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March Neighborspotlight 2016

Charlie Koenen, BEEvangelist  march spotlight  

by Lee Gutowski

 

You may not know his name, although you’ve probably seen him before. Like many people around town, you may know him only as “The Bee Guy.” Which is pretty appropriate, really, as Charlie Koenen (pronounced KEE-nen) is all about the Bees. Honeybees in particular. For Charlie is the brains behind and inventor of the Beepod, an ingeniously designed beehive that is as recognizable as its creator.

It’s hard not to talk A LOT about bees while telling Charlie’s story. Problem with that is, there’s a lot of other stuff to talk about when you’re talkin’ Charlie. With a background in computer programming back in the early days of Apple, and before that, a talent for working on, and even building, cars (Beetles, to be exact), Charlie’s got a lot of great stories to tell. And somehow they all add up to Beepods.

A Milwaukee native, Charlie grew up in Shorewood and attended UW-Eau Claire for a while before enrolling at UWM and studying graphic arts and design. While at UWM, he got to work on the Macintosh+ computer that debuted in the mid-80s. After graduating, Charlie started working at a company selling Apple computers.

In the early 90s, Charlie started his own IT business, 3rd Millennium Design (3MD), a desktop solutions company which eventually grew to about 20 people and provided sales, service, training, and design. Charlie and 3MD were teaching ad agencies and design firms to “Think Different” during those early days of Apple and the digital publishing revolution.

Though he had a graphics design degree and tons of knowledge that he was leveraging to make a living, eventually he grew disillusioned with the computer business. Apple was also starting to open service centers that siphoned off would-be 3MD customers, and the “business part” of things was draining the passion from what had been Charlie’s focus.

What happened next not only re-
inspired Charlie, but offered him a unique opportunity to apply the “Think Different” approach from Apple to beekeeping.

“I finally got interested in bees in 2002, and I really just bumbled-stumbled into it,” Charlie says, employing one of the “bee-isms” he’s added to the vernacular. “That’s when my sister told me about this farm out at 55th and Silver Spring I should see. Turns out it was Growing Power. So, one day I was out on sales calls for 3MD and decided to stop in and talk to Will Allen.”

Charlie started doing tech consulting for Growing Power, but eventually got to help out around the place, “playing in the dirt,” as he puts it. “One of the things there, besides vermiculture and aquaponics and stuff, was the bees.”

A photo shoot of the bees was planned for creating Growing Power’s digital marketing materials. For this, they needed to get high-resolution photos of the bees. But like many of us, Charlie had been stung by a flying insect before. “I was living in Shorewood, in a second floor place with a porch just big enough to dry stuff on. I was sitting out there talking on the phone … and I looked down and these black hornets were stinging my leg. So I ran through the house and they kept chasing me. They literally chased me down the stairs and out to the street.” Long story short, “We ended up calling someone, who came and killed the wasps with a neurotoxin. Let’s just say that whole experience made for a bad day and a strong vendetta.”

So when Charlie was going to photograph the bees at Growing Power, he borrowed a very nice camera with a “huge long lens,” so he wouldn’t have to get too close to them to get good shots. All he knew about bees at the time was that they stung people and made honey.

There were Langstrop (box) hives at Growing Power, and prior to the photo shoot, Charlie admits, “I used to think the bees were just waiting for someone to take the top off the hive so they could go sting them to death.” But then he got to watch the bees, “and I got to see up close exactly what the bees were doing. There was a much safer environment of complex cooperation than I ever knew. I realized that the honeybee hive is a superorganism, and the bees are the elements that make it up. I fell in love with bees right then and there.”

For Charlie, falling in love with bees meant getting his own hives and learning about bees with a vengeance. He learned beekeeping through trial and error, experimenting with bees while still running his computer business.

He eventually started leading beekeeping classes through Growing Power, and applied the “Think Different” motto of Apple to his teaching about bees.

“Something I realized early on was that we needed to make a better beehive,” Charlie explains. “I was teaching people that were going into early retirement, who were taking up beekeeping as an avocation. In particular, these 3 super old, retired nuns that were cute little frail things, came to learn beekeeping. Obviously these women were having trouble physically managing their traditional Langstrop hives. For one thing, they’re just too heavy. How are these nuns going to be able to lift a 60-lb. super filled with honey?” Charlie set out to apply his design know-how to build a better home for his tiny, yet hugely important, charges.

“People were doing this type of work in other places, too. Colony collapse disorder was on the radar, and lots of folks were thinking about what to do about it,” he continues. “One of the things you always look for in designing something is what hasn’t changed in a long time. And the beehive hadn’t changed in 150 years.” The WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) idea from Apple was applied to the hive redesign efforts, as well.

Charlie consulted with the artsy, techy, creative minds he’d met along the way—first at Bucketworks (where there was a deck with beehives and “everyone thought the bees were cool and were freaking out because they could get so close to them”) and later at Flux Design. They isolated problem areas in beehive design and set out to solve them. “We looked at ventilation problems; at how to feed the bees; and how to see how the bees were doing without impacting their environment so much,” They came up with solutions, like “Bee TV,” windows on either side of the beehive that allow you to see inside the hive, live.

Eventually a unique, vented top bar hive system was invented—the Beepod.  The new product was rolled out at the 2009 Milwaukee Home & Garden show. “Since I’m an Apple guy, I knew the ‘iPod’ was famous, so that’s where with the name Beepod came from.” Charlie has hooked up with a business partner, Brad James, who’s the Beepods marketing guru, and the company has added sales and customer service people to the staff.

Beepods.com has grown into a thriving training and manufacturing company that produces a vented top bar hive system that is unique in the beekeeping world. Charlie is gearing up for the start of the season, doing tons of public speaking, teaching people to think different about bees and just spreading the buzz in general. He’s currently celebrating the passage of a new beekeeping ordinance in Shorewood that he helped write and shepherd through the political process. He’ll lead new-bee beekeepers in training sessions at Shorewood Library sometime near the end of March.

Classes will also be offered through the MPS continuing education program this spring.

Stay tuned to Beepods.com for more details as they become available. 

Science and nature and art and tech design interact in this business/passion of Charlie’s, and his enthusiasm is contagious. “Just by being a bee, the bee is performing its essential role of making nature abundant,” he offers.  “Wouldn’t you know, after becoming disillusioned with computers, I found something to help that could benefit society through the bees.”

The bees are coming. They’re getting trucked back from the almond fields in California, following the pollinating season across the country with the arrival of spring. Charlie Koenen will be hard to miss in the coming months as he criss-crosses the land, spreading the buzz about resiliency and sustainability through the ancient practice of beekeeping.