NEWTON, Kan. — Two co-workers at Mennonite Mission Network have discovered that even with a full-time “city job,” beekeeping is a great way to keep the boy on the farm.
Several years ago, when former farm boys Ken Regier and Ryan Goertzen-Regier swapped ideas about beekeeping, they decided to launch Sugargrove Apiaries. They acquired equipment and expertise from former beekeeper Harold Thiessen, collected some swarms of their own and learned the ropes through their fair share of bee stings.
Today, they tend eight hives in rural Harvey and southwestern Marion counties and sell their honey to friends, family and local customers. Though their operation has grown — they doubled their honey production from 100 pounds in 2016 to 250 pounds in 2017 — it is not the business that most excites them.
Rather, it’s what the world of bees has taught them about the brilliance of God’s creation, the building of community by producing local food, the buoying of the local ecosystem’s health and the beauty of the spiritual lessons a hive of bees can teach.
“My late father, Edwin, kept bees,” said Regier, MMN director of program human resources. “I was impressed how he was willing to do this on top of all his farming chores. Though he had limited knowledge about the whole thing, he kept with it, and I learned a lot about bees because of that.”
Goertzen-Regier, network systems administrator for MMN, grew up 11 miles from the Regier farms. He didn’t think he could make farming a full-time occupation, so he explored how to remain tied to the land, get involved in agriculture and practice creation care in other ways.
“When I was involved in Mennonite Voluntary Service, I had a renewed interest in agriculture, but from a different perspective,” he said. “Beekeeping fit the values of love for the land and community that I grew up with. An added benefit is that we don’t have to do chores for the bees every morning and evening.”
The joy of honeybees
Moving from large-scale food-production agriculture to keeping insects has brought joyful surprises. One has been learning about the genius of the culture of the bee hive and its residents, including the queen bee and her various types of workers.
Reams of information exist about the well-ordered world of bees, though a few facts may be more interesting to honey lovers.
Hives in fields with different kinds of vegetation produce different flavors of honey. For example, honey produced in the fall from goldenrod and smartweed varies in taste from honey produced from spring blossoms and summer flowers. It is darker and has more bitter overtones.
“With the comb honey, we want it to be as natural as possible without you chewing on bee legs and wings,” Goertzen-Regier said. “We have a triple filtering system that allows honey customers to taste the local flowers and unique flavors of this region. You simply can’t improve on what God has created in bees.”
The partners strive to care well for their bees as a way to steward creation and its creatures.
“Outside of the farming community, people sometimes grumble about how they think farmers are in it just for the profit,” Regier said. “But a good farmer takes great pains to care for God’s creation in the midst of making a living. We strive to help the bee colonies survive the winter so that they are strong enough to take advantage of the nectar flow when spring flowers and trees are blooming.”
The partners are part of the movement of growing local, buying local, caring locally.
“We are growing honey within an eight-mile radius of where we’re selling it,” Regier said. “We’re hopefully supporting local farmers, too, with our bees better pollinating their fields.”
Of all the lessons learned, some have been spiritual.
Regier believes bees can teach Anabaptists how to take more risks: “For centuries, we have considered ourselves to be the ‘quiet in the land,’ which originally was a survival mode due to persecution. . . . Bees venture out of the safety of their hives in order to scout for places to set up new colonies. They teach us what it means to be willing to take chances in order to multiply.”
Goertzen-Regier, somewhat reactive to bee stings, said the more meditative he is while working with the bees, the better.
“Beekeeping has helped me work at becoming more patient and being more at peace,” he said. “If I am anxious, frayed and jittery when I go to work with a bee hive, they will know it and won’t react favorably. Beekeeping has helped me to take more time and care in all my interactions. Life simply works better for bees, and for us, when we relate that way.”