Here's an article placed in our city newspaper. Guess we here in the Kansas City area can't have clean honey.....
Posted on Wed, Jul. 16, 2003
Kansas honey contains the floral sweetness of the prairie
By ANNE BROCKHOFF
Special to the Star
As the dust from the gravel road outside Gardner in southern Johnson County slowly settles behind their pickup truck, Joli Winer and her husband, Cecil Sweeney, step into a scene so perfect it could be a movie set.
A breeze rustles the knee-high brome grass that is gradually overtaking the once-thick blackberry brambles. Birds have just started their evening chatter, and bees buzz lazily in the low sunshine.
The couple is checking on a dozen or so of their 150 beehives wearing only light, olive-green net jackets with veiled hoods for protection. Guests who are less certain about interacting with honey bees can opt for the white Haz-Mat style jumpsuit with full head-to-ankle coverage.
A low hum rises from the first hive as Sweeney uses what looks like a watering can with an attached bellows to puff smoke over it and calm the bees. He pries off the lid, then removes the honey supers, or layers of the hive where bees store their surplus honey.
When Sweeney reaches the brood chamber, Winer pulls out one of the frames and begins searching for the sole queen among the hundreds of bees clinging to it. Sweeney reaches over and gently scoops up a handful of insects.
"When they're out working like crazy, they could care less what you do around the hive," he says, before softly shaking the bees off.
Honey's flavor and color are dictated by local flora. Bees frequenting wildflowers in Kansas will produce something very different from those buzzing around the avocado fields of California or the tupelo trees of Georgia.
But those flavors are hard to find on supermarket shelves, which are typically stocked with honeys blended for an anonymous golden sweetness. Small beekeepers like Winer and Sweeney are the best source for truly distinctive, local honey that tastes of the landscape that is our back yard.
Going with the flow
Most Kansas honey is produced between June and mid-July, and much of the early flow comes from bees dining on clover. The result is a light amber honey with an almost floral sweetness.
But while summer is peak honey season, its production is actually a year-round job that starts each autumn, when beekeepers gather the last of their honey and bed the bees down for winter. The hives come back to life in February, when the earliest spring flowers start blooming and the queen begins laying eggs.
A hive's population will grow to 50,000 or 60,000 bees. Up to 1,000 are males, or drones; the rest are sexually undeveloped female workers. Worker bees clean the nursery, care for and feed the larvae, make wax comb, guard and cool the hive and, of course, gather nectar.
After filling up on nectar, a bee returns to the hive and regurgitates it into one of the comb's hexagonal cells. The bee's digestive system splits nectar's sucrose into dextrose and fructose, then the mixture turns into honey as it evaporates.
In May, Winer and Sweeney start moving their hives into fields scattered across Johnson, Miami, Leavenworth and Douglas counties. A hive's bees will travel 55,000 miles and visit 2 million flowers to produce each pound of honey.
The early honey Winer and Sweeney gather comes almost entirely from sweet yellow and white clover. That gives way to darker, stronger-tasting wildflower honey by early summer; autumn rains sometimes prompt fall flowers that yield a second, later crop of honey. What goes in the jar simply depends on how the countryside changes through the seasons.
More than 300 types are produced in the United States, and they range from almost clear to dark brown in color and from mild to bold in taste. It all "depends on where the honey bees buzzed," says National Honey Board spokesman Bruce Wolk.
Varietal honeys like Florida's orange blossom and Maine's blueberry come from regions that have hundreds of acres of a single crop and enough steady rainfall to keep it in flower. Kansas is unfortunately short on both, and most producers sell only clover, wildflower or the occasional jar of alfalfa honey.
"Kansas is a tough place to produce varietals," says Tim Tucker, president of Kansas Honey Producers, a beekeeping organization founded in 1903. "Our honey flows are too sporadic."
A healthy buzz
Bees also have to be healthy to produce all that honey, so Winer and Sweeney visit their hives regularly to ensure the bees are thriving.
