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Nurturing the Sweet Nectar of Urban Beekeeping Businesses Seeking Honey are Making Space for Urban Hives

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Above image credit: David Friesen, founder and head beekeeper of Bee KC, checks on bees that will be added to the hives at Tom's Town. (Joyce Smith | Flatland)
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6 minute read

It started when Tom’s Town Distilling Co. wanted to add Bee’s Knees to its drink menu. 

The Prohibition-era cocktail calls for just three ingredients: gin, lemon juice and honey. Tom’s Town used its own gin and at first turned to Raytown’s Messner Bee Farm for the freshest honey.  

But that wasn’t local enough. 

“We are surrounded by the most bountiful farms in the country. How does a little distillery in the middle of the Heartland help other than using the grain in our spirits?” said David Epstein, a founder and owner of the Crossroads distillery and tasting room. “But why aren’t we hosting our own hives? 

“It just opened up a whole universe.” 

Rooftop Bee Farms 

A year ago, locally owned Bee KC put hives on the Tom’s Town third-floor rooftop. But that was just the beginning. 

On a warm evening earlier this month, just before sunset, Bee KC founder David Friesen carried cardboard boxes of hives up a narrow wooden pulldown ladder, stacking another level on top of each of the old hives. He delivered about 50,000 new bees for each of five hives.  

David Friesen carried cardboard boxes of hives up this narrow wooden pulldown ladder at Tom's Town.
David Friesen carried cardboard boxes of hives up this narrow wooden pulldown ladder at Tom’s Town. (Joyce Smith | Flatland)

Friesen stuffed pine and cedar shavings, along with dried grass from his yard, in a handheld smoker, lit it up and squeezed puffs of smoke around and into the hives. Smoke mutes the pheromones that the guard bees put out as a warning.  

As he pulled out the frames, Friesen beamed. 

“They are so gentle. They are some of the most gentle bees up on this roof,” he said. “But as the population grows, they tend to become a little more defensive.”  

In states such as California, semi-trucks are loaded down with hives, he said. They travel to almond or citrus farms, unload the bees, open the hives and the bees pollinate nearby vegetation. Then they pack up and move on to the next farm. Farmers consider bees as livestock and pay per hive.  

“They have to be so stressed out all of the time,” Friesen said. “But I try not to judge. It is business and that’s the only thing they can do at this time. They only have to do it because we have destroyed the ecosystem around the industrial farms.” 

Most of Friesen’s colonies got their start on a southern Missouri farm, then spent the winter in Texas.  

Friesen pointed to the larvae — which he calls “baby bees” — showing them developing under brown caps. He invited a couple of Tom’s Town employees to dip a fingertip in the honey. One compares it to the difference between picking a tomato from his garden versus a store-bought tomato. 

Friesen said the bees spend about four weeks in the hive, feeding the young, cleaning up, packing away nectar and checking on the queen.  

“They store honey in the comb, cap it when they are done, and get to what we call honey,” he said. “When you encounter them, they are probably looking for food and not concerned with you at all. But if you are 20 feet from their front entrance the guards might bump you. They’ve evolved over tens of millions of years to fight mammals like bears.” 

The beekeeper typically checks the hives weekly to see if the bees need more space and to make sure they are healthy.  

This year Friesen put up windbreaks around the Tom’s Town hives. But he frets that the bees might not like the vibrations from the nearby air conditioning units, and they might have to fly up to two miles for nectar. Are they willing to do that? 

“I think they wear themselves out flying down from the roof and then flying back up,” he said. “And then the radiant heat from the roof. The conditions are so much worse on a rooftop, so you need a year to adjust.” 

Urban Honey 

Some honey connoisseurs deem urban honey to be more unique since it has a wider variety of sources.  

Friesen put six hives on the roof of Overland Park’s Q39 barbecue restaurant last year, rising high above the southeast corner so customers can spot them as they walk up to the door and say, “That’s really cool.” 

Executive chef Philip Thompson wanted fresh honey for new menu items. But the hives arrived a little late in the season, in the dog days of summer, when spring is preferred. Only one hive survived the frigid January temperatures.  

Bee KC recently restocked Q39 with 60,000 bees for each of the six hives. Setting up earlier will help them get strong and healthy during the peak pollen season, Thompson said. Once cold weather hits, they will add more insulation. 

After the lunch rush, a couple of times a week, Thompson climbs a 10-foot step ladder, swings his lanky frame up on the roof, hops over a pipe and up another couple of feet to a higher level. He then dons a beekeeper suit and checks on his bees. Thompson thinks of them as part of the team. He grieves if one dies. 

