A sweet arrangement: Couple develops hardy bees, solar gardens and location-specific honey
Travis and Chiara Bolton's honeybees are true Minnesotans.
Able to withstand the state's long, bitterly cold winters, Bolton bees are also "Minnesota nice."
For the past three years, the couple has steadily worked at breeding gentle, Minnesota-hardy bees.
They have about a dozen apiaries sprinkled throughout Hubbard, Wadena, Becker and Otter Tail counties, and another 15 in the Twin Cities area.
Travis is a 2001 Park Rapids Area High School graduate.
The Boltons' efforts to produce a line of distinct, location-specific honey and to promote pollinator-friendly solar gardens are garnering national attention. They have been featured in the Star Tribune, National Geographic and Martha Stewart Living magazine.
From hobbyist to breeder
Chiara's interest in honeybees began on the Tibetan Plateau.
"One of my really good friends grew up as a beekeeper. She got an opportunity to work on a sustainable economic development project and asked me to tag along to help with the Chinese," she explained.
Chiara lived in rural China for over five years and speaks Chinese.
"I got hooked on bees. It really changed the economic livelihood of the people and the villages we were working with. They had bees, but they learned to keep bees and how to harvest honey," she said.
When she returned to Minnesota, Chiara wanted to continue beekeeping. Her only option was to purchase "packaged bees."
"I started off as a hobbyist with my granddad and wasn't having a very good survival rate," she said.
Commercial beekeepers traditionally migrate along a warm-weather route: honey season in the Midwest, then pollination contracts throughout California during the almond-growing season, then off to Florida and Texas to "re-queen." Those bees never endure snow or freezing-cold temperatures.
After Travis and Chiara married, they began breeding bees that could survive Minnesota winters. Queen breeding is a very specialized skill set that most beekeepers don't know how to do.
"Now the last two winters, we've lost less than 10 percent," Travis said. "It's pretty unheard of. It's a really high survival rate."
"Most Midwesterners lose half of their bees," Chiara said. "We also select for other traits, like high honey yield, good temperament."
Generally, people cannot stand next to an apiary without getting stung. The Boltons can handle their bees in t-shirts and minimal protective clothing.
"A lot of beekeepers work in full suits," Travis said. "We always work bare-handed. We get stung all the time, but they're not aggressive."
"They're bouncing off the veil," agreed Chiara.
Gentle bees are a boon for multiple reasons. Under the moniker Bolton Bees, the couple sells starter colonies to backyard beekeepers with overwinter genetics.
"No one wants to buy a hive that's really aggressive," said Travis. "We typically sell out in two weeks."
Local bees, local honey
"We're big supporters of local beekeeping, breeding for your local environment," Chiara said. "If someone calls from Kansas, or wherever, we suggest buying from their local community. Not only does that help with the bees knowing the weather, but it's also for disease, too."
When hives are moved from place to place, there's an "intermixing of viruses" that makes the virus more virulent and kills the host bees, Travis explained.
"A cocktail of different things" currently threaten honeybees, Chiara said. There's a tick-like parasite, called varroa mite, that has caused colony losses throughout the U.S.
"There's also modern-farming and spraying that isn't favorable. There's all these different things happening that aren't favorable to bees," she said.
Finding healthy areas for their bees to forage is a challenge. The Boltons are always looking for more.
"Down here in Sebeka, Akeley and Menahga, it's awesome — these certain areas where there's more organic farming, less pesticide use," Travis said. "Around here you have heavier soil and natural wildflowers that bloom. Also, the farmers are planting alfalfa and clover, which is also good for the bees."
Bees collect pollen and nectar from resources within a three-mile radius of the hives to use as food.
The Boltons extract a unique, distinct honey from each apiary, like "Martini Honey" or "Frank's Honey."
"And they're completely different," said Travis.
The flavor varies depending on the flora and trees of the location.
"Martini Honey" comes from the rolling countryside of Sebeka. It's a dark, umber color and pairs well with hard cheeses.
"Frank's Honey," named after a Menahga landowner, is nearly white and tastes best with pancakes.
The Boltons are currently building a honey-extracting facility in Menahga. Construction is funded by a Minnesota Department of Agriculture Value Added Grant.
Solar arrays abuzz
Bolton Bees recently partnered with Connexus Energy in Ramsey, Minn. to create a "SolarWise Garden."
It's the first solar array in the U.S. that houses a bee apiary.
The Boltons hope it's the first of many.
"It's really awesome because they're creating this pollinator-friendly habitat. It's a trifecta of great things: solar energy, healthy habitat for pollinators and local beekeeping," said Chiara.
As a bonus, Connexus solar subscribers receive jars of fresh honey.
Rob Davis of Fresh Energy introduced the Boltons to Connexus Energy. Travis, a guitar player for "Tree Party," knew Davis through the Twin Cities professional music scene.
Fresh Energy is an independent, nonprofit organization working to speed the transition to a clean energy economy in Minnesota through advocacy, policy analysis and public outreach.
According to Fresh Energy, with more than 4,500 acres of ground-mounted solar in process or slated for development, Minnesota has an incredible opportunity to establish pollinator habitat.
Thus far, the Boltons have established three different solar-pollinator garden projects.
"And we're in communication with a lot more," Chiara said.
This spring, multiple Minnesota solar sites were planted with black-eyed susans, purple prairie clover, partridge pea, butterfly weed, native grasses and other wildflowers selected for specifically Minnesota's climate and pollinator value, says Fresh Energy.
Meanwhile, the Boltons launched a new enterprise, called Solar Honey Company.
The Solar Honey Company's mission is to promote pollinator-friendly solar gardens and to help establish a national standard for honey produced in solar gardens.
The Boltons encourage beekeepers across the U.S. to form partnerships with solar developers committed to pollinator-friendly locations and to create "Solar Honey" products.