“Eat honey, my child, for it is good.”
Proverbs 24:13 ~
Pure honey is a taste bud’s treasure. This sweet nectar has been a symbol of good throughout history. Honey has been used as barter since the beginning of time and in thousands of recipes because of its rich, sweet flavor.
Bee Haven Farms, owned and operated by Barry and Joyce Ballenger and Jack Knapton, of Liberty, Mo. has earned a huge following of repeat customers. Visit the Liberty, Missouri Farmer’s Market on any Saturday morning and the Ballenger’s grandson, Keaton, will sell you honey collected from 30 bee hives, but come early. They sell out of their smaller bottles of honey in two hours, a common occurrence.
Some customers use Bee Haven Farm’s products for health reasons. Honey has been used for healing powers throughout history. Raw honey can provide energy boosts with carbohydrates supplying energy and strength while reducing muscle fatigue. When possible, it’s best to buy locally grown, organic raw honey produced by bees close to the environment where you live. Consuming honey from your area is beneficial because of immune strengthening benefits.
But there is more to this business than robbing hives. Working with bees begins with understanding these fascinating creatures.
“Most bees are docile and will tolerate humans, especially with little vibration or sudden movement like shaking the bees around too quickly,” Barry Ballenger says. “I was nervous the first time we suited up to work with bees and didn’t want to get stung. There was a lot of rattling and vibration so the bees were not happy. Not getting nervous becomes a real challenge with 10,000 bees flying around you. But working with bees becomes second nature after you have done it several times. We all work quietly as a team while not disturbing the hive.”
There is a class system in every hive that generally consists of 20,000 to 40,000 bees. This starts with a single queen per hive and female worker bees. Drones or male bees complete the population. The Ballenger’s learned never to put two hives together, as the bees aren’t always accepting of one another.
Every hive’s queen has a scent the population is comfortable with. They become uncomfortable with a different scent, creating a challenge when the original queen dies. The new queen will bring a different scent and the population becomes accustomed or they kill her.
Radical changes occur in a hive before winter. The queen senses that workers are no longer bringing in pollen and senses the nectar feeding season is over. This prompts her to prepare for winter; she stops laying eggs. The drones are killed out of the hive at the beginning of fall because they are taking food the worker bees need. Bee population begins to dwindle.
Workers form a ball around the queen to keep her warm through winter. Workers will fly at least five miles away to find nectar, pollen, and water during the feeding season. The bee’s life cycle doubles because they are not working themselves to death, meaning a longer life than the average worker.
The Ballengers quickly learned how complex a bee hive can be. A brood box has 10 frames and the honey supers have 9 or 10 frames. The bottom section of a hive is the brood box or the bee’s territory. Typically in the Midwest, you use two brood boxes in order for the bees to store enough honey for the full winter. The queen lives there and raises brood (baby bees) and honey is stored to survive winter. On top of each brood box is the super where honey is stored for human consumption.
“We try never to take the entire hive apart to avoid disturbing or killing bees,” Ballenger says. “Some get crushed when the hive is reassembled. We only enter a hive when there is a need. For example, we look for the problem when a bee population seems to be low in a hive. We make sure their winter stores are adequate to survive the cold months. We take the hive apart, look at the frames to make sure there is plenty of packed honey and pollen for their winter food source. Hive starvation is the number one reason for losing bees over the winter. We feed our bees sugar water in the fall to make sure they produce enough additional honey for winter stores.”
“We only remove honey from a hive once per year,” Joyce Ballenger says. “We take the super frames out of each box to harvest the honey. To begin, we scrape with a tool that takes the first seal of wax off. Then we put the frame in an extractive spinner which uses centrifugal force to separate the honey that flows through a screened filter, from the wax. This creates our delicious, pure honey that we filter a second time to remove any remaining wax. Next, we store it in jugs in a cool root cellar with no heating or pasteurizing. It is poured into jars as needed for the consumer. We don’t use additives and that is a concern of grocery store honey. About 80 percent of honey in the United States comes from overseas. A lot of the countries allow additional ingredients to make more to sell, it’s not pure honey. Pure honey lasts forever. They found honey in the pyramids that was over 2,000 years old and still edible.”
Honey soap has gained popularity with the Bee Haven Farm’s customers. Joyce takes four different kinds of oils and bees wax, and then heats her mix for 20 minutes to reach a certain temperature with the right consistency. She adds fragrances and pours it into as mold that sits for 24 hours. The longer it dries, longer this soap will last. Her soap is completely natural with two ounces of wax, lye as a cleaning agent and add 49% oils to create a great moisturizer. Joyce adds color and a variety of scents to her soap like oatmeal and coffee.
Honey sticks are another big attraction for the Bee Haven Farm’s honey stand in Liberty’s Farmer’s Market. The Ballenger’s originally didn’t intend for this to be a big draw, they simply wanted more items to sell. Now kids seek out their stand and the adults follow.
Bee keeping is an ancient art full of sweet rewards. But getting started requires some guidance.
“If you want to be a bee keeper, start by joining a bee-keeping association,” Barry says. “I went to monthly meetings for a year and learned a lot from presentations and by talking with members. They offer one-day training on how to be a bee keeper, a class I found invaluable. Then you buy equipment and start. A good group in KC is MidwesternBeeKeepers.org.”
For more information, contact Bee Haven Farms at 816.781.4130.