“I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority.” E.B. White
Ask anyone, even a small child, where honey comes from and the answer will be immediate: bees. The wonder of the honeybee is one of the first science lessons we learn as kids and one that sticks—no pun intended—with us the longest. The fear of the sting is overshadowed by an endearing fascination for these fuzzy little fliers that produce decadent nectar with the power to sweeten tea, soothe sore throats and elevate peanut butter to delicacy status.
And what of those who venture into the bees’ world and extract that precious nectar? Theirs is a millennia-old story still told today, and much closer to home than you might think. Beekeeping is alive and well in Kentucky, with Kelley Beekeeping of Clarkson leading the way.
Walter T. Kelley started a small beekeeping business in Houma, Louisiana in the mid-1920s, selling bees and hives locally. “Walter Kelley was born in Michigan,” said Kelley apiculture specialist Jake Osborne. “He enlisted in the army in World War I and later graduated from Michigan State University.” Kelley’s degree in apiculture (beekeeping) led to a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which he held until going into business for himself in 1924. In Louisiana, he met his wife, Ida, who would share his passion for bees, travel and life for more than 50 years. “The Kelleys had no children,” Osborne said. “They traveled the world and brought back souvenirs from all over. They always wanted to share their experiences with others.”
The couple shifted gears to manufacturing after the stock market crash of 1929 and decided a move north was in the best interest of the company. “They picked Paducah,” said Kelley sales manager Jennifer Priddy, “because of the railroad and waterway. It was centrally located in the U.S., and they could use the U.S. mail for shipping.” Relieved of the exorbitant rates charged to ship across the Mississippi River, the Walter T. Kelley Company was established in western Kentucky. Credited with the quip, “Make a fool of yourself and people will remember you,” Kelley switched out a bee’s head for his own in what would become his trademark “Bee Man” logo.
Change would come again when the U.S. government opened the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in McCracken County. “In the 1950s, Kelley left Paducah for a new location because of the nuclear plant,” Priddy said. “The federal wages were too high, and finding labor was a problem. Mr. Kelley wanted a more seasonal workforce. He wanted people to have the opportunity to do other work in the off-season, like farming or stripping tobacco.” In 1952, the Walter T. Kelley Company moved to its current home on West Main Street in Clarkson in Grayson County.
Beekeeping is enjoying a bit of a renaissance these days as new keepers emerge from nearly every geographic and socioeconomic group. “Urban, rural, wealthy, poor, young and old,” Priddy said. “Some are new to beekeeping, and some are a generation removed but want to give it a try. Urban beekeeping is becoming very popular. New York, Boston and Chicago are all very bee-friendly cities. It is getting more diverse, and more women are involved than ever before.”
This renewed buzz—it had to be said at least once—can be traced to cultural and environmental factors that keep bees in the spotlight. “Colony Collapse Disorder [CCD] has become an issue,” Priddy added. “Time did a story asking, ‘What are we doing to the honeybees?’ prompting people to ask, ‘How can we help?’ Some people have offered monetary support, while others do beekeeping itself.” Celebrities contribute to the message by popularizing beekeeping and society’s natural affinity for the striped insects. “It has transitioned into mainstream culture,” Priddy said. “Morgan Freeman is a beekeeper, and Beyoncé has worn clothing with a bee design.”
Commercial operations have a high honey production rate and can help keep prices down, but the risk of disease and hive loss always looms. “Beekeeping became a monoculture,” Priddy said. “With CCD, the prices went up for honey,” and consumers realized that if they lost the beekeepers, they would be in a bad place. Private beekeepers have done much to reduce this risk and enhance bee populations.
“It’s hard for commercial keepers to monitor thousands of hives,” Priddy added. “Small beekeepers can more easily keep track. It spreads out the risk.”
