Beekeepers Bounce Back After Act of Vandalism

Toppled bee hives covered in snow
It didn't take long for two young boys to do a lot of damage at this bee farm in Iowa.

WildHillHoney / Facebook

The bees are buzzing again at Wild Hill Honey in Sioux City, Iowa. And the company's honey is back on the shelves at local markets and coffee shops.

It's the new old normal, but for a while, owners Justin and Tori Engelhardt weren't sure that would ever happen again.

It was just past Christmas in 2017 when they were met with a heartbreaking sight: Strewn about within the apiary they own on 18 acres were the remains of 50 beehives, toppled over sometime the night before by vandals. Tools and other equipment from a nearby shed had also either been destroyed or thrown into the snow.

"They knocked over every single hive, killing all the bees. They wiped us out completely," Justin Engelhardt told The Sioux City Journal.

A few of the ruined beehives toppled over late last month at Wild Hill Honey by vandals.
Police arrested two juveniles ages 12 and 13 for destroying $60,000 worth of bees and equipment at Wild Hill Honey. (Photo: Wild Hill Honey/Facebook)

While a toppled beehive during the warmer months isn't always a loss, exposing one to frigid cold is a veritable death sentence. Bees in winter form what's known as a cluster, a phenomenon in which the colony transforms itself into a tightly packed group about the size of a basketball. Using stores of honey as food, the bees are remarkably able to keep the temperature within the cluster around 65 degrees Fahrenheit (roughly 18 degrees Celsius).

But should the fragile cluster break, any bees exposed to freezing temperatures will quickly die. In the Engelhardts' case, they estimate they lost some 500,000 bees within a few minutes, based on the winter cluster average of 10,000 bees per hive, down from a summer peak of almost 100,000 bees per hive. The total damage was estimated to exceed $60,000.

After dusting for fingerprints and measuring footsteps still present in the snow, police later arrested two boys, ages 12 and 13. They each face charges of first-degree criminal mischief, agricultural animal facilities offenses, third-degree burglary, and possession of burglar's tools.

A community unites

beekeeper gives a thumbs-up at Wild Hill Honey
After a rough winter, things are looking up again at Wild Hill Honey. (Photo: Will Hill Honey/Facebook)

The attack essentially put Wild Hill Honey out of business. The Engelhardts mentioned their loss on Facebook, unsure if they'd be able to keep going.

News of the attack spread quickly, sparking a GoFundMe campaign that amassed more than $30,000 for the business.

"Killing bees should be a crime, and without them, we've got nothing," wrote one commenter on Facebook. "They're so important to keep our environment alive. I hope these boys are made to work on your farm to at least clean it up, and that they will be on punishment for the rest of the year. This is a travesty."

Thanks to the generosity of more than 800 donors, the Engelhardts were back in business just six months after the attack.

"Thank you to everyone for your generous contributions and your amazing show of support," they wrote on Facebook. "Because of you, we will be able to continue our business in the spring. We are deeply moved by your compassion. Between the contributions and the equipment, we were able to salvage, our needs have been met. There are so many great causes to support. Our wish is that this spirit of compassion will be used to help others now."

In fact, an update on the GoFundMe page asks supporters to help beekeepers in Texas who lost hives during a hurricane.

Since the Engelhardts were able to purchase new bees, new honeycombs, and new beekeeping equipment, business has been good again.

Now, more than a year and a half later, they've gone from 200 to more than 12,000 followers on Facebook, and Wild Hill Honey is available in more places than ever. Justin Engelhardt had an opportunity to go to Uganda this spring to help farmers there learn how to sustainably keep bees.

Back in Iowa, the bees continue to produce honey.

"We had a great harvest of honey last year," Tori Engelhardt tells Treehugger. "The winter was hard on our hives, but they continue to grow and thrive again."