A beekeeper is born: Kara Kelso harvests honey and explains why Des Moines has ‘some of the healthiest bees around’

Kara Kelso harvests a frame from one of her hives on Sept. 21, 2022. — Lily DeTaeye/Little Village

“Look at this pollen pocket! Look at this girl!”

Kara Kelso, co-owner of The Slow Down Coffee Co., excitedly directs my attention to one of her 210,000 bees who is crawling across the frame with big (relative to her size, of course) yellow pockets bursting with pollen. We are in Kelso’s backyard in the Highland Park neighborhood where she keeps three hives. Today we’re harvesting honey and treating the hives for mites, the most common killer of honeybees.

Dressed in her suit — although she wears it reluctantly, citing the heat this summer — Kelso goes from each hive with her smoker. The buzzing starts out as a hum, but grows over time into something all-consuming, yet never unsettling. One by one, Kelso pulls frames out of the hives, assesses them for honey production, gently nudges off the bees, and stores them in a plastic container. She points out which cells are honey, which cells are brood (fertilized eggs that will turn into larvae, and eventually bees) and which cells are pollen.

The orange/yellow dots on this bee are called pollen pockets. — Lily DeTaeye/Little Village

But the impressive knowledge Kelso possesses about her bees is relatively new. Kelso only started beekeeping in 2020.

“I used to make candles and I was having problems with soy. And so I thought maybe I would switch to beeswax,” Kelso recalls. “Beeswax is just really expensive. Anyways, I took a class [on beekeeping] at Bell Farm and I decided to just jump in and do it.”

After she bought her first hive, Kelso enjoyed beekeeping so much that she bought two more, bringing her to the three hives she keeps today. And while bees are rather self-sufficient, there is a decent amount of work Kelso must do throughout the year to ensure her hives stay healthy and productive.

One of the most important tasks is checking and treating her hives for mites.

“The cold does not kill bees, actually. So that’s kind of a misconception. Actually the number one problem for killing bees is mites,” Kelso explains. “Mites really just carry all sorts of diseases for bees. And so that’s something you really have to treat for.”

There are several ways to take care of a mite problem. Kelso uses strips made of components like thymol or hops that she inserts into the hives. When the bees crawl over the strips inside the hive, the mites living on those bees will die upon contact with the strip. However, beekeepers must be careful. In many strips, the active ingredient is a synthetic chemical called amitraz which is harmful to humans and can poison the honey.

In addition to keeping her bees mite-free, Kelso also makes sure there is a water source nearby and that they have enough food stores, like honey and pollen, for the winter. While over-harvesting honey might be an issue for other beekeepers, it certainly isn’t for Kelso, who says her bees have been unusually productive this year.

Honeybee brood. These little capsules each house one larva that will eventually turn into a honeybee. — Lily DeTaeye/Little Village

“They went crazy. Especially because these were brand new queens this year. And it’s very unusual to have this much honey from brand new queens,” she explains.

Bees are matriarchal and rely on the presence of a queen. Queen bees are the only bees in the hive that have fully developed ovaries. While other bees are nurses, drones and workers, the queen’s only job is to lay eggs and produce scents that “regulate the unity of the hive,” according to Bee Hollow Farm.

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When a queen dies or doesn’t return to the hive, beekeepers can either let the hive choose their own queen, or the beekeeper can purchase one. There are pros and cons to each. If you let the hive choose a queen, they may get along better initially, but if that queen hasn’t mated yet, she may get killed on her mating flight and the process must start itself over. When you purchase a queen, she needs to be properly introduced to the hive so the hive doesn’t attack her — but she has already mated, so she will have no reason to leave the hive and is therefore a safer choice in the long-run. Kelso paid about $40 each for both of her queen bees and has seen success this year.

Once the mites have been treated and Kelso has collected enough frames, it’s time to spin the frames into honey. We go into the garage where a stainless steel honey extractor waits for us. Kelso and her husband, Drew, gently saw the wax caps off the chosen frames and enter them into the extractor. From there, the centrifugal force of the extractor pulls the honey off of the frames. The honey oozes down the spout into a filter and eventually into a honey bucket. It’s from this bucket that I fill my own mason jar of Highland Park honey. Golden, lemony and slightly warm.

Drew and Kara Kelso use tools to scrape wax off of the frames before inserting them into the honey extractor. — Lily DeTaeye/ Little Village

It’s clear the Kelsos have come a long way in two years with their beekeeping adventures. Kelso credits her mentor and beekeepers in the community who have helped her along the way.

“It is highly recommended to have a mentor when you are first getting started beekeeping. My mentor just comes by a couple times a year. There’s a great bee community. There was like a Facebook group and different groups of bee people,” Kelso says. “And the lady I bought my bees from, you can call and ask questions to. Everybody is so easy to ask questions to.”

Kelso found her mentor on the Des Moines Backyard Beekeepers blog, a website for Des Moines beekeepers to connect, ask questions and schedule meet-ups.

But the Backyard Beekeepers Blog isn’t the only community available for aspiring beekeepers in Iowa. On the Iowa Honey Producers website, there is an entire list of clubs you can get in touch with that will support you through your beekeeping journey.

Ultimately, the presence of beekeepers in Iowa, but specifically in urban areas like Des Moines, is a win for everyone involved.

“The biodiversity in urban areas also makes bees some of the healthiest bees around. There is so much going on with monoculture and pesticides in the country, it’s great when bees can have diverse plant life to forage on,” Kelso says. “I think beekeeping in Des Moines is important because it really brings visibility to how important bees and pollinators are to our livelihood in general. As bees are declining, it is important to save them because we literally would not have the food we eat without them.”

This story has been updated to correct the number of Kara Kelso’s bees.

Honey oozes from the honey extractor into a strainer and eventually into a honey bucket. — Lily DeTaeye/ Little Village