'Crazy' beekeepers determined to make it in tough times

  • Beekeeper James Cook works on hives near Iola, Wis., on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020. Cook and his wife, Samantha Jones, have worked with honey bees for several years but started their own business this year - and proceeded with plans even after the coronavirus pandemic hit.

    Beekeeper James Cook works on hives near Iola, Wis., on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020. Cook and his wife, Samantha Jones, have worked with honey bees for several years but started their own business this year - and proceeded with plans even after the coronavirus pandemic hit. Associated Press

  • Honey bees work inside a hive near Iola, Wis., on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020. The hives belong to beekeepers James Cook and Samantha Jones. The couple has worked with bees for several years but started their own business this year - and proceeded with plans even after the coronavirus pandemic hit.

    Honey bees work inside a hive near Iola, Wis., on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020. The hives belong to beekeepers James Cook and Samantha Jones. The couple has worked with bees for several years but started their own business this year - and proceeded with plans even after the coronavirus pandemic hit. Associated Press

  • Beekeepers James Cook and Samantha Jones pose for a portrait in front of some of their hives at one of their bee yards near Iola, Wis., on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020. The couple has worked with honey bees for several years but started their own business this year - and proceeded with plans even after the coronavirus pandemic hit.

    Beekeepers James Cook and Samantha Jones pose for a portrait in front of some of their hives at one of their bee yards near Iola, Wis., on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020. The couple has worked with honey bees for several years but started their own business this year - and proceeded with plans even after the coronavirus pandemic hit. Associated Press

  • Beekeeper James Cook works on his hives in an almond orchard in San Joaquin County, Calif., on Friday, Feb. 28, 2020. Cook and wife Samantha Jones, who are based in Wisconsin, are among the many commercial beekeepers who travel extensively with their hives to pollinate many of the nation's crops. In the days and weeks after this photo was taken, the coronavirus hit the United States and caused a shutdown in California and other states, just as Cook and Jones, ages 35 and 38, were launching their business after working for several years for another beekeeper.

    Beekeeper James Cook works on his hives in an almond orchard in San Joaquin County, Calif., on Friday, Feb. 28, 2020. Cook and wife Samantha Jones, who are based in Wisconsin, are among the many commercial beekeepers who travel extensively with their hives to pollinate many of the nation's crops. In the days and weeks after this photo was taken, the coronavirus hit the United States and caused a shutdown in California and other states, just as Cook and Jones, ages 35 and 38, were launching their business after working for several years for another beekeeper. Associated Press

  • Honey bees gather outside their hives near Iola, Wis., on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020. The hives belong to beekeepers James Cook and Samantha Jones. The couple has worked with bees for several years but started their own business this year - and proceeded with plans even after the coronavirus pandemic hit.

    Honey bees gather outside their hives near Iola, Wis., on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020. The hives belong to beekeepers James Cook and Samantha Jones. The couple has worked with bees for several years but started their own business this year - and proceeded with plans even after the coronavirus pandemic hit. Associated Press

  • Beekeeper Samantha Jones prepares a bee smoker near hives kept near Iola, Wis., on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020. Among other things, the smoke helps calm the bees so beekeepers can open the hives. Jones and her husband, James Cook, have worked with honey bees for several years but started their own business this year - and proceeded with plans even after the coronavirus pandemic hit.

    Beekeeper Samantha Jones prepares a bee smoker near hives kept near Iola, Wis., on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020. Among other things, the smoke helps calm the bees so beekeepers can open the hives. Jones and her husband, James Cook, have worked with honey bees for several years but started their own business this year - and proceeded with plans even after the coronavirus pandemic hit. Associated Press

  • Dead bees lay in a hive kept near Iola, Wis., on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020. Beekeepers Samantha Jones and James Cook say that, in this era of beekeeping, bee deaths are expected - sometimes because of mites, pesticides or a combination of stressors. They say it's a good year when only 40 percent of their hives die, but they plan for half.

    Dead bees lay in a hive kept near Iola, Wis., on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020. Beekeepers Samantha Jones and James Cook say that, in this era of beekeeping, bee deaths are expected - sometimes because of mites, pesticides or a combination of stressors. They say it's a good year when only 40 percent of their hives die, but they plan for half. Associated Press

  • Beekeeper James Cook talk outside their tent near an almond orchard in San Joaquin County, Calif., on Friday, Feb. 28, 2020. Cook and wife Samantha Jones, who are based in Wisconsin, are among the many commercial beekeepers who travel extensively with their hives to pollinate many of the nation's crops. In the days and weeks after this photo was taken, the coronavirus hit the United States and caused a shutdown in California and other states, just as Cook and Jones, ages 35 and 38, were launching their business after working for several years for another beekeeper.

