How do you react when a bee lands on your soda can or picnic table? Some make a beeline for the nearest cover, considering those insects unwelcome guests. But for beekeeper Grant Gillard, that buzzing is sweet music to his ears.
Gillard started beekeeping as a hobby after college and has grown his pastime into a passion. He now has 20 hives, which can contain as many as 60,000 bees. Gillard, along with many other beekeepers partnered with the Missouri Department of Agriculture in 2012 to launch The Great Missouri Buzz Off, an effort to spread the word of bees’ impact on agriculture and food production and encourage new beekeepers to get started. Starting a colony requires only a modest investment, typically $250 or less, in bees, a hive and protective equipment.
For new beekeepers, finding a mentor is key. “Bees aren’t compliant creatures,” says Art Gelder, a Mid-Missouri beekeeper. “But if you stick with it, it can be an exceptionally satisfying hobby and an important contribution to agriculture.” Gelder’s farm, Walk-About Acres in Columbia, is home to 80 bee colonies and a full-service kitchen where he and his wife, Vera, have spun and bottled their homegrown honey for the last 20 years.
“We are expanding because there is a large demand for local honey,” Gelder says.
As Missouri’s moderate climate is well suited to beekeeping, Missouri bees produce more than 350,000 pounds of honey per year. On average, a colony produces 60 to 120 pounds.
The state is home to more than 400 different types of bees including common species like the honey bee and carpenter bee, as well as lesser-known types like the blueberry bee. Neal Bergman, a beekeeper in the southeastern Missouri town of Kennett, has the largest beekeeping operation in the state – and puts his bees to work across the nation. Bergman ships his bees to other farms through commercial pollination programs for fruit and nut orchards. He has shipped his colonies to neighboring states, including Illinois, as well as to California, Oregon and Washington.
That specialized work contributes to the $14 billion positive impact bees have on U.S. crop production each year through fresh produce and other crops. Those statistics support one of Gillard’s favorite bee facts, as well as the idea that bees and beekeepers will continue to be in high demand well into the future.
“One in every three bites of our food comes from a bee,” he says. Whether that’s a spoonful of honey, a crisp apple or the corn in a favorite recipe, we can all join Gillard and beekeepers throughout the state in appreciating the hard work of a buzzing bee.