Kathy and Brian Suchan manage hundreds of beehives in more than 25 locations across Nebraska’s Colfax and Stanton counties, so it can be challenging to find time to visit Fat Head Farms, their northeast Nebraska honey operation. But if you’re able to get there, it’s well worth it.
The beekeeping couple lives in a “shouse” — a large outbuilding equal parts living quarters and shed — on a farmstead a few miles south of Clarkson. A welcoming patio opens directly into a storybook kitchen with sealed concrete floors, dark blue cabinetry and gleaming wood counters accented with plants and meaningful antiques. A breezy loft provides ample room for entertaining, the north wall lined with repurposed bee boxes full of cookbooks and beekeeping references.
A sweet start
Kathy grew up in Schuyler, Nebraska, but spent time in South Carolina where her bee obsession began to emerge during the urban farming craze.
“It started with backyard chickens and went from there,” she reminisces. Eleven years later, she’s even more enamored with the craft.
A fourth-generation beekeeper, Brian grew up in Omaha, spending time with his grandfather and father tending bee yards in Colfax and Stanton counties, as well as the Boys Town farm near his childhood home. Unassuming, patient and incredibly knowledgeable, Brian keeps his primary focus on the bees, whereas Kathy handles beekeeping duties along with some of the more customer-facing tasks involved in running the business.
Now used as an office and a bottling facility, the farmhouse on the Suchans’ property is more than 100 years old, evoking a comforting nostalgia. Kathy is admittedly obsessed with the vintage appliances that grace both the shouse and farmhouse kitchens.
The former parlor serves as a bottling area, furnished with a honey creamer, bottle filler and barrel of honey. Storeroom shelves are lined with bottled honey varieties ready for mailing; another room resplendent with original wallpaper is used for shipping.
Every jar is touched by one (and usually both) of the Suchans, then packaged with love and a bit of swag.
Around the farm with Pork Chop, Harley and Queen
Pork Chop, the smooshy-faced bulldog depicted on the label and inspiration for the Fat Head name, arrived on the farm as a pup.
“He was so tiny, he fit right into the crook of my arm,” Brian remembers, smiling. The couple later brought Harley home as a pal for Pork Chop. Most recently, the aptly named Queen, Pork Chop’s biological mama, joined the family to keep everyone in line.
Kathy’s geese, Jim and Jack, can often be found honking their heads off in a tiny yard outside an adjacent outbuilding and splashing around in a little stock tank they consider their own personal pond. Nearby, completely oblivious to the geese cacophony, two Kunekune pigs named Louise and Waylon root around among a few chickens. Their buddy, Leonard, has been feeling a bit under the weather lately and is stationed in a cozy shelter up near the shouse.
The buzz and the bees
The Suchans’ hives are scattered around the county in bee yards — local landowners contact the couple to offer up pastures of grasses and wildflowers for hives and are paid rent by way of honey. A nearby yard situated on the north side of a grassy trail holds several rows of stacked beehives.
These are Carniolan bees, a less common species in the U.S. than the more popular Italian honeybee. Adept at hunkering down in cozy clusters through the frigid Nebraska winters, the breed proves a bit more adaptable to variable nectar supplies and pest resistance.
One of the most common questions the Suchans encounter is how often they get stung.
“All the time,” Kathy admits. “It’s just part of the deal.”
Brian says that the Carniolan bees do have a calm temperament, “but if it rains and they can’t work for days, or it’s too hot, they get a little cranky.”
The Suchans use wooden Langstroth hives, often handed down through generations, marked with the family name and sometimes other family tidbits, not unlike pressing your hand into fresh concrete or carving your initials into an attic beam. Each hive houses a queen bee and her brood, comprising one family. The bottom two boxes of the stacked hive are reserved exclusively for the queen, where she will lay up to 2,500 eggs daily to be nurtured for 21 days until they hatch.
Before removing the frames of the hive to inspect the bees, Brian puffs pine needle smoke to calm them down.
