Published October 22nd, 2020 at 6:00 AM
There is a palpable sense of excitement that comes with suiting up for a “bee experience” at Circle Back Farm.
Instead of wearing mandatory pandemic masks, each person in our group slips into a white zippered beekeeping jacket with a fencing-style veiled hood and dons elbow-length leather gloves that are stiff and scratchy.
The bulky protective clothing makes a group of accidental bee enthusiasts look like astronauts headed out on a space mission. Instead of taking flight, we’re earthbound and awkwardly treading toward a clearing among the trees to the bee yard where stacks of pastel painted wooden boxes with cheerful flowers stenciled on the sides are stacked like insect condos known as colonies.
Depending on the time of year, each of the 15 colonies can host 40,000 to 80,000-plus bees. As we move closer, there is an audible hum. It’s a warm day at the end of September and I’m sweating because it’s nearly 90 degrees. But, to be honest, I’m really sweating the possibility of getting stung.
Given more time to mull over the invitation to commune with the bees, I might have hesitated to put on the suit. But when beekeeper Tim Wilson offers the opportunity so serendipitously, I’m absolutely convinced it’s something I have always wanted to do.
My friend and communications/public relations partner Kimberly Stern was the highest bidder during a virtual fundraiser for the Unicorn Theatre. Her prize: a Wilson-guided “bee experience” for her and five friends.
“I love boutique experiences, and I love honey, and I love local honey,” says Stern, a Unicorn Theatre board member. “This sounded intriguing to me, and I knew Tim was passionate about bees. I also thought it would be cool to be part of the first ‘bee experience.’ ”
But when Stern texted the invitation, she only mentioned lunch at a bee farm in Drexel, Missouri, about an hour south of Kansas City. I assumed we were attending a farm-to-table lunch focused on honey. Instead, our group of six was actually about to test Wilson’s maiden voyage into the world of agritourism.
“I’ve been trying to figure out a way to get people to come down to see what I’ve been working on for the past decade,” Wilson says. “The bees have become a natural way to share the farm.”
On a Saturday morning, Wilson and his wife, Winnie Dunn, welcome us to their 40-acre property where he grows tomatoes, apples, peaches and blackberries. Wilson spent nearly four decades as a pet store owner. In 2011, Wilson dragged Dunn to a beekeeping seminar in Lawrence, Kansas.
“The more I learned about bees, the more they fascinated me,” he recalls. “And the more comfortable I got with them, well, it just became an all-encompassing thing for me.”
Dunn, who has a doctorate in neuroscience from the University of Kansas and is currently a distinguished professor in occupational therapy at the University of Missouri, supported her husband’s new hobby but made it clear she drew the line at dressing up in a bee costume for Halloween.
All joking aside, beekeeping has become a key piece of Wilson’s sobriety.
“I spent 20 years fantasizing about all this stuff,” he tells me over breakfast a few weeks later. “I was going to have a cabin. I was going to have a piece of land. I was going to have a garden. Instead I just stood in my basement in the middle of the night telling my cats all about what I was going to do.“
Wilson has since taken a deep dive into entomology and he recently enrolled to begin work on his Master Beekeeper certification with online courses and field work through the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
His intense interest in raising bees has less to do with the sweet rewards gained from a pot of gold than his eagerness to educate lay people about the plight of the honey bee. Although there is widespread recognition that bees are endangered, few of us know exactly why. The simple answer is varroa mites, a destructive external parasite that attacks the honey bees. The invasive mites are a primary cause of a phenomenon known as colony collapse. The more complex answer shines a light on environmental factors, including pesticides.
But before we can absorb the information, Wilson has to help us get over our primal fear of being stung. Luckily, it turns out the popular saying “Keep Calm and Carry On” is apt when it comes to beekeeping. By respectfully sidestepping the flight patterns to the hive entrance and avoiding sudden moves like swatting or running, the bees will pretty much ignore you.
“I was actually terrified of bees,” Wilsons admits of his own first encounters. “I knew I didn’t understand bees. I knew what others knew — that they were hard to control, and they could be aggressive.”
As a rule, bees are generally peaceful and docile. And they are busy, organizing themselves in a complex society with well-defined roles. The health of their society depends on every bee doing their part, including the worker bees locating nectar-filled flowers near the hive then communicating the exact coordinates to their hive mates.
Wilson carefully removes the lid of the box and uses his hive tool to crack open and remove a screen containing familiar honeycomb structures. To his own surprise, Wilson randomly chose the screen where the queen bee happens to reside.
He pulls out another screen teeming with bees and asks if we’d like to pose for a photo. I’m the only one with access to my cell phone, so by default I become the official photographer of the group, although several frames wind up including the silhouette of my gloved finger, which deprived me of fine motor skills.
“It was so cool to get up close and personal,” reminisces Kevin Gabriel, who is a Unicorn board member and director of corporate affairs at Compass Minerals.
Shannon Stone was most fascinated by the “carnage” we saw befalling the drone bees. The drone bee’s main job is to mate with an unfertilized queen. When the deed is done and the weather starts to cool, drones are literally booted out of the hive to save on resources.
“I thought it was going to be a farm-to-table food experience. I wasn’t at all sure how bees factored into it, but it was above and beyond, I have told so many people about the experience,” says Stone, who works on marketing and communications at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
“It was such a great day. It was completely fascinating to learn about it and see it firsthand,” Gabriel says. “When we got in the car, we all agreed that was one of the coolest things we’ve done. And just what our soul needed right now.”
The incessant buzz of pandemic news creates a fatigue that is real. For at least a few hours social distance took on another meaning and our group felt a sense of normality, a reason to bond with strangers over a shared but safe communal experience.
Over the winter, Wilson plans to buy a batch of new bee suits with embroidered logos, “because the prep is kind of exciting to people.” He’s also created a “Bee Experienced” lapel pin to give out as a souvenir and is toying with the idea of including a packet of seeds for pollinator plants, such as bee balm or phlox or aster.
Subsequent test groups have taught Wilson to tailor his talks to the group dynamics, organically imparting bee factoids perfect for serving up as dinner party conversation.
“It’s less about me listening to my own voice and my own wisdom,” he says. “There’s a tendency to get lost in my own thoughts and pontificate. What I think I’ve learned is they’re interested in the tactile experience.”
Participants also can purchase honey and other farm products to take home, but Wilson is not trying to get rich quick or recreate an experience for the masses.
“I’m not trying to be the Walmart of beekeeping. I’m just the small guy on the corner,” Wilson says. “Just like when I was in the family pet business, I want to keep it small, keep it personal, keep it intimate. That’s how I want the farm experiences to be.”
Jill Wendholt Silva is a James Beard award-winning food editor and freelance writer. Among her many food-related pursuits, she is the co-host of the Chew Diligence podcast. You can follow her at @jillsilvafood.