Kristi Sanderson has raised bees and harvested honey for more than 30 years. During that time, she’s worked with the Kansas Honey Producers Association and showed her products at the Kansas State Fair.

Last year, along with Sanderson, 60 beekeepers entered their products in the more than one dozen judging categories. This year, the number of applicants more than tripled – to 220.

“It’s pretty exciting. The most we’ve ever had is 60,” said Sanderson, who runs Sweet Prairie Honey in Olathe. “We were trying to encourage more people.”

Some of the categories that will be judged Friday afternoon include light and dark liquid honey, comb honey, beeswax designs, beeswax candles, creamed honey and best tasting honey. There are also youth categories.

The Kansas Honey Producers booth is housed in the Pride of Kansas building. Throughout the fair, beekeepers will volunteer at the booth and provide the public with samples. On Saturday morning, Ginny Mitchell, the exhibit’s judge and an educator at the Insect Zoo at Iowa State University, will speak. Mitchell will explain how to improve entries, how to use specific equipment and how to cut combs. She will answer questions about honey and honey products from both entrants and the public.

Mitchell judges apiary product in Missouri, Nebraska, Kentucky, Iowa and Kansas. She has judged in Kansas since 2012. Mitchell said it’s an art to prepare honey for the entries.

The increase in entries, she believes, is due to a good crop.

“This year, in Kansas the honey crop has been really good,” Mitchell said. “Kansas has beautiful sunflower fields. The more wildflowers that are present, the better the honey crops.”

Mitchell said Kansas is a great place for beekeepers because of the prairie areas. This year, the rain has helped the bees.

“Rain can do two things to your colony. One, make them get more honey. Two, make them swarm and start a new colony,” she said.

Last year, Sanderson won the best tasting honey award.

“This year, someone else will get that honor,” Sanderson said.

Harder for bees

Sanderson has watched the industry change. She said it’s harder to keep healthy bees nowadays.

“There’s Varroa mites, genetically modified crops, aerial spraying and small hive beetles,” She said. “When I started keeping bees, none of these things were an issue.”

Gregory Zolnerowich, Ph.D., professor of entomology at Kansas State University said there is a lot of concern over bees nationwide.

“There’s a lot of problems that have been plaguing bees for some years,” Zolnerowich said.

He said researchers are investigating Colony Collapse Disorder – where worker bees leave the hive for some unknown reason. Zolnerowich said there are many hypotheses that relate to both pesticides and parasites being a cause.

Mitchell, who teaches about all varieties of bees, hopes there will be an increase in prairie lands and wildflowers and a decrease in the use of pesticides. Not only do they produce honey, but bees perform a vital role in pollination.

Sanderson has seen a difference in bees during the last three decades.

“It’s harder to keep bees alive,” She said. “There are a lot of pressures on a small insect.”

For the love of bees

Mark Mounce of Hutchinson, runs GGs Honey, where he harvests more than 30 hives. Like Sanderson, beekeeping is a hobby. By day, Mounce works as a machinist in Hesston.

“This started out as a small hobby,” Mounce said. “I became fascinated with the bees and studying them.”

But despite the hard work, Sanderson, Mounce and the hundreds of other applicants at the State Fair enjoy raising bees and producing honey.

“You do it because you enjoy it,” Sanderson said. “It makes you more in tune with the seasons.”