Costs are doable, and the work is less labor-intensive than one might think. “About $500 sets you up pretty well,” Priddy said. “You get bees, a hive and basic equipment. You need to monitor the food every day at first and handle your own maintenance. Then it’s every 10-14 days or so.” And when it comes to the question on everyone’s mind—Will I get stung?—Priddy gives blunt advice: “It’s not a question of if, but when. And just because it itches or swells does not necessarily mean you are allergic. Any time you get stung, you will swell to some degree. Stings are actually good for your joints. They help build cartilage and increase flexibility. Many old beekeepers can grip like a young man.”
Anyone interested in joining the movement need look no further than Kelley Beekeeping. The Clarkson complex is filled with knowledgeable, dedicated employees who share an abiding pride in their company and its history. The small retail store at the front offers assorted beekeeping supplies, T-shirts, books, candy, skin care products and more. Just beyond is Osborne’s office, where photos, furniture, books and assorted paraphernalia from Mr. and Mrs. Kelley line the walls and spill out into the hallway. “Over there is his degree from MSU,” Osborne said. “Up there is part of one of his original hives, and this was his desk.”
A tour of the facility is a surprising sensory experience: the sights, sounds and smells from each building layering one over another, and the connection to Walter Kelley is evident in every part of the plant. “The metal shop, assembly building and warehouse/shipping building are all original,” said Osborne, who then added with a smile, “Here is the neat part: Most of our machines were designed and built by Walter Kelley and his very talented machinists, and they still function perfectly. In 1995, there was a fire in the wax building, and all the machines survived. They were refurbished and are still in use. New machines are built here, too.”
The unmistakable aroma of beeswax surrounds the wax structure, while inside, workers melt, press, roll and shape stacks of golden blocks into hive foundations on Kelley-built machines. “We are one of two companies that make foundations,” Osborne said. After the wax has melted, cold water cools it and metal presses roll out the thin, smooth sheets.
An interesting contraption then creates a honeycomb pattern designed to stimulate the bees. “The hexagon pattern is pressed into the foundation, and the bees will build from that,” he added. All scraps are returned to the melting pots.
Adjacent to the wax building is the metal shop, where the industrial revolution happily rages on. Motors roar to life, and gears grind as machinists create tanks to store honey, extractors to separate honey from the honeycomb, and assorted containers, parts and gadgets necessary for the beekeeping business. Osborne explains the role of metalwork in harvesting honey, where the frames from the hives are removed and processed. “You have to uncap the comb where the honey is stored. The frame is put in the extractor, where it is spun at high speeds using centrifugal force. This causes a separation, and liquid honey is obtained.”
Next door in the wood shop, the scent of raw lumber mingles with sawdust, while an enormous blue machine slices and dices large wooden planks as though they were cardboard. A young woman stacks cut pieces, while workers at other machines cut the wood into smaller, specialized parts that will form the hive structures, frames and queen cages. “Most of these machines are original,” Osborne said, “and the queen cage is a design developed here. There are breeders who just make the queens. You can order one, and it will come in a cage just like this one. We actually have a guy from Hawaii who buys about 50,000 of them at a time.”
At the quieter end of the facility are the shipping and sewing rooms. In the former, orders are efficiently processed and shipped, while employees labor in the latter to create jackets, veils, aprons, gloves and more on sewing machines boasting decades of service. “They are at least 50 years old,” Osborne said, pointing to an out-of-service machine positioned in the center of the room. “We use that one for parts because we can’t find them anywhere else.”
Old and new weave together seamlessly here. A walk along the drive lined with trees planted by Walter Kelley, who passed away in 1986, leads to the heart of the compound and a view of a massive new warehouse currently under construction.
Not able to visit the facility? Kelley Beekeeping’s website, kelleybees.com, offers the latest in beekeeping products, technology and education—including beekeeping classes for beginners—and provides a forum for questions and concerns. Keepers can order items, watch videos, be introduced to others in the Beekeeper Spotlight, or visit the blog for information on a variety of topics. If you’re ready to dive into the hive, the Walter T. Kelley Company is ready to assist.
More to Buzz About
Kelley Beekeeping hosts its annual Field Day in downtown Clarkson on June 4, where speakers share their expertise on beekeeping and other bee-related topics, such as lip balm making and recipes using honey. For more information, visit kelleybees.com.