As honeybees disappear in record numbers across the globe, their struggle has inspired grassroots efforts to save the future’s pollinators.
Meet four people with a bee in their bonnet, representing a new breed of activists motivated to help the besieged insect: virtual beekeepers Barbara and Bryan Ritter of Garland, Kan.; executive chef Kyle Williams, who tends a corporate-sponsored beehive at Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Kansas City; and John Speckman, a professional apiarist — or beekeeper — who lives in Shawnee and has a passion for educating hobbyists and beginners in the art of keeping honeybees.
The virtual hive
It’s not the kind of film to watch before falling asleep: a documentary sounding an alarm about the epidemic threatening the very existence of something essential to the Earth’s ecosystem and food supply.
But that’s exactly what Barbara Ritter did in 2010, while living in Roeland Park. One night, when her husband, Bryan, was traveling halfway across the world for his Cerner sales job, she settled in for “Vanishing of the Bees.” The 90-minute documentary on Netflix outlines the honeybee’s global challenges to maintain colonies and the implications that the mysterious disappearance of millions of the pollinators have on mankind.
She recalls watching the film, slack-jawed, while learning about colony collapse disorder, a phenomena ravaging bees, destroying colonies and disrupting crops in Europe, Australia, Asia and the United States.
The syndrome occurs when the majority of worker bees in a colony — the bee’s family unit — vanish, leaving behind nurse bees to care for immature bees and the queen. According to the film, although bees have abandoned hives throughout history, it wasn’t until 2006 that a significant rise in the number of disappearances of the western honeybee was reported.
“I don’t know why it profoundly impacted me,” Barbara Ritter said. “I was shocked. Why am I just hearing about colony collapse disorder when it’s been going on for years? The documentary explored every angle of how it affects us: economical, ecological and even political. One in three bites of our food come from bees’ work. That’s staggering.”
A restless night ensued, and Ritter shared with Bryan her newly acquired knowledge over the phone the next day, unable to shake off statistics that kept buzzing around in her head. Such facts as that global fruit and vegetable crops depend on the honeybee and that in 2005 the worth of worldwide crops dependent on pollination was close to $200 billion, according to the Agriculture and Consumer Protection Department of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
“Bryan thought I was a little nuts,” she said. “He said, ‘OK Honey, I’ll be home in a couple of days.’ ”
Soon after, during one of his many business trips, Bryan Ritter read an inflight magazine article on the honeybees’ predicament.
“Quite frankly, it scared the heck out of me,” he said. “Barbara and I came to the realization differently, but we felt empowered to do something. We found out 40 to 49 percent of bee colonies in Kansas alone had disappeared since 2006. We lived in the suburbs — what could we do to help?”
The Ritters had discussed living in the country on weekends and holidays; they drew a 100-mile radius around Kansas City and started hunting for acreage. The couple found 80 acres outside Garland, Kan., near Fort Scott, renovated the property’s 80-year-old farmhouse, christened it Black Dogs Farm and started thinking about keeping bees.
Transitioning from a sales to a training role in his job, Bryan was encouraged to find something he was passionate about and speak on it.
“I shared how Barbara and I were moved to action, to be part of the solution in saving bees,” he said. “I became known as ‘The Bee Guy’ at Cerner. Every chance I had, bees became analogies for overcoming sales objections and other business scenarios.”
Barbara Ritter left her administrative job at Rockhurst University in 2012 and moved to Black Dogs Farm full time; still commuting for his job, Bryan visited on weekends until, after much discussion and research, he left his corporate job and joined his wife. In addition to keeping chickens, a flock of sheep, a few cows and a growing family of rescue dogs, the Ritters established their first beehive.
“Used to be every farm had its own beehive,” Bryan Ritter said. “There’s not just a diminishing number of bees, there are fewer and fewer beekeepers. Many farmers today rent bees to pollinate their crops, especially in California, America’s fruit and vegetable basket.”
The next step in their journey was to become virtual beekeepers to help others who share their concern over colony collapse disorder join them.
