Don’t test Bill Ford—he once shook up 10,000 live bees
Published in 2019 Missouri & Kansas Super Lawyers magazine on November 13, 2019
Bill Ford blames the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption for his decision to head to law school. The Lathrop Gage lawyer always had a thing for the outdoors, and he had a plan.
“I was going to be a park ranger,” he says. “The summer between my sophomore and junior year of college, that was going to involve [an internship as] a fire spotter in the Bitterroot wildlife area up in Idaho.”
But then Mount St. Helens erupted, and the gig went from being a fire-spotter to being an ash-shoveler. “I didn’t want to shovel ash all summer for free,” he says. So he got a job as a paralegal and liked it enough to pursue a J.D. His Kansas City practice is a nod to those outdoorsy roots—he practices environmental law—as is his out-of-office pursuit, beekeeping.
Ford and his wife, Susan, were taking a walk on their property one afternoon when he said, nonchalantly, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we had a beehive over there?” His wife took the comment to heart. “On Christmas, I got this box that had about 800 pieces of wood in it,” he says with a laugh. Putting the pieces together to make the beehive was one thing. Putting the actual bees in was another.
“I mean, it’s intimidating,” he says. “You get a box with 10,000 bees in it, and you have to shake it out into the frames you just built, so you’re literally shaking 10,000 bees into a box. Eventually, they make themselves into 50,000 bees, and your job is to get in there and mess around with them.”
Ford is fascinated by the hierarchy. “There’s one queen in a hive, and a whole bunch of female bees doing their work, and then there’s a few lazy males that go out and mate once in their life, and that’s about it,” he says. “But I won’t go too deep into the analogy.”
How does one become queen bee? “She starts as a larva, and if the other bees think the current queen is weak, they will feed this larva with what’s called ‘royal jelly,’ and she becomes queen,” he says. “It’s really astonishing how they’ve figured all this out.”
Ford checks in on his bees every two weeks or so. “They’re wild animals, so they’ll get along without you,” he says. But they’re also wild animals in a confined space. “My job is kind of space management. If they get too crowded, they will swarm and relocate. Google ‘bees swarm hot dog stand’ and you’ll see thousands of bees on this guy’s hot dog stand in downtown Manhattan,” Ford says. “The queen left someone’s hive because she was too crowded, and she took her people with her. So you have to make sure they have enough room.”
Ford has had a swarm or two of his own. “It’s really disheartening because you go out to the box and there’s eight bees left and you have to start all over again,” he says.
While beekeeping is a fun hobby, the importance of the bee population is not lost on Ford. “There’s a lot of U.S. crops that are entirely dependent on bees, with almonds being the classic example,” he says. “The large commercial beekeepers will actually move their hives around the country; beekeepers in South Dakota or in the Midwest will load up several hundred beehives on the back of a semi and drive them to California for the almond crop. It’s a critical need.”
Beekeeping comes with perks, like Ford’s sweet honey harvest. But there’s also the stress relief. “I like having something to concentrate on that’s physical and outside,” he says. “It works for me.”
One thing is inevitable. “You get stung,” he says. “As time has gone on, I’ve realized that the times I get stung, it’s because I was hurrying or not paying attention; maybe I was cutting the lawn and took one pass a little too close to the beehive. It’s not so much different from my day job: When you’re unprepared, that’s when you get stung.”
From Ford’s Kansas City office, he manages a broad-based environmental practice. “I’ve had the most experience with Superfund areas,” matters that can take decades to work, he says. “The largest portion of my time right now is the Portland Harbor Superfund Site in Oregon, which is a billion-dollar-plus clean-up site. I was hired on this site over 10 years ago, and I was told, ‘This may last you through your retirement,’” he says. “So it’s nice to have other environmental work cross my desk, which actually has an end date.”