The Art of Bee-ing in Easton, KS
by Peggy Bair
One bee produces 1/12th teaspoon of honey in its lifetime – thus, one teaspoon of honey represents the efforts of the lifetimes of 12 bees.
Keeping bees happy isn’t a perfect science but it is a family endeavor for the veteran-owned Martin family. Hillside Honey Apiary is in Easton, KS, a small town nestled in Leavenworth County. Shelley and her husband Ty Martin tend about 80 hives. The farm has a myriad of custom products ranging from face creams to home decor in addition to the personalized honey created by their very busy bees. The products are available in their store, at local farmers market and in some local speciality shops – but are also available touch-free and easy-to-buy through direct online sales at their Etsy store.
In addition to the honey products, the company does free bee swarm removal throughout the Leavenworth County, KS area. They also have beekeeper equipment plus they provide educational tours for interested patrons, students and various youth groups. When the couple removes bee swarms from other properties where they are unwanted, they make that swarm a part of the Hillside Honey colony.
The couple’s interest in beekeeping came about through their friends, Ron and Beth Ward. The Wards were the original founders of Hillside Honey in 1990. After some initial years of a starter beekeeping operation, the Martins purchased the Wards’ business in 2013. Shelley wasn’t entirely new to the idea anyway as her grandfather had also been a beekeeper.
Ty said he and Shelley both liked the idea of “being independent, self-sufficient and providing a quality food product for the community. Honey seemed like a sweet choice to go with.”
“We started out with just honey and pollen and creamed honey, that was really it,” said Shelley.
“Honeycomb is completely edible,” Shelley said. Most people break off a piece and chew it like a piece of gum until only the wax is left and then discard the wax.
Development of the Modern Farm Bee Hive Structure
Credit for the modern day structure of a beehive goes to Reverend Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth who invented the Langstroth Hive in 1851. The scholarly man applied his intellect and discipline into experimenting with different types of hive construction as illustrated in his book: Langstroth on the Hive and the Honey-Bee: A Bee Keeper’s Manual. His discovery of dead air space (“bee space”) for the hive was a game-changer – so much so that his design is still the standard for modern beekeepers. His design of removable frames allowed the bees to build the combs, the beekeeper to inspect and collect the combs – all without damaging the bees or the combs. (1)
Why Bees Make Honey
The honey is food stores for the hive to get the bee population through the winter. There are fewer flowers for them to forage in the winter months – and in the Midwest, it becomes too cold to forage. The bees have to have enough food to feed not only the queen but the entire hive. With tens of thousands of bees in some colonies, it takes a lot of honey. The sugar content of honey is a high energy food that for the energy it takes for the bees to regulate the temperature inside the hive (which they do by beating their wings.). (1)
It takes a lot of honey bees to make a lot of honey. Each bee will produce 1/12 teaspoon of honey during its lifespan. The bees make their deposit of collected nectar in specially sterilized cells. The bees fan their wings to evaporate the water in the nectar. Once the nectar has thickened enough, the bees cap the cells with a layer of wax. The high sugar concentrations prevent bacteria and fungi from multiplying, which is why honey can be stored without spoiling. (2)
Bees wax is produced via the sweat glands of individual bees, which is chewed off their abdomens by workers bees that chew it and chew it until it turns into wax – which in turn is used by builder bees to create the cells that join together to become combs.
For the Martins’ operation, they have hives throughout their seven acre property. The bees wander the property for various plants for food. But they can and do travel in up to a five mile radius for the pollen and nectar they need to feed the hive.
A honey bee colony is a highly structured society with different roles assigned to each bee. The queen controls the hive and all other roles are supportive. Forager is one of those important roles. These are the bees that travel out up to five miles from the hive to gather nectar and pollen to bring back to the hive. (2)
“Honey has different flavors which are unique to different areas based on the trees, wildflowers, clover, ragweed – each flower’s nectar has its own taste,” said Gideon, 16, the Martins’ son who has grown up as part of the family farm. “The bees will travel in a three to five mile radius from their hive to find what they need to feed on – different kinds of flowers. So, you’ll see where clover has a very light, sweet taste but others pick up different tastes.”
“There’s actually hundred of different varieties of honey,” said Shelley. “You’re going to have different nectars, different pollens, from, like…pine trees, different evergreens and you’ll definitely pick that up in the flavor of it.”
“It’s pretty cool,” she added. “We love that when we travel somewhere, we’ve tried different honey from different places like Germany, Korea, all over the United States – Hawaii recently last year. Ty is in Texas right now and is going to a local Farmers Market in Texas for some Texas honey!”
Chasing different flavors of honey is “actually a thing,” Shelley said. “People refer to it as being a ‘honey snob’ to try all the different honeys.”
“We started with the original Hillside Honey recipes from when we purchased the bee farm from our friends and then, with a little know-how and a lot of painstaking research, we created a series of products that are gentle to the skin, replenishing and protective and full of vitamins and other healthful ingredients that produce a great result,” said Shelley. “We have family members that have struggled with eczema, skin irritations, headaches and more and we wanted something completely natural that works. Our skincare, personal-care-line of products was born.”
2020 was a challenging year for farmers and the Martins felt the impact as well. “Due to COVID, everything’s kind of had to be on hold for us – other than Farmers Market,” said Shelley. “We’ve had several events cancel to include Weston Apple Fest, Apple Blossom Festival, German Christmas Market, a larger education conference we attend in Kansas City every year to name a few of the biggies and then numerous small ones as well as not being able to host our usual school, homeschool, scout troop tours we do all summer. We’ve also not been able to sell at our local Fort Leavenworth PX and several of the stores that carry our products. If their sales were gone then our sales were gone.” Shop Kansas Farms, a 2020 upstart on Facebook and the Martins’ own Hillside Honey Etsy store sales helped “keep our heads above water,” said Shelley.