The insects can suffer from bacterial diseases and protozoan infestations, but the most serious threat in recent decades has been the Varroa mite. The pest has wiped out wild bee populations and must be treated chemically to keep the same from happening in managed hives. That makes truly organic honey a thing of the past.
"If you are doing organic, your bees will die. It's as simple as that," Winer says. "A lot of people claim to have organic honey, and I just don't see how it's possible."
Each healthy hive will produce 50 to 80 pounds of surplus honey annually. In 2001 that added up to 186 million pounds of honey for the nation's 200,000 beekeepers, or a crop worth $127 million.
Once the honey has been collected, it must be separated from the comb, filtered and packaged. And Winer and Sweeney must get it all done while running Mid-Continent Agrimarketing, their year-round beekeeping supply business in Olathe.
Winer and Sweeney sell everything their fellow beekeepers, known as apiarists, need: queen bees in tiny boxlike cages, hive frames, heated knives used to slice away the seal on the honeycomb, extractors that use centrifugal force to spin the honey out, pressed cotton plugs to burn in the smokers, antibiotics and protective gear.
But it's not just about bees -- the store's aisles are also packed with candle molds, jars of all sizes, books and craft supplies. A faint, floral sweetness wafts out of the warehouse in back, where the fixed oils used to scent candles and soaps are stored.
Customers include beekeepers as well as specialty food companies, quilters, beauty product manufacturers and musical instrument repair shops. Even Winer seemed surprised by the diversity.
"We've met some different niches," Winer says. "We certainly never intended for any of this to happen."
Their life's work
Winer also never meant to become a beekeeper. It all started back in the 1970s, when she moved to California to work for one. The Southwest High graduate wasn't particularly interested in bees; she just wanted to quit college and move west.
She stayed for three years, then returned home. Winer was working at Mid-Con and keeping a few hives of her own when she met Sweeney at a beekeeping conference in Virginia. They married in 1987 after a brief courtship, and Sweeney moved his 40 hives to Kansas. The couple bought Mid-Con two years later.
"This is our life. The bees are our life," she says.
A taste of their life's work is available every Saturday, when Winer sets up her stall at the Overland Park Farmers Market. She encourages people to sample her liquid, creamed and flavored honeys and explains to curious customers the differences between them.
Liquid is still the U.S. favorite. Creamed honey is just like regular, except it has been finely crystallized to give it a gooey, spreadable texture. Winer has long made both plain and cinnamon creamed honeys; last year she added blackberry, peach, strawberry and other flavors to her lineup.
What else sets locally produced honey apart?
Most small producers use gravity filtration systems that Sweeney believes leaves more natural vitamins, minerals, amino acids and antioxidants intact.
Local honeys also contain traces of pollen; or customers can buy pollen outright from producers like Winer. She says some people sprinkle it on cereal, mix it in fruit drinks or even down it alone by the spoonful for its purported health benefits. The tiny nuggets come in a rainbow of yellows, golds and browns. When fresh, it "tastes like the flowers it's from," she says.
And then there's simply the appeal of purchasing foods like honey directly from a producer.
"Buying local honey is like buying a fresh tomato or anything else from the market," Sweeney says. "It just seems better."
Technically, organic honey is a misnomer because you have no assurance that the flowers the bees visit are organically grown unless you own the entire possible area that the bees visit and have the bee yard sitting in the center of it. You can keep hives organically, however, with a chance of your hives surviving. Much of the medicating and pesticides used in beekeeping are prophylactic, not actual treatment. That's one of the reasons I don't use "standard" methods. I have a problem with treating a problem that's not there.
I personally think that environmental issues should be rather irrelevant when talking organics( for the most part). Who can control there neibors or where a bee forages? Of course no one can! In stead the issue of organics in my POV should be centered around the beekeepers practices and management which are controlable.
As I have said before Mid-Con is in the bussines of selling Chemicals and are not interested in any other ways of controling the pests of beekeeping. Obviously they don't think that FGMO works. To each his own. This is my POV as they have theirs.