Founded and headquartered in Hackensack, a town of about 300 people in north-central Minnesota, Mann Lake Ltd. is the world’s largest supplier of beekeeping equipment. And that puts the company on the front lines of a critical environmental threat. By some estimates, the phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has wiped out more than 10 million beehives — worth an estimated $2 billion — in the U.S. since 2006 alone. The potential long-term consequences are alarming, as roughly one-third of the human diet comes from insect-pollinated plants, and honeybees account for 80 percent of that pollination, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Mann Lake’s founders, Jack and Betty Thomas, had no idea their business would one day play a role in the fight against CCD. Three decades ago, the husband and wife were hobbyist beekeepers. But Jack, who owned a hydraulic engineering business at the time, sensed opportunity in the beekeeping industry. “I saw areas that needed more technology to help beekeepers with new ideas,” he says.
Mann Lake’s first innovations focused on bee nutrition. Jack developed technology for feeding bees with carbohydrate-based sweeteners. He later added a protein diet that features a formula with the essential amino acids bees need to raise their young.
They quickly expanded into pest control. Shortly after the Thomases founded the company, North American bees were attacked by mites from southern Asia. Mann Lake developed and began selling chemicals and applicators to control them. In time, the company branched into hives, protective clothing, tools, and machinery for extracting honey.
Mann Lake added the products simply because its customers asked for them. That customer base now includes both hobbyists (who own one to 100 hives, typically on their own property) and commercial beekeepers (who own up to 100,000 hives, which they transport nationwide for agricultural pollination). “We’re not trying to sell products so much as helping our customers find solutions to their own needs,” says company CFO Theresa Ryan.
That focus on solutions has helped drive the company’s growth. What started as a two-person, home-based operation has developed into a global business. A total of 350 people now work for Mann Lake. Most are in Hackensack, building hives, producing feed, and developing mite control chemicals and delivery systems. The rest work at distribution centers in California and Pennsylvania, and at a newly opened center in England. The location of its Minnesota headquarters, far from urban areas of any size, doesn’t impede delivery and distribution — the company uses a combination of FedEx Express, FedEx Ground, and FedEx Freight to get its products to beekeepers and distributors.
In 2001, the Thomases made Mann Lake into an employee-owned company. The move will help sustain the operation after Jack and Betty depart, which both see as critical since the company has boosted employment and opportunity in a rural area that was in great need of both. “There are many, many examples of people who’ve come [to Mann Lake] and grown into roles they never would have imagined for themselves,” Ryan says. “I’m an example of that.”
The Thomases are helping sustain their community in other ways as well. They are now raising funds to build the Paws and Claws Animal Shelter, a state-of-the-art facility in Cass County, where Hackensack is located. The shelter offers classes that teach children to treat animals with care and respect. Jack Thomas points to research that demonstrates a connection between bullying and animal mistreatment.
Another community he’s concerned about sustaining is, of course, that of bees and beekeepers. Noting that the healthier the hive, the less vulnerable it will be to CCD, Thomas says that Mann Lake’s mite control and nutrition products can reduce stress on bee colonies. And, we all hope, allow bees to keep on sustaining us.