In a south Johnson County field, stalks of Queen Anne’s lace and black-eyed Susans sway in the breeze. Nearby, a tall white box stands, bees crawling all over it. For John Speckman, it’s a great sight.
After 55 years and many tons of honey, Speckman knows the beekeeping business inside and out. The local honey producer keeps his bees all over southern Johnson County, in Douglas County and on the Missouri side as well.
Speckman, of Shawnee, has just concluded his busy, peak honey season for bees, when he takes most of his honey from the hive to Hy-Vees, Price Choppers, and a few restaurants and bakeries on the Kansas side.
Speckman was about 12 years old when he first got curious about beehives. Living on an orchard near Manhattan, Kan., he got to see plenty of them up close.
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He and some friends spotted a hive and knocked it down with rocks to get at the honey. Although he got stung, he also became interested in the bees. Speckman ordered some bees in the mail, and an older beekeeper in the area taught him the craft for three years.
“You can read books all day long, but until you do it” you won’t fully learn the art of beekeeping, Speckman said.
That first hive eventually became a side business and then grew into a full-time business that now encompasses 350 hives, each with 60,000 to 80,000 honeybees. Each of those hives produces about 50 to 60 pounds of honey in a year — that’s roughly 19,000 pounds total for Speckman’s colonies.
The rainy weather that plowed through the area earlier this summer made the bee population swell temporarily. The reason? Just like the rest of us, bees stay inside when it rains and don’t wear out the lifespan of their wings as fast, Speckman said.
“I know when it’s going to rain, because the bees have an attitude,” he said.
Each hive resides in a stack of ordinary-looking boxes resembling a bureau. Inside those boxes, Speckman has sliding screens with a foundation material for the bees.
The bees take it from there, constructing the honeycomb, filled with honey. When they seal over a section with beeswax, Speckman knows it’s ready to harvest.
“When the nectar’s coming in, they just work. The more space you give them, the harder they work,” Speckman said.
Most people might be afraid of walking through air thick with the flying insects, but for Speckman it’s all part of the routine.
To harvest the honey, Speckman mellows the bees’ temperament with some smoke, which causes them to eat honey and become calmer. He doesn’t usually wear the traditional beekeeper gear.
“If I have to dress up like I’m going to war, I don’t want that,” said Speckman, who prefers to manage his bees’ behavior by giving them more docile queen bees as leaders.
After pouring the smoke from a metal container, he slides out the frame, filled with finished honeycomb. He spins out the honey in an extractor, then strains it through a nylon filter and heats it to about 105 degrees. After that his wife, Beverly, handles the packaging.
Speckman thinks his business is the only producer/packager on the Kansas side in the area. Some others may have local labels, but that just means the honey was packaged here. It doesn’t guarantee the honey was produced by local bees, he said.
He sells honey, comb honey, bee pollen, beeswax and starter hives, all of which come from his own hives.
Many people use honey and bee pollen to try to control allergies. That only works if you use honey made from the local pollens to which your body is reacting, Speckman said.
Members of the Speckman family generally don’t use sugar at home — they’ve got all the honey they need and put it in coffee and on their toast. They even substitute it in recipes when baking.
Speckman doesn’t own any land, but he keeps hives in Stanley, Stilwell, Gardner and Olathe on the edges of various farms. He and the farmers have a barter agreement — space on their farms in exchange for honey and help with pollinating crops. Farmers also give Speckman some of their own crops, such as a bag of tomatoes or a few melons.
Although he started out in farmers markets, you won’t find Speckman there anymore — he just doesn’t have time. He and his family were able to build their wider distribution to grocery stores and restaurants just by knocking on doors and talking to the buyers at those businesses.
Quite a few local food producers, including Speckman, have done just that at the Hy-Vee at 95th Street and Antioch Road. Local farmers and others bring in a price sheet and samples of their product, and store personnel decide which products to try on the shelves.
Once the product is accepted, the food producer is responsible for checking store shelves in each location to make sure there is enough of the item there and for restocking when the supply gets low.
“You kind of have to watch that they’re staying on top of their product and (that) it’s staying full on the shelf more than the other (national brand) stuff that comes on the truck,” said Jason Draves, assistant manager of store operations for that Hy-Vee location. “The other stuff is automatically reordered on the computer, (but) if they don’t come in for two weeks and we’re out, they don’t know unless we call them.”
Although Speckman’s operation is purely family-driven, many other food producers will connect with local distributors to make sure their products are delivered and stocked in a timely way.
Customers are happy to see Speckman’s products and other local items on the shelves, Draves said.
“People are always wanting to support local businesses and local foods,” said Draves.
Honey may be sweet, but it’s not an easy business. Speckman has been stung so many times that he barely feels the stings anymore.
“In the spring I’ll feel it, because I haven’t been stung for six months,” Speckman said.
Speckman also has to protect his bees from insects such as the small hive beetle and the varroa mites, as well as bigger pests like skunks and raccoons.
