While enrolling in college in the late ’70s, Grant Gillard decided to take a class he was sure could be passed easily. As he grew up on a farm, he knew a bit about the world of insects. Entomology seemed a sure bet.
“On Tuesdays, the professor lectured about honeybees,” Gillard said. “On Thursdays, we studied the hive. Our professor told us if we got stung, we’d pass the class and get an A.”
Gillard got stung, passed the class — and came down with bee fever. This progressed into a lifelong passion for honeybees and beekeeping.
After graduating with a degree in agriculture from Iowa State University in 1981, Gillard returned to the family farm in Minnesota and launched his beekeeping enterprise.
Nearly four decades later, Gillard is still passionate about bees.
“What started as a hobby became a hobby on steroids, then an obsession,” he said.
Today Gillard operates his bee farm, Gillard Honey, in Holden, Mo. Using sustainable, chemical-free beekeeping practices, he manages 200 hives that produce raw, unfiltered and unpasteurized honey products. This straight-from-the-hive honey is sourced from a wide variety of plants and flora, including alfalfa, clover, sorghum, blueberry and strawberry.
“The longer I’ve been keeping bees, the more I’ve I come to understand what bees are about,” he said. “They’re the best teachers.”
As a vendor at the Lee’s Summit Farmers Market, Gillard has ongoing opportunities to discuss and educate customers on the vital contributions of honeybees.
Some of Gillard’s customers have done their research and are already seeking out the honey he sells.
Mickey Ebert, of Blue Springs, recently purchased a jar at the Lee’s Summit market.
“I‘ve been learning about the advantages of wild, raw honey,” Ebert said. “I have a grandchild and I want her to have the benefits of this honey.”
Gillard is happy to discuss with his customers why bees are vital to sustaining the health of the planet’s ecosystem and food sources. An advocate for bees and sustainable beekeeping practices, Gillard has written more than a dozen books on the subject, and speaks at regional and national events.
“Bees are important because of pollination,” he said. “One of every three bites of food we eat is the direct result of pollination by honeybees.”
Hyper-efficient, these insects provide pollination for numerous crops, including fruit, vegetables, seeds, coffee, cacao, nuts and oils.
While Gillard’s passion for beekeeping has grown over the decades, he has witnessed obstacles facing the industry — both for bees and their keepers.
“Agriculture has gotten very specialized and we have mono-agriculture, one crop for acres and acres,” Gillard said. “Herbicides that selectively take everything but the crop are marvelously productive for agriculture, but bees need diverse foliage.”
Gillard said that transportation departments mow thousands of acres of blooming weeds just as they start to flower each year.
“They mow exactly when the weeds start to bloom and eliminate this pollen source for bees,” Gillard said.
He said increased pollution has also eliminated forage for bees, while hard-to-kill parasitic mites have devastated colonies around the world. Greenhouse gasses adversely affect pollen by reducing the quantity and nutritional value of the protein in pollen which, in turn, shortens the bee’s lifespan.
The industry is also facing a challenge from within.
“Current beekeepers are beginning to retire, our numbers are diminishing and we’re facing an oncoming scarcity of beekeepers,” Gillard said.
“Younger people are not coming into the business and beekeeping is something that needs to be embraced as a business.”
Beekeeping is an investment of time, money, energy, long days and long nights, Gillard added.
“Many people start to keep bees, but most quit in two years,” Gillard said. “It’s expensive and you don’t typically get honey the first year.”
Gillard believes these difficulties have created a watershed moment.
“All of the crises have created a greater interest in bees,” he said. “There’s been an increase in education on local levels, along with mentoring services. A lot of people are genuinely concerned and are rising to these challenges.
“Beekeepers are resilient and we keep finding ways to stay in there and get things done.”