Highland's beekeeping brothers getting a buzz out of retirement

Mark Ellingson replaces the top of one of their hives at a home in Orem on Tuesday, August 20, 2013. Each hive of this size can contain roughly 80,000 bees. SPENSER HEAPS/Daily Herald

It’s a quiet morning in a secluded Orem neighborhood when two men pull up in a pickup truck outside a well-appointed home. The owners are at work, the neighbors’ houses are out of sight behind trees. Donning suits that obscure their faces, they duck under a fence and enter the property. They’ve got their sights set on gold, and the only thing that stands in their way are a few hundred thousand bees.

Brothers Mark and Grant Ellingson operate Neighborhood Beekeepers, a licensed business they run out of their homes in Highland. Upon request, the Ellingsons build beehives in peoples' yards, provided the neighborhood can support bees. They can either teach the owner to be a beekeeper or they can retain ownership of the hives, tend to them throughout the year and at the end of the year the homeowner gets 10 percent of the honey they collect. 

That might not sound like a lot, but the real benefit to having bees in the area is for pollination. 

"Bees pollinate 80 percent of the crops that we eat," Mark said, explaining the insects are vital for pollination of fruit trees, vegetables and flowers. 

The Ellingsons say the results are dramatic; most homeowners rave about their trees and gardens yielding more fruit and vegetables than ever before. And often it's not just the property owners where the bees live who reap the rewards.

"We actually have neighbors who come over when they see us and say thank you, because they're now getting fruit on their trees," Mark explained.

Unfortunately, Mark said, many people these days are averse to bees because they're afraid of getting stung. That means people in urban environments rarely get any interaction with bees, which increases the fear of being stung.

Mark recounts getting a call from a city councilman asking his advice on whether or not the city should allow bees in city limits. After asking a semi-sarcastic question about how they planned to keep bees out and suggesting they instead ban mosquitoes, Mark explained why the answer had to be yes.

"My comment to this individual was, 'if you tell your people they can't have bees, at the same time you're also telling them they can't have fruit trees, they can't have vegetable gardens, they can't have flower gardens, they can't have anything else that relies on bees to survive.' "

Before they got their start, even Mark's wife was hesitant to allow him to start a hive.

"My wife said absolutely not. Not now, not ever," he recalled. But two years of his sons and him pestering her with pleas for bees, she reluctantly acquiesced, throwing her hands up "in a fit of disgust and frustration" and giving them the go-ahead.

"So we brought a hive in that day," Mark explained. "You don't wait when something like that happens. When you get permission you take it and you run."

One hive became two, so they could compare how each were doing. Then a neighbor gifted them a swarm of bees he had caught and put in a box, and they had three. Then came some more.

"Once we had five or six hives, we started getting a lot of honey," Mark said. He and his brother, Grant, bottled the honey and brought it to the Highland Fling to sell. People kept coming up and asking them if they would put bees in their yard, and eventually they agreed it was a good idea.

Six years later, the Ellingsons maintain hives on 35 different properties, stretching from Mapleton up into the Avenues in Salt Lake City. The brothers had two other partners in the beginning, but they dropped out as the workload made it hard to balance with their day jobs. That leaves Mark and Grant pretty busy.

There's plenty of work to do throughout the year, assembling hives, processing honey and making lip balm and hand lotion out of beeswax. However, the busiest months are July through September. When the nectar is flowing in local trees and flowers, the bees build up massive amounts of honey in a short amount of time.

The Ellingsons travel around to their different hives to collect honey-filled boxes and replace them with empty ones. At home they cut the beeswax cap off the honeycomb and put each frame in a special centrifuge that spins the honey out. A spigot at the bottom lets the honey flow into a bucket, after which the honey is strained and bottled.

Mark and Grant have honed their process, but over the years they've made their share of mistakes. 

"If you take one of those boxes that is full of bees and you drop it on your feet, that's not a good thing," Mark said. He recalls forgetting to zip his pants and not realizing until too late that bees were crawling up his legs. That slip-up resulted in 50 stings. "I think every beekeeper has made those mistakes at one point in their career."

These days they rarely get stung, a tribute to their care and skill, not the classic white bee suits that only keep their faces from getting stung -- the bees can sting through the suit if they want to. Despite what some may see as a dangerous trade, the brothers are very much in love with what they do.

"To me it's the fascination of going into somebody else's world," Grant said. "When you put the bee suit on and go into the hive it's like you're going into their world. ... It's fascinating that those little tiny creatures can fill this box full of some of the best-tasting food you'll ever eat."

Mark and Grant are both retired now, but they don't mind too much that the beekeeping is becoming a full-time endeavor.

"I was in the insurance business, and while I certainly enjoyed all the people I worked with and the clients I had, I still sold a piece of paper," Grant said. The gratification of making a tangible product that makes people happy is a big motivator. "It's not as lucrative, but it's a whole lot more satisfying."

The Ellingsons have a lot of demand to set up more hives, and they're happy to do so but are wary of pouring too much more of their time into the business.

"We didn't want to be busy when we were retired," Mark said. "We wanted to have fun."

He said they could scale back their operation, tend to fewer hives, but that they aren't there yet. And though they have been beekeepers for a number of years, their interest is only growing.

"It's still absolutely fascinating," Grant said. "The more you learn, the more fascinating it becomes."

-- Spenser Heaps is a staff photographer covering everything from community events to breaking news to portraits.
Read more from Spenser Heaps here.