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A sweet hobby

Jack Walkup has a pretty sweet hobby. He  is a beekeeper and manages five hives. He enjoys giving the honey harvest to friends and relatives each year.

His wife, Jan, calls the honeybees some “pretty amazing creatures.” Jack simply says they are fun and a way he connects with farming.

Jack grew up on the family’s farm west of Fergus Falls with his eight siblings. Jack, as one of six boys, said there was plenty of help at home as he decided on a career off the farm following his West Central School of Agriculture graduation.

It was a few years before he discovered beekeeping, he said. Jack married Jan, a fellow ag school grad, in 1952 and, after two years in the military, he took a job with the road construction firm of John Dieseth Company. He worked for Dieseth in the summer and studied at the State School of Science in Wahpeton, N.D., and at North Dakota State University where he earned a civil engineering degree.

He continued to work for Dieseth before joining the South Dakota Highway Department in its planning department. But Jack was homesick for Minnesota. He became a consultant with KBM in Alexandria and next, took a position with Wilkin County’s highway department.

The family lived on the outskirts of Breckenridge, and after Jack met a beekeeper through the rotary club, he decided to take up the hobby. He soon met another bee enthusiast as he made plans to purchase his first set of bees.

“I figured I needed something to do when I wasn’t working,” he said with a smile. “It was a type of farming.”

He ordered two colonies through Sears and Roebuck and started raising bees. It was a hobby with many trials and errors, he said. He got information from fellow beekeepers and magazines like the American Bee Journal.

“In the magazine, everyone writes in and tells you what works and what doesn’t work,” he said. “And you go from there…”

One year, in midwinter, a storm knocked the top off of a hive. When he checked it, he saw the snow moving back and forth in the hive. He pushed the snow off and put the cover over the bees. They survived.

“I don’t know how they did it, but they pulled through,” he said.

After 10 years in Wilkin County, the Walkups moved to Aitkin as Jack worked with the county highway department. The bees came with as they moved their household possessions to the new location. Their new home in the country was the perfect spot for the hives.

He soon learned he wasn’t alone in his love for bees. Jack joined a local beekeepers association and maintained the connection when the couple moved to Fergus Falls in 2011 to be closer to their children and grandchildren.

None of the couple’s four children — John, Dewey, Virginia and Dawn — have showed an interest in beekeeping, he said. Dewey helped once, but he lost interest after he was stung. And Jan learned she’s allergic to the stings.

When she learned, through an American Bee Journal article, that the Mayo Clinic was conducting a study on bee venom and allergies, she called clinic doctors. The couple traveled to Rochester with some of Jack’s bees in tow, she said. Jan went through a series of tests and received a regular series of shots which made her almost immune to the stings. Although her face would swell when stung when she was on the shot sequence, it didn’t affect her breathing. But, when they waned from the shot sequences, she once again experienced the allergy.

“They really aren’t as viscous as people portray them to be,” she said of the bees. “You have to slap at them a bit before they will sting.” She carries an epinephrine auto-injector pen, just in case.

While she might not help Jack extract honey from the frames, Jan often uses it to create delicious culinary treats. She often uses honey instead of sugar when baking. And she’s used it in numerous other recipes of her own design.

This past year was a slow year for honey, she said. Over the winter, Jack lost all of his hives, but started new in the spring. The bees he purchased through the Brainerd beekeepers group proved their mettle as they produced 145 pounds of honey per colony. He felt good about his harvest considering other beekeepers were reporting 30 pounds.

He has about five hives which are placed on his son John’s farm. There the bees have feasted on alfalfa and sweet clover.

Bees are interesting creatures, Jan said. They don’t cap the cells filled with honey unless the honey’s moisture content has dropped to about 18.5 percent. Anything over that will ferment.

Once the frames are 75 percent capped, he harvests the honey. The harvest usually takes place between August and late September, he said.

In his honey shed in the couple’s backyard, he places the honey-filled frames into a hand-crank extractor. The centrifugal force releases the honey which is collected in large plastic pails. He brings the pails to the basement where, once heated in a small vat, the honey is poured into jars and “honey bear” containers.

He claims he subsidizes his small hobby, but judging by his smile, Jack enjoys the challenge of beekeeping and the sweet harvest his hives provide.

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