Thompson loves watching the bees. But his customers also want to know where their food comes from. In 2023, he had enough honey for a baked vanilla cheesecake with strawberries and smoked basil honey, along with a smoked Old-Fashioned cocktail.  

This year, he plans a late summer/early fall harvest so it will be September before he knows if he has enough honey for new menu items.  

Tom’s Town plans to keep expanding its honey cocktail offerings using its gins — the flagship floral and citrus botanical, its barrel-aged (more oaky, woody notes), and Garden Party (slightly spicier with hints of orange). 

“We talk about farm-to-table, but I don’t think we have done enough talking about grain-to-glass,” Epstein said. “People talk about shopping local. Let’s put your money where your mouth is.”  

Some of the bees on the rooftop of Tom's Town Distilling Co.
Some of the bees on the rooftop of Tom’s Town Distilling Co. (Joyce Smith | Flatland)

Bee KC 

Friesen, founder and head beekeeper of Bee KC, has long promoted local products.  

He was a founder of Betty Rae’s Ice Cream with his wife in 2016, using local ingredients for ice cream made on-site. He learned about bees from an uncle who has three hives in California. 

“Once you get into it you just want them all the time,” he said. “You miss them in the winter, you want to see them in the spring.”  

In 2022, he started setting up hives, mostly at urban farms and schools in the metropolitan area. Now he has more than 160 hives and counting as splits occur in his hives and he picks up unwanted swarms around town.  

They range from three hives at a community garden to 30 hives at a food pantry.  

In return, the hosts get free five-gallon buckets of honey at harvest in late July. Farmers can sell the honey with their produce. Schools sell “honey from our campus” at fundraisers. He takes a glass hive to schools for talks. 

The restaurant and distillery hosts give Bee KC more visibility. To bring in funds, Friesen conducts workshops and sells honey at pop-ups and a weekend booth at the City Market. He also gets donations and grants. 

“It’s a really nice thing to be involved with the community and on top of that the bees will pollinate the ecosystem,” he said.  

He rejoices when he gets calls to come pick up an unwelcome swarm for free. His dream is to have a swarm at Kauffman or Arrowhead stadiums, mainly for free publicity. 

“If bees can smell honey they will come from miles around,” he said. 

A Tom's Town employee samples honey from the hive.
A Tom’s Town employee samples honey from the hive. (Joyce Smith | Flatland)

Homegrown Honey 

Friesen advises aspiring beehive hosts to first do as much research as possible — read books, watch videos and then get hands-on experience.  

“Keep it safe and keep the bees healthy. Poorly managed bees are more aggressive and if they get a disease it could spread to other hives,” he said. “They only defend the front, and they really like a southeast face, so they get that morning sun. But you can adjust to any situation.” 

He mixes in native bee homes, the kind sold at many area lawn and garden centers. 

Evergy’s Green Team — volunteers and former and current employees — also do sustainability projects across the utility’s service areas in Kansas and Missouri. The company built some pollinator boxes in a community garden using non-toxic wood from recycled utility poles. 

“Our commitment to sustainability drives us to protect native bee species and create safe havens for their growth,” Evergy said in a statement. 

Kansas State University recently presented “Urban Hives – Nurturing Bees for Biodiversity and Nutrition” in its Gaining Ground webinar series

Laura Stan, associate professor at the University of Agricultural Sciences and Veterinary Medicine of Cluj-Napoca, Romania, discusses resources, American-versus-European models of beekeeping, and advantages and disadvantages of urban beekeeping.  

Advantages of urban beekeeping include pollination, preservation of biodiversity and connecting people with nature to reduce stress. Urban hives also offer educational opportunities for children and consumers.  

Disadvantages include limited water, flowers and trees; bee health due to overcrowding and competition for resources; and public perception. 

Homeowners also need to check to see if their cities prohibit or allow beekeeping.  

For example, the Blue Springs officials said beekeeping is prohibited there. Beehives are allowed in Overland Park if they are more than 25 feet away from a property line, 75 feet from a neighbor’s house and 100 feet from a public street. 

“They have their own hierarchy. There are dead bees outside the hives? That means the undertaker is doing his job,” said Epstein of Tom’s Town. “They are not on this earth to attack. They are on this earth to breed and protect the queen. This is fascinating. It’s hugely challenging. We pray the bees stay.” 

Flatland contributor Joyce Smith covered local restaurants and retail for nearly 40 years with The Kansas City Star. Follow her on X and Facebook at #JoyceKC, and Instagram and Threads at #joyceinkc.


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