    Beekeeper James Cook talk outside their tent near an almond orchard in San Joaquin County, Calif., on Friday, Feb. 28, 2020. Cook and wife Samantha Jones, who are based in Wisconsin, are among the many commercial beekeepers who travel extensively with their hives to pollinate many of the nation's crops. In the days and weeks after this photo was taken, the coronavirus hit the United States and caused a shutdown in California and other states, just as Cook and Jones, ages 35 and 38, were launching their business after working for several years for another beekeeper. Associated Press

  • Trees flower in an almond orchard in San Joaquin County, Calif., on Friday, Feb. 28, 2020. Each winter into spring, commercial beekeepers travel extensively with their hives to pollinate many of the nation's crops, including almonds.

    Trees flower in an almond orchard in San Joaquin County, Calif., on Friday, Feb. 28, 2020. Each winter into spring, commercial beekeepers travel extensively with their hives to pollinate many of the nation's crops, including almonds. Associated Press

  • In this June 12, 2016 photo provided by Bird and the Bees Honey, beekeeper James Cook stands in front of a truck in Minneapolis. Cook, now 25, filmed a documentary while driving cross-country to raise awareness about the health of honey bees and the impact of pesticides and other stressors. He ultimately testified before Congress about this. (Bird and the Bees Honey via AP)

    In this June 12, 2016 photo provided by Bird and the Bees Honey, beekeeper James Cook stands in front of a truck in Minneapolis. Cook, now 25, filmed a documentary while driving cross-country to raise awareness about the health of honey bees and the impact of pesticides and other stressors. He ultimately testified before Congress about this. (Bird and the Bees Honey via AP) Associated Press

 
 
Updated 10/19/2020 1:36 PM

IOLA, Wis. -- They wrote it right into their business plan - an expectation that, each year, at least half the stock on which their livelihood depends would die.

Building a business around bees is not for the faint-hearted. 'You have to be a little crazy,' says James Cook, who, with wife Samantha Jones, started beekeeping eight years ago. They knew well the challenges their bees face - parasites and the impact of pesticides among them.

 

Even so, they were hopeful. 2020 was to be their year to go off on their own, after working several years for another beekeeper. They and their bees spent the past winter in California's massive almond orchards, full of white blossoms that turn into nuts, thanks to the many beekeepers who travel extensively with their hives to pollinate many of the nation's crops.

Then the coronavirus hit and, for a moment, Cook and Jones panicked.

'Do we stay? Do we go?' they asked each other. By that time, they had packed up their tent and trucked their hives from California's San Joaquin Valley to another temporary home in the state's foothills, where the bees could 'detox' from the agricultural work.

There, they raised 'nucs' - hive starter-kits, of sorts, with new queens - which they sell to other beekeepers to replace bees that inevitably die over the course of a season. This work and the almond pollination each represent about a third of their business.

But they didn't want to get stuck in California's pandemic shutdown. The other third of their business was in their permanent base of Wisconsin, where they own a farmhouse and spend the summer honey season.

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Deemed essential agricultural workers in a line of work that's generally quite solitary, they decided to wait it out. Then they and the bees trekked back to Iola, Wisconsin. There, marshaling their 750 bee colonies, they would set out to create their brand, Bird and the Bees Honey.

The bird in the title is Kat, their free-ranging parrot who often rides in the cab of their truck and who also happens to like honey.

This summer, Cook and Jones and their small crew worked day and night to build an extraction and bottling facility out of old semi trailers.

They were exhausted and in debt, having taken on loans to get the business up and running - but also excited.

Jones, 38, noted how much of the honey available in grocery stores is blended and cooked. 'It would lose all those fine, delicate flavors that honey has,' she says. 'And I thought that people deserved good honey.'

Unlike other agricultural crops, honey also can be stored indefinitely. That's fortunate since the pandemic has left them fewer outlets for sales; farmers' markets have been limited and restaurants and breweries have cut back, as well.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Cook, 35, says the experience of starting a business in these challenging times will make them more resilient.

'I think beekeeping sort of taught me (that) inside of this space of sheer chaos and uncertainty and fear and danger, in a lot of ways, you kind of need to look for the optimism and the beauty that you can find,' he says. 'Because otherwise, it's really hard to wake up in the morning.'

___

Antlfinger reported from Wisconsin and Irvine from Chicago. Terry Chea, an AP reporter based in California, also contributed to this report.

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