One of Hillsboro’s largest employers is taking on a cause that not only supports the business, but could also impact the food supply across North America.
Launched in November 2016, Barkman Honey has gone public with its “Beesponsible” program, which seeks to stabilize a declining honeybee population by letting consumers and nature enthusiasts know the impact honeybees make in their lives.
“It’s a mission that we’re on to educate others about the importance of bees—how cool they are, the threats that they face and we how can help them continue to survive and hopefully even thrive,” said Amanda Spell, brand specialist for Barkman Honey.
Brought here from Europe in the 1600s, honeybees have become widespread across North America and are bred commercially for their abilities to produce honey and pollinate crops—90 different farm-grown foods, including many fruits and nuts, depend on honeybees.
But in recent years honeybee populations across the continent have plummeted by as much as 70 percent, and biologists are still scratching their heads as to why and what to do about the problem they have termed “colony collapse disorder.”
“Loss of habitat is one of the biggest issues,” Spell said. “Bees, along with other pollinators, thrive in certain habitats, and these are being changed through developmental and agricultural practices. They are having a harder time finding places to nest over the winter and to forage for the pollen and nectar that provide them with all their nutrients.”
Spell said parasites and diseases are another issue.
“Beekeepers are seeing these pop up within their hives,” she said. “They affect the colonies’ health, population and their ability to make it through the winter. There are environmental concerns, such as pesticides and pollution, that pose a toxic threat and interfere with their ability to navigate and forage.”
Researchers point to other potential factors, such as the increase in atmospheric electromagnetic radiation as a result of the growing numbers of cell phones and wireless communication towers, which may interfere with bees’ ability to navigate.
Biologists also wonder if global warming may be exaggerating the growth rates of pathogens such as the mites, viruses and fungi that are known to take their toll on bee colonies.
The unusual hot-and-cold winter weather fluctuations in recent years, also blamed on global warming, may also be wreaking havoc on bee populations accustomed to more consistent seasonal weather patterns.
“Beesponsible” is not the solution to the problem in itself, Spell said, but it’s a way to begin to engage the public about the challenges honeybees face.
“We slowly started it on social media, sharing about bees and launched our website (beesponsible.com) that has more information on what we’re doing and what you can do in your everyday life to help bees,” she said.
As threats to the honeybee population become more widely known and discussed, the goal of the program is for the public to support the future of honeybees.
“You’d think everybody would be on board with it,” Spell said. “I think the only (negative) push-back is a lack of awareness or misunderstandings. Some people think that because they see a lot of bees, that bees are OK and increasing in population, which isn’t necessarily the case.
“Even if we didn’t have these problems, and (bees) were doing just fine, we’d need to continue these efforts to make sure they stay that way,” she added.
“There’s really no lack of awareness or compassion for bees, and it’s changing that mindset through education and showing people how awesome bees are and how much they need our help.”
In September, Barkman Honey began distributing more broadly a new product option that helps spread their Beesponsible message called, “Bee Harmony Honey.”
The product was first marketed at the Old Town Farmers Market in Wichita on Saturday mornings.
“What we sell at the farmers market is a local Kansas honey, actually from (owner) Brent Barkman’s hives close to Hillsboro,” Spell said. “We have other varieties and regional options available on our website as well.”
Spell said the company works with trusted beekeepers who they know follow responsible practices.
“All Bee Harmony Honey is raw, so it’s not processed like some traditional honeys are,” she said. “We have our Naked Wild Honey brand, which is also raw, but this is a step further, a more premium honey.
“Some of the varieties are from unique floral sources you can’t always find in other places. There are also ones available more specific to different regions throughout the U.S.”
The early feedback from consumers has been positive.
“A lot of people like the better-for-you food qualities of raw honey,” Spell said. “We can’t make any specific claims about health benefits, according to the FDA.
“Some people will take it for allergies, believing that if they consume raw honey foraged from nearby floral sources that it will relieve allergies coming from the same causes.”
Spell said scientific evidence does not back up that notion, though. Taste seems to be another preference.
“We really do see it as more of the flavor differences, so depending on what bees are foraging at any time, whether it’s based on where they are or the time of year and what’s in bloom, it does impact the flavor of the honey,” Spell said.
“By eating this honey, people can learn more about honeybee behavior. Hopefully inspiring them to do their part in making sure bees—and the delicious product they make—stay a part of our future.
“You’ll be able to taste wildflower honey that tastes different from specifically an orange blossom honey. From different aromas, colors, textures and flavors, there are a lot more varieties and complexities to honey that people grow to appreciate and seek out.”
Spreading the word
Spell said the company hopes the impact of “Beesponsible” will continue to grow as it becomes more widely known. The program offers suggestion how consumers can help the honeybee population.
“One of the things we talk about is eating with a conscience,” Spell said. “Instead of just picking up your food at the grocery store and not understanding where it’s coming from or how it’s grown, ask those questions and make sure it’s not grown with harmful pesticides.”
“We recommend shopping at farmers markets,” she added. “It’s a great way to get to know who is growing your food, have it come from a local source and make sure it’s grown in a way that’s benefiting bees and not contributing to their decline.”
Another way to help is to provide honeybees the kind of vegetation they crave.
“Gardening is very common, even if you have space for just one pot to fill with plants that will feed the bees, that’s always a fun way to help,” Spell said.
Another way to make an impact is to learn about bees, discover why they’re interesting, how many different species there are and what their habitats and instincts are.
“To know those things and just be able to educate others, helps people gain an appreciation for bees instead of being fearful of them, or disregarding them,” Spell said.
She and her employer practice what they preach.
“We do have our own hives that are close to the office that the team is learning from—and since I have access to all this information, I actually have started my own hive in my backyard,” she said.
“My dad had honeybees living in the walls of his house, so when they needed to be evicted, we just moved them to my backyard. That’s not directly part of the job, but it’s a fun way for my family to get involved and keep learning.”