LAKE VILLA – Ann Miller said she has traveled shop to shop for five years selling her product like Loretta Lynn.
However, Miller offers Lake County and Door County residents something much sweeter and far more luxurious than Lynn’s music.
As the Lake Villa resident opens her light brown box, shop owners catch a gleam of gold. She is not a jeweler, though the cargo she carries with her may soon become very precious.
Miller is a beekeeper and owner of Annie’s Apiary in Lake Villa. She sells honey and uses the hive products to create serums, lotions, lip balms, skin toners, scrubs and soaps.
“Something about bees is so spiritual,” the 59-year-old said. “They’ve been alive since dinosaur times. They have a fantastic social system where they all work for each other. A single bee is nothing, but together, they are this community that produces health and sustenance for everyone.”
Nothing in the hive is wasted and everything has a health benefit, she said.
“The hive is sort of a medical cornucopia if you’re not allergic to it,” Miller said.
Honey, beeswax, propolis and pollen, along with other organic, chemical-free products, contribute to the skincare line that Miller is concocting. The health benefits of different hive products lessen symptoms of arthritis, boils, acne, asthma, dermatitis, ulcers, inflammatory bowel diseases, cataracts, poor sleep, bad breath, cuts and burns, she said.
Her skincare products and soaps are sold at 15 local stores, including Polson’s Natural Foods in Antioch, Earthly Goods in Gurnee, and Ginger Blossom in Richmond.
Miller decided to take up beekeeping in 2009 when she couldn’t find a teaching position. She graduated in 2008 from Dominican University with a master’s degree in teaching and learning.
“You reach your goal, and it can't happen and you’re like now what?” Miller said. “You need to set a new goal and it always needs to start with your passion.”
She read “Beekeeping for Dummies” twice and gave it a try. She said the best way to take up beekeeping is to become a self-taught learner and find a mentor. Miller’s mentor is the Lake County Beekeepers Association, which she joined in 2009.
“I needed to keep my brain busy and beekeeping is very fascinating because there is so much to learn and I really like to nurture things,” she said. “I love to be in the country, so it’s like the perfect thing: I’m outside, I’m in nature, I’m nurturing the bees and stimulating my brain. It’s just fascinating.”
Originally, Miller said it was just about her and the bees.
“I treat them with utter respect,” she said. “I used to not be afraid to kill a bee and now I try and let every one of them live and am very gentle. You become like a lion tamer.”
She expanded her business to skincare products when she realized the hive was not sustainable without it.
Miller’s best-selling product is the beeswax lip balm. Her favorite skincare product is the moisture serum.
“It started off as a little cottage industry and now I’m ready to grow,” Miller said. “I want to be [national company] Burt’s Bees' competition.”
Miller spends at least 30 hours a week tending the bees, selling and creating products. Miller has also invested about $5,000 in her business. A three-pound package of 30,000 bees costs Miller $95 dollars. This year, she spent $600 replacing bees because they died in the severe cold this past winter.
Her bee loss aligns with the the rest of the nation’s beekeepers who saw similar population declines. Bees are experiencing a population decline because of pesticides, mites, disease and food diversity shortages in the last several decades, experts say.
President Barack Obama published a memorandum in June addressing this issue by outlining a federal strategy to promote the health of pollinators like bees.
In the memorandum, Obama estimates honeybee pollination alone gives the nation’s agriculture an added value of $15 billion.
Miller said bees pollinate almost all fruits, vegetables and nuts. Without pollinators like bees, the world will be left with grains and meat.
“It’s just not enough,” Miller said.
Miller wants to change the laws.
“I’ve always been the girl scout, community leader-type person,” Miller said. “I believe you can effect change. Some people don’t, but that’s not how I am.”
Miller said bee repopulation starts with native plant bee gardens and reduction of genetically modified plants and pesticide use. She also endorses healthy, organic foods for everyone.
“What we have is a two-tiered food system,” she said. “We have those who can afford organic and then you have the mass produced genetically modified organisms that feed the masses that are cheap. Why can you eat a giant hamburger at Jack in the Box for $2.25, but a piece of broccoli costs $5? Because it’s subsidized.”
Miller’s products are not certified organic. She said it is required that two other beekeepers go through the process with her but she cannot find anyone willing to pay the certification fees. However, her bees live on two organic farms in Richmond.
Miller wanted her bees on organic farms because bees seem to avoid genetically modified plants. Her bees make a vegetable honey that she said is “mild and light and lovely.”
Miller said people can help bees by growing plants that bees like such as veronica, sage and wildflowers.
“[Bees] really need attention,” she said. “People have to change their behavior, not choose plastic bags, all that. I’m such a hippie.”