Honeybees much more than a hobby for family
By Kylene Scott
Sharon Rowan jokes she married her husband, Jim, for his honeybees. But what started out as a hobby for Jim at the age of 10 has turned into something for the couple to do during retirement. The Rowans own and operate their honey shop in Norwich, Kan.
“He had several hives when we got married,” she said. “We just gradually through the years increased our number of hives and at one time we were up to 200 hives, and then in the late 80s the mites came through and wiped us out and we had to start all over again. At that point we built back up to 100.”
With the number of hives they keep, there has to be an outlet for all the honey the bees produce. Sharon began to look for different ways to use the honey, and started cooking with the honey and making different products with it.
“After we had built up to like 200 hives, obviously that’s more honey that we can use as a family,” she said. “About 2003 we opened the shop, and we’ve gradually just increased our products.”
Besides the bottled honey, the honey barbecue sauce and the honey horseradish mustard are big sellers. She also makes jam, jellies, pickles, fudge and snack mixes among other items.
“Everything in the shop has honey and or beeswax in it,” she said. “The soaps have honey and beeswax.”
Starting out in a little building across the street from the current location, Sharon outgrew the first shop and now has plenty of space to work and create her product line.
“This building is about three times the size of the first shop, and so that gives us a lot more room to work,” she said. “We purchased the building to the north here this summer, and that will give us room to build hives, and put together equipment. Then in the spring when we sell packaged bees, we’ll do that over there.”
Rowan hopes to expand her business in the future and even though she’s retired, it doesn’t mean she’s not busy. She’s at the shop about every day working on new products and creating something.
“So, I’m not really retired. My husband hasn’t retired yet. I guess it keeps me busy while he’s still working,” she said.
The shop is unique in that it sells only honey and honey products.
“As far as we know, we are the only honey shop in Kansas,” she said. “I mean there’s places that sell honey, but we’re the only one that sells only honey and honey products, and hopefully we can expand on that and not only increase our number of products and variety of products but also our clientele.”
Although they do run a business, Rowan has a hard time de-classifying beekeeping as a hobby, especially since the whole family is often involved.
“It’s a hobby that the whole family can enjoy and I’ve had several people who want to start bees, and they’ll say ‘I’m worried about the bees being so close to the yard with the children,’” she said. “Our kids and our dogs and everybody grew up with bees right around the backdoor, and nobody thinks a thing about it.”
School groups and adult organizations often come to the shop to see an observation hive and actually get up close and personal with the bees. During the first week of October 2013 she had 125 visitors in two days.
“They always have a lot of questions and of course they have a lot of stories—but it’s fun. It’s really fun,” she said. “That’s probably the only time most people will get to see a queen bee because a queen will stay in the hive most of the time.”
The Rowans belong to the Kansas Honey Producers Association and the South Central Kansas Honey Producers, and have gained experience, knowledge and other things from their memberships to these groups.
“You form a lot of friendships with different people across the state through those associations and through beekeeping because beekeepers love to talk about bees,” she said. “It’s a constant communication system I guess you’d say. Almost every night someone will call and say, well, what did you do about or have you ever had this situation—you know, this kind of thing. So we work together and support each other on things like that.”
What’s in the hive?
The bee industry is very interesting because of what goes on inside the hive.
“A hive of bees is fascinating to watch because you never quit learning about them, and they have a work ethic and a social structure so unique that you can learn a lot from just watching the bees,” she said. “I always say the bees are a lot like people, and for example, we can have several hives lined up in a row and this hive just might make a large amount of honey, the hive right next to it doesn’t hardly make enough to make it through the winter. Some work hard, some don’t.”
Rowan often compares the hives to experiences of her 40 years teaching. For example, if a queen dies and the hive is open, it’s very noisy. She can tell by the sound that there’s something wrong.
“I always say, it’s like when a teacher leaves the classroom the kids get noisy,” she said.
There are a number of different “jobs” the bees have within the hive, and during the honey flow in the summer time, a worker bee will only live two to three weeks, and during the wintertime they’ll live probably 4 to 6 weeks. Now, the queen, Rowan said, usually has a lifespan around two to three years. The queen has to lay about 2,000 eggs a day to keep the numbers up.
“A good strong hive should have around 80 to 100,000 bees in it. But since they die so quickly— and the reason they live such a short time is because they wear their wings off because they work so hard,” Rowan said. “They will easily travel three miles if they have to for a source of food. Of course, the closer they are to the floral source the better it is for them.”
One bee only makes about 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime, taking 12 bees their whole lifetime to fill a teaspoon.
“So when you think about a gallon of honey, that’s a lot of bees,” Rowan said. “A lot of work. Lot of lives spent.”
When the bees are hatched and eat their way out of their cells, the minute they come out, they go to work. They know exactly what their job is.
“They have a rotation system within the hive where they’re housekeeping bees, nurse bees, guard bees, field bees, throughout their lifetime, and they know exactly they have to do,” she said. “They work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They never rest, and they keep that queen cool in the summer, and they keep her warm in the winter.”
