September 26, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ryan Sedlacek’s family farm—90 acres of gently rolling fields and wooded Nebraska land—sits barely a mile outside of Gretna’s busy shopping district. Life is much simpler there, with the beauty of mature corn stalks, the sweet-tart blueberries and raspberries ready for picking, and the steady buzzing of honeybees.

Beekeeping, for the Sedlaceks, is not a novelty but a way of life.

Ryan is the sixth generation of his family to keep bees. In fact, his grandfather, Bill Sedlacek, says his own grandfather cared for bees long before the Sedlacek farm was settled 75 years ago.

“My interest in bees has been around my whole life,” Ryan says. “My earliest memory is making frames for the bees to live in for their hives and checking on them with my grandpa.”

Never mind that Ryan and his father are allergic to bees. Such inconveniences don’t stop him from caring for 18 hives on the Sedlacek Farm and two neighboring farms.

Their bees are key in pollinating the crops and orchards for miles around. “Bees travel eight square miles,” he explains. “All the bees you see here are mine.”

Last year, the farm’s hives produced 34 gallons of honey, which was a good year. The year before, only 12 gallons of honey were harvested, as wet and rainy conditions limited the availability of pollen and kept the bees in the hives.

Out of 14 grandchildren, Ryan is the only one to take to beekeeping. Since age 8, Ryan has learned about honeybees and the Russian and Italian varieties that he and his grandfather keep.

“I love watching and caring for bees just because you’re making a difference in everything around you,” he says. “You might not have bees in the area [but you] might have a fruit tree. It grows nothing every year. Then you put a beehive next to it and the tree grows the biggest apricots…so big and healthy.”

Ryan shares his passion and knowledge of bees with others through the 4-H Agriculture Innovators Experience program, which has focused on honeybees and pollinators. At a national conference in Washington, D.C., during 2016, he learned more about pollinators and their role in agriculture. Since then, he has worked with the 4-H program statewide to offer the Honeybee Challenge and educate other youth. For his work and excitement about bees and agriculture, Ryan was named 4-H King of Douglas and Sarpy counties.

On what seemed the hottest day of summer, Ryan’s faithful dog Tucker—whom grandma calls Bingo—follows his every move. And, boy, does Ryan move fast, going almost effortlessly from one chore to the next, from repairing fences to feeding his pets (goats, pigs, horses, geese, chickens, and ducks). After quickly filling watering cans for the animals, Ryan goes to check on the bees.

Beekeeping kicks off in the spring as the bees start to produce honey after the first flowers bloom. The worker bees gather pollen and water for the hive, and they generally live four to six weeks in the spring and summer months.

“Bees will literally work themselves to death,” he says while opening the lid of a white wooden box. “You must be gentle when going into a hive. Otherwise, you can kill bees. Always be gentle and be aware of your surroundings.”

Ryan wedges a metal tool between wooden slats, sliding a frame out of the hive to reveal the bees at work. Inside the hive, bees build a comb of wax where the queen will lay eggs and honey will be stored. Each hive has one queen, which can live for up to five years. The other bees are workers and drones—all of which serve a purpose to build a healthy and active hive.

Ryan and his grandfather check the hives periodically over the summer to see how they are producing. As fall begins, the family harvests honeycomb and makes honey. The pasteurization process separates the comb and other impurities from the honey, which the family then sells at the farm. In winter, the bees live off the honey stored in the hive and a tray of a sugar-water mixture the Sedlaceks make to supplement the bees’ diet.

Life in rural Gretna with his parents, Mike and Trish Sedlacek, has been good for the 18-year-old recent Gretna High graduate.

His parents and grandparents demonstrated how farmers are stewards of the land. They taught him to conserve water, repair farm equipment, and protect the environment while maximizing the land’s sustainable yield.

Few of his classmates share such passion for agriculture, however. Of the 243 Gretna seniors in Ryan’s 2017 graduating class, Ryan says he’s the only one to pursue a career in agriculture (not including three who plan to pursue veterinary science degrees).

In the fall, Ryan starts an undergraduate degree in animal science at the University of Nebraska-­Lincoln, and he plans to continue his family’s beekeeping legacy. 

Visit extension.unl.edu/statewide/douglas-sarpy for more information about 4-H in the Omaha metro.

This article was printed in the September/October 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.