“Essentially we keep bees for others,” Barbara Ritter explained. “A person makes a capital investment of $500, which includes 3 pounds of bees — about 3,000 bees — and a queen. Bryan builds each hive and I paint them. People decorate their own hive to personalize them, and we maintain it.”
Currently Black Dogs Farm has virtual beekeepers from Weston, St. Louis, San Clemente, Calif., Alabama, Florida, Kansas City and Overland Park. The Ritters have 11 active hives out of the 28 they sold because they’ve lost bees to colony collapse disorder and other predators like wax moths and beetles.
The Ritters let their customers know that not every hive thrives.
“It’s heartbreaking when things don’t go well with our hives,” said Bryan Ritter, who is allergic to bee stings and carries an EpiPen when he works with hives. “We don’t use pesticides on our property, but people around us do, which of course we can’t control.”
Francie Stoner of Weston was the Ritters’ first virtual beekeeping client. Her hive, emblazoned with the University of Kansas Jayhawk, was installed at Black Dogs Farm in spring 2014. Later that year for Christmas, she and her husband purchased virtual beehives for each of their five children. Stoner’s hive produced enough honey the first year that she could share some with her friends.
Stoner has seen the advantages of local honey firsthand, with a grandchild who had severe respiratory allergies.
“He was cured after eating locally grown honey,” she said. “Beyond health benefits, bees are integral to our world. It’s up to each of us to be conscientious citizens and help them — if you can’t have a hive, become aware of how pesticides hurt them, what you can do in your own yard to encourage them while they’re gathering pollen. Barbara and Bryan are good teachers.”
Stoner applauds the Ritters’ proactive effort.
“Everyone can do just a little bit, even if you don’t do the actual work,” she said. “They’ve taught me that.”
Like other bee advocates, the Ritters insist that solutions to the decline in bees include things that people can do in their own backyards and communities.
“Plant flowers that attract and feed pollinators, start a backyard beehive if ordinances permit, study the art of beekeeping, don’t use pesticides,” Barbara ticks off action items. “Buy local honey and encourage elected officials to adopt legislation that protects bees. Share successes on social media.”
Virtual beekeeping, the Ritters emphasize, isn’t about making money or even about producing honey. If a hive yields honey, the Ritters split it with the owner; they reinvest any profits from selling their portion into the virtual beekeeping operation.
“It’s all about making bees,” Barbara Ritter said one recent sunny Sunday afternoon, inspecting beehives with Bryan. “What the world needs now is more bees.”
The urban hive
Kyle Williams loves bees and is a champion for their survival.
“Efforts to save the bee population can really start with one person,” he said, “and they deserve our attention for many reasons, not the least of which is their vital importance to the world’s food production system. They’re extraordinary, complex creatures.”
The executive chef at Blue Cross and Blue Shield’s Live Blue Kitchen and Café, operated by Elite Cuisine, keeps a corporate-sanctioned hive. It was installed in March 2016, at the insurance giant’s Kansas City headquarters across from Union Station at 2301 Main St.
Williams was introduced to the urban beehive when he worked for Todd English’s Ca Va Cocktail Lounge in New York City’s Times Square. They kept their hives on the 13th floor, Williams said.
New York City legalized beekeeping in 2010 and today swarms with rooftop hives. The city even hosts an annual Honey Week that is equal parts education, entertainment and honey-themed dinners and honey tastings.
“Kansas City hasn’t even begun to tap into its urban beekeeping potential,” Williams said. “As far as I know, this hive at Blue Cross and Blue Shield is the city’s first corporate beehive.”
Serving 400 employees a day at the Live Blue Kitchen and Café, Williams includes menu items that incorporate honey. One recent Thursday morning, the chef pulled slabs of ribs off the smoker, slathering them with his honey-barbecue sauce. Power energy bites, made with local raw honey, are popular snacks at the café.
“I’m not taking honey from our hive because we’re going into winter and the bees need all the food they can get,” he explained. “Next year I want to organize a team of employees here at Blue Cross and Blue Shield to spin honey.”
Williams consulted with the Missouri State Beekeepers Association for advice on setting up the hive.