The expense of the hives and the bees is making the work not very attractive to some, but it still remains a fascinating hobby that any age can enjoy, Rowan said. The cost of the wooden wear, hive equipment and bees have all gone up.
“Bees are getting so hard to keep alive that the cost of buying bees is much more expensive than they used to,” she said. “When my husband started way back when he was 10 he bought a complete hive, with the bees, for $10. That same hive nowadays would be about $400.”
The Rowans used to be able to order bees in a three-pound package of bees with a queen and they’d be delivered “by the postman” for $25.
“Nowadays they won’t hardly ship bees, and if they do it’s quite expensive. So we have to deal with large apiaries in California or down south who will ship them by semi and we have to get a whole load of them,” she said. “We’ll usually go together as a group and we’ll sell bees to local people.”
What they’re good for
In central Kansas, Rowan is amazed at how many beekeepers are in her area.
“It’s a very popular thing to have one or two hives to help with your garden,” she said. “A lot of people don’t realize how important the pollination is of the bees. They say that one out of every three bites of food you take is the work of a honeybee, and if we don’t have bees, there’s a lot of our food items that we take for granted that will no longer be available.”
Most avid gardeners enjoy having bees close by or in their gardens because it increases their crop. Rowan thinks the same for alfalfa and clover crops.
“Most of the farmers are raising alfalfa for hay to feed their livestock, but if they allow it to go out to seed, their production will be much higher if they have bees pollinating the alfalfa,” she said. “In Kansas, clover and alfalfa are our two main sources of honey for the bees to work.”
The bad with the good
With modern farming techniques the bees also face other issues.
“Our biggest problem right now is that so many farmers are going to the no till farming and with that they do so much spraying,” she said. “The spray kills the bad bugs, but it also kills the good bugs and that includes the bees.”
There is an ingredient in the sprays that is very deadly to the bees, and manufacturers are starting to sell sprays for people to use on their lawns and gardens with the same ingredient.
“It’s extremely harmful. If the farmers will notify us that they’re going to spray, we can either move the hives or we can close them up,” she said. “Depending on what they’re going to spray because there’s some sprays if we close them up for 24 hours its safe for them to go out again, where some of that stuff stays on the plant and they’ll bring it back to the hive, and so then it kills them quite on farther down the road.”
Although it may be thought the bees can’t handle the cold, they really can, Rowan said.
“Cold really doesn’t bother them it’s the extent of the cold. How long it stays cold. They have to have a cleansing flight at least once every 30 days,” she said.
As long as the bees can get out for a cleansing flight they should be ok. The insects won’t defecate or urinate in the hive.
“They’re extremely, extremely clean in the hive, and if anything gets in the hive—you know, if a leaf blows in or anything like that, if they can’t carry it out they’ll seal it in wax to prevent it from contaminating anything in the hive,” she said.
Most of the bees’ work is to take care of the queen. Rowan said when it’s cold out, they will cluster around the queen and keep her at a constant 85 degrees.
The cold doesn’t bother them, but sometimes if it stays cold too long, that cluster will stay in one location in the hive and it doesn’t move over to another source of food,” she said. “If they have honey here, and they’re down here, they don’t move up to it, and so it’s the lack of food that will get to them more than the cold.”
Sometimes a hive won’t make enough honey to get it through the winter, and the Rowans will have to monitor the hive and feed them a sugar syrup. They also use an antibiotic to keep the bees healthy when needed in the early spring and late fall for some common diseases. The bees mix pollen with their honey to feed their young, and sometimes in the wintertime need some help with this.
“We put on what we call a winter patty, and it’s got pollen and honey and a protein mix in it. So it’s kind of like giving them a vitamin shot throughout the cold winter,” she said.
The drought also causes issues as well.
“With the drought, of course, that was harmful to the bees because things weren’t blooming. There was nothing for them to work on or forage on,” she said. “But at the same time if we get a real strong rainy season, that’s also harmful because it washes the nectar out of the plants, and it takes, you know, depending on what the plant is, it takes a while for that to reproduce the nectar for them to work on.”
One would think that if it’s raining and things are blooming, the bees have a lot of things to feed on, but it’s not necessarily true. The flowers also have to be a type that the bees can “work on.”
“I always think its interesting that the alfalfa bloom is very attractive to the bees, but the alfalfa flower has a mechanism in it where when they take the nectar out of that flower it trips it and they can’t go back to that same flower again, where as a clover bloom they can go back to it repeatedly,” Rowan said.
The worst problems the Rowans’ bees face is mites. There are two types that really do harm to the bees.
“They have things that will help with the mite situation but it’s no guarantee, and it seems like they’ll come up with something and it will work maybe a year or two and then the mites get resistant to it so then they have to come up with something else,” Rowan said.
A lot of the beekeepers are trying to go chemical free and not treat, she said, and let the bees take care of it themselves.
“In the bee industry, there’s a lot of research on that and they’re trying to come up with bees that groom each other, and more or less pick the mites off kind of like you see monkeys doing,” she said. “There’s some advancement there, but that’s not done yet.”
Kylene Scott can be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at 620-227-1804.