Profile: Messner Bee Farm
Messner Bee Farm in Raytown, Missouri, was founded by husband and wife team Erik and Rachael Messner. They follow natural beekeeping practices and are a voice in the community about the importance and protection of bees. Messner Bee Farm started out as an apothecary line handcrafted with natural beeswax and honey – including their lip balm with a cult following! They expanded in 2017 by opening a shop featuring their whole line of products and other handmade goods. Rachael chatted with us about her and Erik’s journey, what a day in the life of a beekeeper is like, amazing facts about bees, and more!
What are the origins of Messner Bee Farm?
As newlyweds, we spent most of our free time gardening, tending to our chickens and tinkering with handmade projects. In 2011, we decided that keeping bees would be a terrific addition to our urban homestead! We asked for a hive for Christmas and got one from Erik’s grandparents. After our 3rd beekeeping season, Rachael used the beeswax we harvested to make lip balm and soap. Sales quickly took off and a year later Rachael quit her job. She has been doing Messner Bee Farm full-time since.
Where did you grow up?
We both grew up in Lee’s Summit—across the train tracks from one another—and graduated from LSHS in 2002. (Our moms also graduated the same year and both attended Raytown High School!)
What are your and Erik’s backgrounds? Did either of you have experience with bees before?
Erik, a Professional Engineer, went to the University of Missouri in Rolla; Rachael, an artist, went to the Kansas City Art Institute. We didn’t get interested in beekeeping until after we were married.
Our business is a great way for us to both exercise our strengths, but the best things emerge when we collaborate! Erik uses his engineering skills to plan and work the beeyard. Rachael exercises her creativity in designing products, labels, web content and displays.
What is it like to have a truly family business? What is the collaborative process between you and Erik?
We often talk about how lucky we are to have a family business. We love working on our own time, especially since we have two young kids. We’re both fascinated by bees and talk about them constantly. There is an endless amount of information and research to be discussed. We collaborate on beekeeping methods, marketing, core values, aesthetic, honeybee education/community outreach and big picture business planning.
When we brainstorm, we create a safe space where every idea, no matter how ridiculous, is entertained. In marriage they say it’s important to be with someone who can make you laugh - which is true. We think the same is true when working together on a business. We get both! We find a lot of joy and freedom in being creative together, but there comes a point where we need to make a decision, so we refine and pick the ideas that best align with our goals and values.
When did you start making other products with the beeswax and honey, like the apothecary products?
Apothecary goods like lip balm, beard oil, soap and solid perfume were our first products. We were pretty stingy with our honey when we started, and only shared it with our family and friends. Apothecary products were easier to part with because we could make a lot of lip balm with a small amount of beeswax. After selling our beeswax goods for a few years, we caved and expanded our honey operation. We’re so glad we did! We love that we get to see the whole process: from the bees building comb and storing nectar in the hive, to melting down the beeswax and making the products on our shelves.
What does it mean to follow natural beekeeping practices?
We feel like that term has evolved for us. When we first started beekeeping, following natural practices meant that we didn’t use chemicals under any circumstances (this is called “treatment free”). After some humbling losses, we did more research and really listened to what the experts in beekeeping were saying. We’ve since adopted a sustainable treatment strategy that helps us minimize losses and perpetuate the evolutionary selection of resilient and independently healthy bees, and is also gentle on our colonies. The treatments we use are limited to organic acids found in nature, and we only treat sick hives under limited circumstances. We also communicate with our neighbors and the public at-large about their pesticide and insecticide use.
Any fun bee facts you want to share?
One of our favorite bee facts is that the different tasks in the beehive are delegated based on relative age. The youngest adult bees are responsible for feeding the colony and managing nutrition. The middle-aged bees build comb and manage the primary resources of the hive (wax, propolis, nectar/honey and pollen), and the oldest bees are guards, foragers and scouts. If there is some kind of problem and no new bees are emerging for a period of time, the bees will stay in their role until more bees can emerge to replace them.
To make one/a single pound of honey, roughly 550 worker bees gather nectar from approximately two million flowers! That means that each of those workers produces about 1/12th a teaspoon in her six-week lifetime. During heavy nectar flows, there are roughly 50,000 bees in each hive working to make honey. Imagine how much honey would cost if the nectar was gathered by people! #liquidgold
Another favorite fact is that the temperature of the hive is controlled by the bees. During the summer, the bees place droplets of water around the hive and fan their wings to create evaporative cooling. During the winter, they form a ball and vibrate their flight muscles to create heat. The queen stays in the middle of the ball; all of the workers take turns rotating from the center of the ball to the outside.
When did your retail shop open? What was the process of opening like?
We opened the shop in October of 2017. We had purchased the property from Erik’s family in June of the same year and worked diligently to get the store ready for our Grand Opening and first Christmas season. The building where the store is located used to be the chicken house for the property when it was a farm with a chicken dinner restaurant back in the 1920’s. We wanted to showcase the history of the space, so we tore out the popcorn ceiling and carpet to bring back the farm vibe. We did most of the work ourselves and had some friends pitch in too. The community of Raytown blew us away with their support at our Grand Opening. We had a ribbon cutting ceremony with giant scissors, speeches, a plaque and a BIG party! It was wonderful.
What is a typical day in the life of a beekeeper?
Like other agricultural enterprises, beekeeping work is dictated by the season and the weather. It starts in early spring when it’s warm enough to open the hives and check to see who survived the winter. As spring heats up, we closely monitor the buildup in the population of each hive to ensure that they are all healthy and will have enough bees to collect the nectar needed for the honey crop. That means we feed, requeen, and split hives that are too large. Once the honey flow starts, it’s all about making sure they have enough space to grow.
After the honey is harvested in the summer, the practice shifts to preparing for winter. Colonies are checked for disease and treated if necessary, queens (the genetics of the hive) are replaced if they are not healthy, and we work to make sure they have enough resources to survive the winter. Once winter comes, we close up the hives, warm up inside, and cross our fingers!
It’s really a wonderful, meditative collection of yearly rituals that includes repeatedly lighting the smoker, intense record-keeping, stings, mistakes, a season where every door knob is sticky, intense heat, deep research, heartache, joy, reverence and hope. And we love it all.
Are there other beekeepers or farmers who inspire you?
YES! We love to follow Randy Oliver, Michael Palmer, Kim Flottum, Michael Bush, Don Kuchenmeister, Tom Seeley, and Marla Spivak. These are all brilliant (sometimes eccentric), articulate and generous beekeepers, who range from the academic side to the hillbilly. There are many more great beekeepers, but these are the ones we reference daily.
What is your favorite part about calling Kansas City home?
Too many things to say. We love KC!
What are you aspiring for Messner Bee Farm in the next few years?
We want to offer experiences like tours and classes. We’re thrilled with our community’s curiosity and we want to share our passion with them. Plus we love any excuse to talk about how awesome bees are! We also plan to have a commercial kitchen operational in our back of house soon, which will allow us to have more variety in the products that we can offer. Stay tuned on our social media to see new products this fall/winter!
Find Messner Bee Farm products at all Made in KC locations and online, or shop at their farm in Raytown at 8301 Westridge Road.