DOWNTOWN: Death In The Snow

By: Toni Burnham

But Sioux City Bees Will Fly Again

You could call it the gut shot heard ‘round the world: a half million honey bees dead in the Iowa snow, and a small family business destroyed by vandals in the night. And it jangled not just the small universe of beekeepers, but whole communities who surround and (it turns out) stand with us.

You probably heard it on the news, if the outcry from your own friends and colleagues didn’t reach you first. On the morning of December 28, 2017, Justin and Tori Engelhardt of Wild Hill Honey in Sioux City, Iowa discovered that vandals had toppled all 50 of their colonies, and had broken into their bee shed, damaging everything they could. The Engelhardts were out of business. Or so they thought.

A torrent of support came to them in a single day through a social-media driven GoFundMe campaign, almost $40,000 in 24 hours, and they will start again. After Sioux City, vandals also attacked an apiary in Prunedale, CA, and the community rallied around Alfonso Perez, too.

But blows like this leave a mark, and while some lessons are learned (and shared), some precious links will have to change.

The story of Wild Hill Honey is a great one: it makes me wish that I was their neighbor. Asked if they thought of themselves as urban beekeepers, Justin said, “It is really interesting to talk about the position of our hives. Sioux City has a population of about 80-90,000 people, the greater Siouxland area has a population of about 140,000 people. So, we are right inside the city: our house is on the north side, but our land is on the west.”

Becoming Beekeepers

Justin and Tori Engelhardt have been beekeepers for only six years. They love the place where they live: the prairie and what grows on it. Tori studied Forestry at Iowa State, Justin has a Latin degree from the University of Iowa, and they make their living as carpenters. Considering how deeply they understand and speak about horticulture, apiculture, and habitat, I thought that they held science degrees!

Justin explains, “Probably six years ago I was on my way to do a roof, and I was listening to NPR. They were doing an interview with a professor named Tom Seeley of Cornell University. He wrote this book called Honeybee Democracy, and it is all about how honey bees make decisions… I said to myself, ‘That sounds like a cool damn bug!’ I decided to get some, and I love it.”

The scene of the crime

The Engelhardts didn’t have any land, but soon had 17 hives with some folks who were willing to host them. Justin started doing some research: he wanted to keep the bees away from row crops, but near some amazing parks.

“We wanted to keep them away from corn and soybeans. Something like 99% of the corn crop here in Iowa has neonicotinoid pesticides and, last I checked, 85% of the soybean crop. We wanted to stay away from that stuff, and in the city.”

Justin also did a map study on the Woodbury County Assessors page. He discovered 18½ acres around which you could draw a two-mile ring and find Stone State Park–a nature preserve; the Briar Cliff Prairie Restoration Project; and the Woodbury County Conservation Area. The hitch? It was divided into over a dozen tiny lots, the smallest only 1/6 of an acre.

Justin says, “It took me something like 13 deals to get that property: it was a bunch of little, tiny, worthless lots. They were overgrown.”

“It took about three years, and I got it for cents on the dollar, because nobody wanted it. Some sold for the back taxes due the county, some for taxes to the IRS–I bought some from a lady who had inherited it but had never been to Iowa. None of them had buildings, but they all conjoined. I stitched them all together, and the last thing we had to do was to buy a road from the city, a one-block stretch:  it is a dirt track, was never paved, and there are no utilities, but it connects them all.”

“Probably a third of it is in cedar trees. You can tell that it used to be pasture: the tallest ones aren’t more than 15 feet. The rest of it? About a third of it is in broom grass.”

Revitalization, four wings at a time

“We’ve owned part of the property for about five years, and now a lot of it is in Crown Vetch, because the bees are making a huge impact on the environment. At first there was just a little bit of Crown Vetch in there, but because it gets so thoroughly pollinated, the Crown Vetch now just grows like crazy.”

“My wife and I are also really interested in prairie remnant plants: Iowa used to be all Tallgrass Prairie. Something like a fraction of 1% of the tallgrass prairie is left. Of our 18 acres, probably half an acre is all Big Blue Stem, Goldenrod – all tallgrass prairie plants.”

“It was just an interesting observation: we didn’t have any plans to spread the tallgrass prairie plants, or any of the forbes. We could find only one Lead Plant on the property when we bought it: it’s a tallgrass prairie shrub. Those racemes are just packed with pollen, and it comes when there is a lull in our year. Anyway, there was one we bought, and now there are about 50 of them.”

“Also, there is a little plant called Prairie Clover: it is different from the yellow or white sweet clover that we have so many of. This prairie clover, though, it is all over now: there are asters in the Fall…it is really remarkable to see how many forbes have popped. It is neat to see the impact of that the bees are having on the environment.”

The Wild Hill Honey Method

“We have really good honey flows. It is not always great, but you can’t really expect to get more than 100 pounds per hive. [Note: that is not a typo. He said 100 pounds.]

“It’s a really remarkable spot. I think the average in Iowa last year was 50 lbs.

“The reason is that we have some really early plants, like willows. They start blooming in February, and if you get one really nice day, they are going to start bringing in pollen and kick off. We’ve got Silver Maple and Sugar Maple. When I was a kid, those did not bloom until the first or second week of April, now they bloom by the end of March, March 25th last year. There’s a really potent native, Virginia Waterleaf, that grows in the understory and blooms in mid-Spring. That really gives the bees a kick.”

