HACKENSACK, Minn. (WCCO) – Honey bees are responsible for much of the food on our tables. They pollinate everything from crops to fruits and vegetables, and even nuts.

But they’re also in serious decline from a mysterious collapse of their hives.

Beekeepers started noticing Colony Collapse Disorder in 2006. Bees were dying for no apparent reason.

While scientists search for a solution, a Minnesota company is doing its part to help the littler workers who give us so much of what we eat.

Betty and Jack Thomas were hobby beekeepers 30 years ago. But when they found supplies were scarce, they hatched an idea.

“Let’s start a little bee keeping supply business just as a cottage industry out at the lake,” Jack said.

It wasn’t long before the little business blossomed. Just off the highway in Hackensack grew Mann Lake Limited, now a king in the queen bee world.

“We employ more people than live in Hackensack,” Betty said.

Those 350 employees make everything from the hives to the food bees eat in the offseason. They supply beekeepers large and small, from Minnesota to the Middle East.

“When you are a hobby beekeeper you start out with the equipment which we make,” Jack said. “Now you need bees to put in that equipment.”

Millions of bees arrive at Mann Lake Limited in early May, after a 30-hour nonstop run from California, where new bees are bred. They come in 2,000 little wood crates, stacked onto pallets.

The bees generate so much heat the semi trucks that carry them are refrigerated, just to keep them alive.

Each box holds a queen, and 15,000 worker bees.

And on national Bee Day, customers picked up their boxes at Mann Lake Limited to begin another season of beekeeping.

Dustin Wirth and his young daughter, Kinzey, recently got into beekeeping.

“We got a pretty big garden with apple trees and pear trees at home,” Dustin said. “So we decided, you know, with the pollination…let’s give it a shot.”

He also said that the bees might make his daughter a better steward of the land.

“She will learn that maybe the bees are disappearing and maybe we can help bring them back a little bit here,” he said.

One of the biggest problems commercial and hobby beekeepers have is keeping the bees alive.

Pesticides, parasites and harsh winters take a toll. Science now points to a class of insecticides, called neonicotinoids, as the major cause of colony collapse.

Jack and Betty take a lot of pride in building Mann Lake Limited. But with honey bees in imperil, they’re not about to rest.

“Always in the back of the mind is: What else can we do?” Jack said. “Where can we expand? What new products can we come up with?”

It’s all to give bees a fighting chance.

“The bees,” Betty said, “is what it’s all about.”

Betty and Jack have since turned the business over to their employees through an employee stock ownership plan.

Without children of their own, they wanted to make sure the vital work continues.

Bill Hudson