“Most of all, as Christians, we know that God played a huge role in helping us to plug into the community,” Shelley added. “We started a delivery service to Fort Leavenworth, Leavenworth, Lansing to several drop-off locations and that brought us directly to our customer. It was a challenge to remain contactless, masked and gloved and sterilize everything with lysol wipes as we went, but we made it happen.”
Diversifying the business was critical in making sure there were other possible revenue. Shelley said that the storefront isn’t open on Sunday and Monday – plus Tuesdays they need for a production day. “At some point we have production days – we have to make our products,” she said. Also, the farm provides pollinating services for truck farms and orchards.
Having an apiary comes with a lot of responsibility to monitor the hive activity for any even small changes. When things are going well, the farm is healthy and productive. Ty classifies their farm as a “medium” operations. The number of hives vary depending on circumstances that year.
“A big hive that has a really high population – if the queen is very healthy and brand new and she will lay eggs all day long – be going strong,” Shelley said. At the three year mark, though, the hive will switch out, meaning kill the old queen and replace with a new, healthy queen,” Shelley explained.
Things happen, though, that vigilant beekeepers must monitor, Shelley said.
“A queen will do a couple of things that will make her population suddenly reduce,” Shelley said. “and that would be why that hive wouldn’t be doing as well.”
“One of those would be she’s older, she’s not laying fertile eggs and she’s now just laying drones. If an egg is unfertilized, it will not be a female, they will all be males – or all drones. Drones don’t do all of the steps – they don’t take care of the brood, they don’t go and forage. It’s the females that have all the various roles of guard and forager and caring for the small brood,” Shelley said. This would be cause to replace that queen.
“The biggest issue (with a queen) is if she swarms. She might think the population is too big, the space is too small – that the population is too big to fill this small cavity. She’ll take almost half the hive if not more – and she’ll leave, Shelley said. “When that happens, that hive left behind is quickly trying to raise up a queen or they might already have queen cells they are trying to raise up. Then, they’ll (the hive) will choose which one. There might be five or six or seven baby queen cells in the bottom and they’ll pick who they are keeping and not keeping and they’ll kill whoever they’ve not chosen.”
It’s called “absconding” when a queen leaves, puts off a pheromone, gives them a signal and the entire hive leaves,” Shelley said. There will be no signs of death, just a vacant hive. “They found a reason. Maybe there was pesticide sprayed in the area – something – then they’re out, they’re gone. It’s a sad, sad day for a beekeeper who has put time and effort to provide and she (the queen) is suddenly not there. Something has happened within the environment – either her environment within the hive or the immediate environment in her area that made her think it wasn’t safe. So, she leaves.” (3)
Hillside Honey Aviary is just over seven acres, which includes the former Salt Creek Easton High School by Dawson Creek in Easton, Kansas. The property is flourishing with various native plants, flowers and trees that are attractive to the bees in the farm. Ty Martin said he would classify the farm as a “small operation and growing.” The number of hives fluctuates each year, depending on any losses.
“By starting small we were able to discover what we like about owning a business, how to increase from juts a few hives to many more. Basic beekeeping does change with hive, but increasing the number of hives one keeps forces different management techniques,” said Ty. “By starting small and growing into a larger operation we were able to easily capture lessons learned and adapt them into our business plan far easier.”
Placing bees in various farms and orchards is a win-win for both farmers, Ty said. “The farm or orchard receives an increase in yield and we have a more consistent honey harvest because the yield id consistent. Bees need nectar [sugars] and pollen [protein, vitamins, minerals] year round, however, because of weather and winter, their ability to gather those resources are about March to October for the Midwest.”
Foraging is a lot of work for bees, Ty said. Positioning hives around area farms helps both farmers and the bees by reducing the span the bees have to forage.
“Bees can forage from 2 to 5 miles in any direction,” said Ty. “but normally about two miles is where they forage at. Two miles in any direction. Thats a lot of work. By positioning hives at produce farms, they go maybe 1/4 mile at most and have consistent food coming in. Now we do have to have agreements that they are not using pesticides, etc. Each location is unique and we have only pollinated at the produce farms that are represented at the Leavenworth’s Farmers Market.”
The veteran aspect of Hillside Honey did play a role in the Martins choosing to get involved in bee farming.
“I served in the Army for over 20 years,” Ty said, “and while Shelley was not wearing a uniform – if one spouse does [serves], the other does. A commitment to the military is all-in with the whole family. That is why it is so tough on military families, especially with year long deployments to combat zones. The level of stress is and can be immense. I would argue this could also be the same for some police officers, especially in larger cities.”
“‘Veteran-owned’ is a descriptor that helps customers to understand more about where their food is coming from,” Ty added, “and helps to form a personal connection that you don’t normally get by buying your food from a grocery store. If you are a veteran yourself or know someone who is, you can relate to the person growing, harvesting and selling the food. It forms a trust and relates to quality.”
(1) Benefits of Honey – 10 Awesome Roles of Bees in a Hive https://www.benefits-of-honey.com/roles-of-bees-in-a-hive.html
(2) Why Do Bees Make Honey? by Gregory Sousa https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/why-do-bees-make-honey.htm 2018, Feb. 2 World Atlas, Environment.
(3) Colony Collapse Disorder https://www.epa.gov/pollinator-protection/colony-collapse-disorder#:~:text=Colony%20Collapse%20Disorder%20Colony%20Collapse%20Disorder%20is%20the,for%20the%20remaining%20immature%20bees%20and%20the%20queen.