“We have started running one-and-a-half story hives instead of double deeps because we very rarely have bees starve. We do open them up in the Spring and find dead outs, but usually not signs of starvation. We might see moisture or dwindling, frozen, so we wanted the hives to be smaller.”

“Most of the hives that were vandalized were made up of a deep and a shallow. There is some evidence that smaller hives handle Varroa mites better, so that is part of what we were shooting for.”

“We run homemade crown boards on top, not the commercially available ones. Ours are ¾” thick and have holes just big enough for mason jars. When we feed early in the Spring or late in the Fall, we don’t have to open up the hives. We take the lid off, stick this jar over that hole, and put a feeder box around it. We don’t have to break the seals. Our hives are then three boxes high, and we just take off the lid: there’s this box with the feed cans inside of it, and we pack it with wood chips for insulation.”

Hindsight is 20:20

“One thing I thought was an advantage but which I came to regret is that, when the bees didn’t need to be fed, I would just put that mason jar aside in the wood chips for later and put a piece of burlap over the holes. If we got a 60 degree day in January, a I would say to myself, ‘I gotta feed ‘em!’ then just go out there where I already have mason jars stowed. All I have to do is scrape away some wood chips, fill the jar from my jug, pull out that burlap, turn the mason jar upside down, and voila! How smart is that?”

Well, it works unless you have vandals that knock over your hive and smash your mason jars.

“The big loss was the loss of the comb. The bees died, yeah, but we also lost six years’ worth of comb, because we could not be sure that this comb was free of glass. If I had taken the jars out, that would not have been a factor and I could have saved more comb.”

“Also, we built a shed for beekeeping supplies. These kids had to break a window to get in, so they broke every window, and they knocked over our stacks of drawn comb. We use queen excluders, so I have honeycomb in there that is 6 years old and never had an egg laid in it, super strong (I harvest off of it). We put that box in the extractor, spin it out, then put that box on another hive to clean it out, then store it.”

“After they broke the windows, they kicked over the stacks of comb into the glass.”

“It was really the loss of the comb, and the next year’s honey crop, and all the bees…it was such a huge hit.”

The vandalism

The vandals came on a cold night, when it snowed about an inch and a half.  The snow is the reason why Tori and Justin came out the next morning, to clear entrances.

“We parked on the far side of the property, and were walking through the trail, looking at all the deer tracks, and the rabbit tracks.” 

“And then everything was knocked over, and there was an inch and a half of snow on it.”

“There was an amazing thing. When we got out there, the air temperature was about five degrees, negative 10 degrees with wind chill. We started picking things up, and there were still clumps of bees alive.”

“We sort of pulled some frames together, put them in a hive. There’s no way they are going to make it, you know, but we can’t just leave them. But they survived the night, lying out on the ground like that, which is kind of shocking.”

“It got up to 55 degrees the other day, and there were bees flying out of two of them.”


“That day was rough. But the response is the surreal part. First by the media, and then by social media.”

“When we first saw it, we knew it was going to be bad, but we had to walk through to see how bad. And you know, every hive. Tori said, ‘we have to call the police.’”

“So, we called them, and they were there in less than 10 minutes. It went over the police scanner, because three news organizations interested in the story contacted us within 30 minutes. We said, ‘we’re just picking up hive parts out here, you are welcome to come out.’  And they did.”

“Tori put something on our Facebook page, to ask for information. It’s not a huge city, people know stuff. Tori put a picture up, hoping that we could get a lead for the police.”

And then they worked all day in the cold, picking up pieces.

According to Justin, “By the time we got home that night, three different people had set up GoFundMe sites: the response was amazing.  We shut them down about a day later.”

“After we shut down the GoFundMe sites, we left a message saying that this compassion could be used to help other people, pointing at the Houston beekeepers. They lost thousands and thousands of hives to Hurricane Harvey, and they’ve got a GoFundMe site, but it hasn’t really gotten any press.”

Who gave?

“There were so many messages, we don’t even know who all messaged us. We are doing our best to try and respond – it was overwhelming! We heard from people as different as a large commercial guy who is going to help us out with bees in the Spring but insists on keeping his name out of this, and folks with only one or two hives who say, ‘We’re only a state away, want us to come help you clean up?’  There’s a local producer of mead who made a generous contribution, and hundreds of beekeepers: it was really nice.”


At first Wild Hill Honey announced that it was shutting down, but now the Engelhardts are going to keep going, though there will probably not be a honey crop before 2019, and the bees will have to live somewhere new.

“We are going to get new hives in the Spring, and a different location because we got burnt there.”

The Engelhardts have put the lot that they stitched together so lovingly up for sale.

“We bought it because we were going to put bees on it, but it just feels too risky now. If we could build a house up there, then we would feel ok because they would be in our giant backyard. But we don’t have that kind of money. We are years away from being able to build up there.”

“The bees were doing great up there, but we will see what happens. We have a new location, even closer to Stone Park, that we are going to try out next year. We are going to install a robust security system.”

Justin asked me to point you to beekeepers in need in Houston and Puerto Rico, and I promised. Here’s to having each other’s backs, and riding on the hope of bees.



Puerto Rico:

Toni Burnham keeps bees and helps new beekeepers get started in the DC area.