The buzz is mesmerizing, and even a new visitor to a hive can forget about the possibility of being stung while getting caught up watching the workers move in and out and scrutinizing a frame dotted with newly hatched eggs. At the height of the season, each hive will contain between 60,000 and 100,000 bees.
“Supers” — or honey boxes — are added to the hive in early summer to provide plenty of workspace for the “girls” (worker bees) to produce comb and fill with honey.
Hive to honey — how it’s made
The worker bees head out for the day, gathering nectar to bring back to the hive. The bees then deposit the nectar into the comb, flapping their wings forcefully to extract water. Once the comb is full, it’s capped with beeswax to preserve the honey inside.
This frenetic activity, referred to as “the flow,” picks up from mid- to late-summer and typically lasts for 4 to 6 weeks. In a stellar year, the flow can take up to 8 weeks.
“It depends on the nectar source and the weather,” Brian says. “Too much rain prevents the bees from gathering. The early honey is delicious — light, floral, not cloying, but definitely sticky.”
When collection time arrives, the scrupulously clean harvest building is abuzz with activity using equipment that dates back to the 1970s and 1980s. “All processing is done the old timey way,” Kathy says. Newer, more automated equipment is available, but the Suchans prefer to stick with the classics they know.
To harvest, the operator removes frames from the supers, then sends them through a conveyor belt with chains that remove the wax cap. On the opposite side, a second person grabs the frame and glides it into the receiving grooves of an extractor that uses centrifugal force to pull the honey out. The honey is strained into barrels, and then goes into drums for storage.
The bottling process proceeds via a tube that runs from the drum to a bottle filler. With the press of a button, the honey streams into labeled bottles and is ready for sale. If the product in the drums crystallizes, it’s cozied up in a warm blanket to return it to hive temp, but is never heated.
To create creamed honey, granulated honey is churned with regular honey in a motorized mixer, resulting in a smooth, spreadable product. The final batches of creamed honey are produced during the winter because temperature affects the mixture’s ability to emulsify.
An avid and accomplished cook, Kathy develops and tests recipes for the farm’s 17 craft honey flavors, jokingly remarking that the best ideas come after “one too many beers.” She tests combinations in small batches, tweaking until the ratios are perfect. Infusions like the spicy Killer Bee Honey are done cold – Kathy simply adds the flavor to be infused and lets the honey rest until the intended flavor level is achieved. Popular sellers include a bourbon barrel-aged product and creamed salted citrus, chocolate ghost pepper, peanut butter and lavender-matcha varieties.
Spreading the love
The Suchans loves to share their passion for beekeeping, mentoring newbies and collaborating with other hive owners. Their advice to newcomers is to conduct as much research as you can and join a bee club to gain knowledge and find a mentor. They also recommend reserving bees starting in January, as they sell out quickly.
“We love to know everyone we work with, from those picking up bees for the first time to the representatives from stores,” Kathy says. “It’s cool to touch on every aspect.”
Most aspiring beekeepers collect their five-frame nucleus hives from the Suchans by mid-May. The couple hopes to make the pickups into a celebration in the future, providing ample opportunity for patrons to meet other like-minded folks and talk bees.
“I always wanted my own business,” Kathy muses. “It’s so rewarding to go through the whole hive-to-jar process, from tending the hives to being able to hand the customer a jar of honey.”
True entrepreneurs like the Suchans thrive on all aspects of the business — beekeeping, harvesting, developing flavors, meeting customers and learning new ideas.
Know your honey, know your beekeeper
Fat Head Farms honey can be ordered online or purchased at select regional stores and festivals. Kathy loves seeing the faces of her regular customers each season, sharing recipes and hearing feedback about the products. Local customers have the option of picking up their orders from an adorable honey wagon parked in front of the farm.
When it comes to buying honey, how do you know you’re getting the real deal?
“Know your beekeepers and farmers!” exclaims Kathy. “We produce raw, small-batch honey in a 100 percent hands-on environment using practices passed down for generations. Looking out for the bees, keeping them healthy, and working as a team with Brian make me proud of this life we created.”