and business, but at the end of the day their mission is as simple as pollinator ecology is complex. “Bees
need us,” says Rupp. “And we’re working to save them and create change in our food system.” They were
too late to save the Blake School hive that fateful day last September, but if they’re successful in pushing
through these new laws and raising awareness, perhaps they’ll give our pollinators the fighting chance
they need to make it in our 21st-century world.