Fork. Spoon. Life. Andy Hemken

Andy Hemken got into beekeeping initially as mostly a hobby, starting with two hives. Twenty-four years later, he oversees about 400 hives in Big Bend, selling honey locally and teaching classes to aspiring beekeepers every February. 

He never gets tired of honey, and he never expects to stop learning about the art of beekeeping. 

You’ll find Hemken Honey sold at local farmers markets, including through October at the Sunday Greenfield Farmers Market at Konkel Park, and New Berlin Farmers Market from 8 a.m. to noon Saturdays at the city center, 15055 W National Ave. 

During winter look for Hemken at the Mukwonago Winter Farmers Market  held the second and fourth Saturdays of the month, November through April, at the Mukwonago Community Library, and the Oconomowoc Winter Farmers Market held Sundays Nov. 3 through March 15 at Oconomowoc High School, and the Sunday Milaeger’s Great Lakes Market in Racine.  

Look for an updated class schedule to be added to the website,, in January. Classes typically are offered in Big Bend the first Saturday in February.

Beekeeper beginnings

I belonged to the Mukwonago Rotary Club and a couple of guys had bees. One ended up moving, and he sold me his hives. I was off and running. I started with two hives, and now we have a little over 400. 

Changing careers

I was a safety and ergonomics consultant, for 27 years with the last company. I had just a couple hives for about three years, then a couple of things happened. I met a guy, Cliff. He was 91 when I met him. He became my bee mentor. He was happy to have someone to talk over bees with.

He lived in the city of Milwaukee and kept bees at 35th and State. When he was about 97, a new neighbor ratted him out. I had to work with the city on it, and we ended up moving the hives out here to Big Bend. It worked out well.

He made it to 100 and still had a dozen hives. He started when he was 11. He was a beekeeper back when you did everything by hand. He knew a lot of stuff about bees and people, and he taught me a lot. 

At the same time, I found out there was a county group for beekeepers meeting at the Brookfield Library. They talked about bees here and there, and I started talking about bees, and pretty soon I was president. Now I’m on year 16 as county president for Milwaukee/Waukesha. I think we have about 150 members now. We’re bringing in national speakers for our little club. 

Never ready to retire

I think about my buddy Cliff, who was beekeeping till he was 100 years old. It isn’t like real work, playing with stinging insects. I spend most of my time with bees, not a lot of political correctness and things that get me in trouble. It is a lot more fun, and I have beekeepers who come help me here and there and they get to learn. Beekeeping gets into your blood. I am always learning. Always. About the time I die, my learning will end. 

Bee basics

There are anywhere between 20,000 and 60,000 bees in each hive. It goes down in winter and gets bigger in spring and summer. I mostly have Carniolan, a European honey bee. They seem to do overwinter here better. 

Bringing in bees

We get our packaged bees from northern California. … There are only about 2.8 million beehives around the country. … Commercial beekeepers raise their own queens. They ship them all over the country. Last year I brought in 700 packages, 200 for myself and 500 for my friends.

Success as he sees it

This year we overwintered a little over 200 hives. It may not sound good to lose over half your bees, but with the mites it is a big problem, so you have an overwintering success of anywhere between 20% and 90%. So far suppliers have been able to keep up with demand, but there are more and more hobby beekeepers out there and more demand for the packaged bees. 

Problematic parasites

The biggest thing over the last 30 years is the parasitic mite, the varoa mite. That’s the one that has been creating havoc throughout the bee world. 

Beginning beekeeping

Study. Read everything you can about honeybees. It is difficult for some people when they first hit the ground with bees, because all the old farts — I’m an old fart now — have their own way to keep bees. If you have 10 beekeepers and ask them, they’ll all have different answers and they’re all right.

Keeping and storing honey

Honey is the one food that insects make that people eat. Honey is a good food. It doesn’t spoil, it doesn’t go bad.

Store honey where it is warm, like a cabinet or counter. If you put it in a refrigerator it will crystallize. If you put it in a pan of warm water at about 100 degrees, it’ll liquid right up. It’s still raw honey, because it isn’t overheated. Just store it on the counter or in the cabinet, and if it does crystallize, don’t microwave because that spot heats the honey.

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Fork. Spoon. Life. explores the everyday relationship that local notables (within the food community and without) have with food. To suggest future personalities to profile, email [email protected].

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