Wild Hill Honey

Beekeeper Justin Englhardt checks the bee hives at his Wild Hill Honey bee farm in Sioux City, Iowa, Thursday, July 9, 2015. (Jim Lee, Sioux City Journal)

SIOUX CITY | As an employer, Justin Engelhardt refuses to bite the hand that feeds him.

This is especially smart since his workforce is made up of approximately 4 million bees.

"I don't know if the bees work work for me or if I'm the one who works for them," Engelhardt explained while gingerly reaching into a hive. "To the bees, I'm simply the guy who keeps on stealing their honey."

Marveling at the bevy of buzzing bees, the Sioux City man is experiencing some sweet success with the business that was started as a sideline career.

A full-time roofer, Engelhardt began Wild Hill Honey with his wife Tori Engelhardt more than three years ago.

"I became interested in bees after hearing an interview with (world-renowned scientist) Thomas Seeley on National Public Radio," Engelhardt remembered. 

In his 2010 book "Honeybee Democracy," Seeley noted that honeybees make life-or-death decisions by choosing and traveling to a new home on a yearly basis.

And how do the busy buzzers come to this mutually agreed upon decision? By collective fact-finding, vigorous debate and consensus building.

"We can learn a lot by following the example of the honeybee," Engelhardt suggested.

In fact, these hard-working honey-makers caused Engelhardt to make a bee-line into entrepreneurship.

Jars of Wild Hill Honey's raw and creamed honeys are available for purchase at such stores as Coffee Works (1920 Pierce St.); Sioux City Gifts (1922 Pierce St.); and Palmer's Gourmet Specialty Foods (405 Wesley Parkway), among other places.

But maintaining more than 65 separate hives in Sioux City Stone Park area isn't about to send Engelhardt into sugar shock. Instead, he enjoys the pilgrimage he makes, snatching the daily allotment of liquid gold made by such flighty cohorts.

"When you're a beekeeper, you will get stung," he reasoned. "If you're stung just 10 times, that's OK. If you're stung 20 or more times, it's gonna be a bad day."

Luckily for Engelhardt, he remained sting-free on this warm and humid July day.

According to Engelhardt, honeybees begin their honey-making process by visiting a flower to gather its nectar. Traditionally, honeybees will attach themselves to such plants as wild clover, catnip and purple verbena.

Nectar -- a sugar-rich liquid produced in the glands of plants -- can keep a colony of bees alive during lean winters. However, when left in its natural state, the sweet stuff will ferment. That's why the bees will turn the nectar into honey, a greater source of energy.

The process, Engelhardt said, requires a lot of teamwork. From the worker bee on the lookout for nectar-rich flowers to the hive bees tasked with turning nectar into honey, each member has an important role to perform.

"I've always admired the work ethic of honeybees," he said. "They're single-minded when it comes to their jobs."

Well, they sort of have to be. The average lifespan of a typical honeybee is just 42 days and a single bee produces only 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime.

Working as a team, thousands of bees can produce up to 200 pounds of honey for the colony in the space of a year.

That's a whole lot of honey for Engelhardt, who said Wild Hill honey is 100 percent free of chemicals.

"People always ask me why I keep my beehives within city limits," he said. "I tell them that plants in the country may be affected by pesticides that city plants aren't."

"When you taste my honey," Engelhardt added, "you can really taste the difference."

Through it all, he doesn't mind his sometimes temperamental team of workers. Especially when the rewards remain so sweet.

"I can't wake up in the morning without a few spoonfuls of pure honey in my coffee," Engelhardt insisted. "That makes the occasional sting worthwhile."

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