A larger problem facing many beekeepers is colony collapse disorder, which showed up in 2006.
“Colonies that appear healthy and booming and growing suddenly collapse in a matter of weeks,” said Chip Taylor, a professor at the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas. “There are virtually no bees left in the colony. You might have a handful of bees and a queen, but (there’s) lots of stored honey and pollen.”
Its cause is still unknown, though many theories exist. Some people blame the use fungicides or insecticides, while others say the problem could result from fungal, bacterial or viral pathogens.
Taylor said it’s probably a combination of factors.
One particularly controversial kind of insecticide is neonicotinoid. Results released in May from a study at the Harvard School of Public Health indicate that two types of this insecticide cause harm to honeybee colonies over the winter months.
“Bees are basically dust mops out there. They’re picking up everything,” Taylor said. “There’s data to support many (theories), and that’s the confusing thing.”
Studies like the one at Harvard are difficult to conduct, Taylor said, because even if two hives are sitting side by side, the bees in them will not necessarily pick up the same pollens or look for pollen in the same fields.
“It’s hard to believe, (but) all you have to do is put a pollen trap on two colonies, and you’ll see they’re gathering different things,” Taylor said.
Another possible cause for colony collapse comes from the pollination industry, which is a much bigger business than honey when it comes to bees. Farmers pay for bees to be brought in to help pollinate their crops.
It’s not a local operation, and bees that originate in Florida could find themselves being trucked to the West Coast, where many nuts and fruits, especially almonds, need their pollination skills.
The stress of the journey is difficult for bees, and when they arrive there’s not always enough pollen to support all the bees that made the trip.
“They put them on 18-wheelers and truck them around the country. … (Bees have) stressers associated with moving … that they didn’t have 20 years ago,” Taylor said.
At an international conference last year, Marla Spivak, a professor of entomology at the University of Minnesota, said that although colony collapse came to our attention in 2006, the total number of honeybee hives in the United States has fallen by more than half since 1945.
“After World War II, we changed our farming practices. We stopped planting cover crops (like) clover and alfalfa, which are natural fertilizers that fix nitrogen in the soil, and instead we started using synthetic fertilizers,” she said in the talk. “Clover and alfalfa are highly nutritious food plants for bees.”
Spivak, who received a MacArthur Fellowship for her work with bees, also said that the modern farming practice of planting one or two plants exclusively in large farm fields creates “agricultural food deserts” for bees and that these fields “provide a feast” for farm pests, which fuels the use of pesticides.
Beekeepers are doing what they can to keep their hives healthy, but the chemicals they use to protect the bees from mites and other attackers can hurt the bees as well. Mites also adapt to chemicals quickly, which means “you’re in an evolutionary race with the mites,” Taylor said.
Many beekeepers are trying to stop using chemicals. These beekeepers tend to be the amateur ones who only have a few hives, according to Taylor.
Speckman himself uses natural remedies with his hundreds of hives.
Speckman hasn’t noticed much of a problem with colony collapse yet, and that’s pretty typical of a smaller, less industrial beekeeping operation, Taylor said. The really big producers are the ones noticing the most problems.
However, Speckman said the increasing use of insecticides and herbicides has massively changed the honey business since he started. He said he has noticed that the chemicals weaken bees’ immune systems progressively over the course of a few generations.
“Many people who have pointed out that if we have another really bad winter that we’re going to have a real honeybee crisis. If you lose 30 percent (of your hives in a year), you can replace that. If you lose 40 percent or more, you can’t replace that in one year,” Taylor said. “It costs a lot of money to replace your bees.”
When it comes to a honeybee crisis, Taylor isn’t worried about how it would affect the availability of honey.
“Honey is not the issue. We can import honey from other places,” he said. “It’s really pollination services that are on the line. We are the most dependent country in the world on honeybees for the production of our food crop.”
Until five years ago, Speckman was also a full-time information technology developer, but these days he’s all about the bees. He does all the physical labor with the bees with some help from his son-in-law, Jess Collins. It takes more than three hours to drive around and check each hive.
The irony of Speckman’s family business is that his wife and two daughters can’t help with the bees themselves — they’re all allergic. Beverly Speckman handles marketing and distribution instead.
One of the bigger things Speckman must confront is the realities of Johnson County’s southern sprawl. Built-up land means fewer pollinating plants for bees to gather pollen and nectar from, and fewer farmers with spare land for his hives.
With the popularity of ethanol, more fields planted with corn also get in the way, since the bees don’t benefit from that crop.
Around this area, bees like plants such as clover, alfalfa and soybeans, Speckman said. When there isn’t enough nectar from crops to feed the bees, Speckman provides them with sugar water to survive.
Though the hard work of maintaining hives and harvesting honey can be draining, it’s all worth it for Speckman. For now, back in the flowering field, he’s focusing on the sweet taste his honey brings.