A Kansas City beekeeper is finding safe, new homes for Missouri's state insect to 'bee'
Honey bees may not be native to North America, but the insects are critical to pollinating field crops and fruit trees across the region — not to mention the delicious honey they make. Occasionally, though, Missouri's official state insects make their homes in inconvenient places. One local beekeeper is known for stepping in to help.
Honey bees come and go on a recent morning in June, buzzing around a crack in the siding of a stone house built in 1920.
They’ve built their hive beneath the floorboards of an upstairs bedroom in Dan Tarwater’s south Kansas City home. Tarwater’s the caretaker of the Veterans of Foreign Wars post next door. He says the bees aren’t a problem, but it’s time for them to go.
“Last fall, the bees moved in,” Tarwater says. "They’re going to take the hive out, extract the bees alive and move them up to north Missouri.”
Krull says his approach to beekeeping is a little different than most. Too often, beekeepers intervene with sprays and pesticides to prevent infestations of common bee parasites like wax moths and hive beetles, he says — interventions can weaken bee colonies.
Krull takes a more Darwinian approach.
“Bees have been on the planet for 120 million years prior to humans, and they don't need our help,” Krull says. “When we approach beekeeping from that mentality we reduce the amount of interventions that we do."
"Because we understand that they're an organism with its own evolutionary context that doesn't need people,” he adds.
Through the company he co-founded, Good Oak, Krull keeps more than 100 hives around Kansas City, and he’s always looking for bees on the move.
On warm days in early spring, Krull gets a lot of calls from concerned homeowners who have spotted swarms of bees clustered in trees. Now that swarming season is over, he’s on the lookout for the swarms that got away, like the one inside Tarwater’s floor.
“If they're not in a place where they're causing problems, like this one, I suggest that (homeowners) just leave it,” Krull says. “But not everybody can countenance having a bee colony in their house.”
Krull plans to capture Tarwater’s bees, then seal up the entrance to the hive. So, he heads upstairs to check out the bedroom where the bees have taken up residence.
Krull's friend Alejandro Lozano is already there — pulling back the rug to reveal a thick hardwood floor.
To pinpoint the bees, Krull uses their heat as a clue. He says they have to keep the hive at a certain temperature to keep the brood warm. Because a 70 degree, air-conditioned house is a little chilly, an infrared thermometer does the trick. When he finds a section that hits 80 degrees, Krull knows he’s found the hive.
Before Lozano cuts into the floor, Krull uses puffs of cool smoke from a handheld smoker to distract and quiet the bees. Once they’re calm, the cutting can begin.
With the floorboards gone, Krull discovers they have filled the space beneath with wild honeycomb.
Even when he’s disturbing a hive like this, Krull says he rarely wears protective gear.
“You got to keep in mind they're livestock, right?” Krull explains. “So we've been raising them for thousands of years. We've been selecting for three characteristics: one, how much honey they make; two, how cold-hardy they are; and three, how chill they are.”
As bees begin to buzz around the room, Tarwater opens a window.
Krull gets to work with a knife to carefully remove the hive and harvest the honey. He’s always on the lookout for the queen. If he can capture her, the entire colony will follow her into his hive box.
Until then, Krull needs to be cautious.
“Every move I make in here, I could kill the queen,” Krull says as he slices off a piece of honeycomb. “So I've got to be real slow. And also, every fast movement I make is a sting waiting to happen.”
Krull cuts off a small piece of comb and passes it to Kim Tarwater, Dan’s wife. She’s been watching Krull work and is sharing the experience on Facebook.
“I feel blessed that this happened.” Tarwater says. “I’m trying not to think of what it's going to be like cleaning up, but to taste honey straight from a hive? Incredible.”
Krull estimates these bees have been here for at least a season or two. After several hours of careful work, he says it’s been a successful day.
“We found exactly what we were hoping,” Krull says. “We've exposed a very healthy hive full of tons and tons of honey.”
Krull estimates the bees have stored about 30 pounds of honey between the floorboards.
“This is about as good as it gets,” Krull says. “It's beautiful. Lots of honey. Lots of healthy bees.”
Now that Krull’s captured the colony, he’ll be taking the bees to a former tobacco farm in Weston, Missouri, where he keeps 50 hives on a restored native prairie. Krull calls it bee heaven.