The Kentucky Bee Man

When you are the 8-year-old child of beekeepers and you’re helping stick foundation into frames, your pay is the soft translucent paper that keeps the wax sheets from sticking together. It was the closest thing to tracing paper that I’d see as a kid. I would set the paper atop a picture on a page of the National Geographic and make the sloppy outline of a giraffe or a skyscraper or something.

It was exciting when the cardboard boxes of smelly wax were first opened. Even better when all that free paper went into a special stack for kids. But the outsides of those boxes of wax were creepy. They featured a bee with a man’s head. It was The Bee Man, Walter T. Kelly.

I’d pull apart the sheets of foundation, wondering how the man had turned into a bee. It reminded me a bit of a 1950s horror movie about a man who turned into a fly because he stood too close to some radiation. That movie played in the 60s on our black and white television set, also when I was eight. Between The Fly Man and The Bee Man, I had some restless nights.

The years passed and we ended up buying a lot of equipment from the Kentucky Bee Man. Foundation, frames, smokers. The Kelley Bee Veil was popular at our farm. I never met Mr Kelley, but I spoke to him once by phone. I quizzed him about his Kelley Boiler and Uncapper system, but I kept imagining that I was talking to a Bee Man. The childhood image was unnerving. Then, in my early 20s, I left the eastern states and ended up on the Saskatchewan prairie, running my new bee outfit. I was in Canada, 2,000 miles from Clarkson, Kentucky. With the international border and the distance, I quit buying bee equipment from Walter T. Kelley.

Walter T Kelley, 1897-1986

Walter T Kelley, 1897-1986

But I wondered what had become of his business. From the ads in the bee journals, it was obvious that the company was still very much on the go. I was glad for that. Kelley had worked hard to build it up. Born in 1897, he served in the Army during the Great War, then went to Michigan State University, earning an Apiculture degree in 1919. That was followed by a couple of years with the USDA. In 1926, Kelley settled in Louisiana to raise and sell queens. Cypress wood was plentiful, so he manufactured and sold pre-cut bee equipment. I’m not sure why he moved to Kentucky, but his factory was there by the 1950s.

Now known as Kelley Beekeeping, the business is still one of the largest bee equipment suppliers in America. That’s a huge market. To keep supplying such an enormous sector, the company has just now committed to staying in Clarkson and building a new 100,000 square foot factory. That is a $7.5 million  investment and it will need an additional 50 people to make all the bee stuff. This is a big deal for Clarkson, a town of just 225 families. Kelley Beekeeping, of course, is the biggest employer.

Walter T. Kelley was active with the company for decades. He died at age 89, in 1986. Kelley excelled at marketing and promotion. In the 1950s, he self-published a small book, How to Keep Bees and Sell Honey, which has sold nearly one hundred thousand copies. The book was a marketing tool, it is great at convincing people to keep bees. I have a copy. It’s well-written, even if the author was a man with a stinger, wings, and six legs.

The Bee Man

The Bee Man

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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3 Responses to The Kentucky Bee Man

  1. Robert Ray says:

    Yes he was a bee genius for sure, I was the telephone technician that worked on his phone line. He was however some what opinionated. He did treat the employees very good but didn’t put up with tardiness or sloth. When he had treatment for cancer in Louisville he caught the bus when in reality he was wealthy enough to hire a chaffuer and ride in a Mercedes, his wife was a devote Catholic where as he was agnostic.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ron Miksha says:

    Thanks, Robert. I appreciate your note and your observations. Seems you knew him rather well. It’s always nice to hear about the personality of someone I respected – none of what you wrote surprises me!


  3. John Mary says:

    When I was a new Beekeeper (12yo in New Orleans, LA…I’m 68 now) I had my 1st hives in my grandmothers back yard (she lived only a block away) we had a pretty cold winter and I went over in the morning before school on the first warm day and watched as the workers would come waddling out of the entrance (all distended from not being able to take a potty break for weeks) and take to the air….as I watched them the yellow stuff would come squirting out of them and you could literally see their speed rapidly accelerate and they lost a lot of their mass…..I ended up with around a dozen hives in 4 locations (all within 2 blocks of my house in New Orleans)….when I ordered supplies from Mr Walter T Kelley I would occasionally write a question to him with the order and he always sent back a handwritten note to me with advice….those WERE the Good Old Days…

    Liked by 1 person

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