“Clayton Lee, the vice president of the organization, was tremendously helpful,” he said. “It’s a thrill that my cafe staff and I now manage a bunch of bees as part of our everyday kitchen duties. And we remember that bees are necessary for their pollination, not for their honey.”
Stirring up a batch of his honey-barbecue sauce, he pauses before coating the smoked ribs.
“That,” he said, “is a delicious byproduct.”
The hive gospel
John Speckman is on his way to talk to youngsters about bees, something he does on occasion. A professional beekeeper, the 70-year-old Shawnee resident fell in love with bees at age 10.
“I grew up on a farm on the outskirts of Manhattan, Kansas, next to an orchard, so there were lots of bees pollinating the trees,” he said. “Bees sparked my interest and has held it for decades. They’re fascinating insects with a good social structure.”
Retiring from a job in IT a decade ago, Speckman started beekeeping full time and launched Speckman Honey Farm. Today he has 400 hives on different farmers’ properties in a 90-mile radius of Kansas City and sells his honey at many Hy-Vee and Price Chopper stores. In addition, he counts among retail clients using his sweet clover honey many restaurants and bakeries. His wife, Beverly, is allergic to bees so she handles the company’s marketing, manages the books and makes deliveries.
Although Speckman hasn’t personally experienced a lot of colony collapse disorder, he acknowledges that the agricultural environment has changed tremendously across the world in the past 30 years.
“Every inch of ground is farmed and there’s the practice of applying pesticides, herbicides and fungicides,” he said. “Plus there are different pests that make their way to the U.S., negatively affecting bees, like varroa mites and small hive beetles.”
Speckman is relieved that the public is coming to the realization that many insects play an important role in the world.
“Part of what I do is to educate people, like these kids I’ll address tonight, about bees’ importance,” he said, “and what can be done to help them and not harm them.”
Speckman mentors a teenage beekeeper in Johnson County who received a scholarship from an organization he belongs to, the Northeastern Kansas Beekeepers Association.
“It’s rewarding to help people, kids and adults understand they can make a difference,” he said. “I could talk bees all day. In fact, my wife sometimes says I’m part bee.”
Kimberly Winter Stern is an Overland Park-based freelance writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or @kimdishes.
To learn more
Colony collapse disorder, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA.gov
Virtual beekeeping, Black Dogs Farm: BlackDogsFarm.net
Urban beekeeping, Missouri State Beekeepers Association: MOStateBeekeepers.org
Beekeeping scholarships: Northeastern Kansas Beekeepers Association, NEKBA.org
Local Honey Barbecue Sauce
Makes 1 quart
2 cups Simply Heinz Ketchup (see note)
1/2 cup molasses
1/4 cup Worcestershire
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2-2 teaspoons liquid smoke, or to taste
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste
1 cup raw local honey (see note)
In saucepan whisk together all ingredients except honey and turn on high heat. Season to taste. Stir with rubber spatula while heating to ensure sauce does not burn. Once the sauce comes to boil, reduce to a low simmer and cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
After 30 minutes, remove from heat. Allow sauce to cool almost to room temperature before adding honey. Season to taste. Store in refrigerator until ready to use.
Chef’s notes: Simply Heinz is made with real sugar and not high fructose corn syrup.
If you add honey while cooking and while the base mixture is still hot, it will pasteurize the honey and it will lose its raw health benefits.
Power Energy Bites
You can use certified gluten-free oats and omit wheat germ to make this recipe gluten-free.
Makes 1 quart of mix or 24 (1-inch) bites
1 cup quick-cooking oats, uncooked
2/3 cup unsweetened coconut flakes, toasted
1/2 cup natural creamy peanut butter
1/4 cup ground flaxseed
1/4 cup wheat germ
3/4 cup cocoa nibs
1/2-1 cup raw local honey
1 tablespoon chia seeds
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract or real vanilla powder
Pulse oats in kitchen blender 3-5 times. In large mixing bowl, add coconut, peanut butter, flaxseed, wheat germ, cocoa nibs, honey, chia seeds and vanilla extract and mix well with hands. Work all ingredients into one another. Roll into 1-inch balls. If dry, add more honey a teaspoon at a time. Chill energy balls in refrigerator for 2 hours before serving.