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Sweet on Bees

0808
 2018


“Beekeepers tend to be 60 to 70 years old, and cannot continue to keep bees forever,” said Michael Kelling of Brenham, president of the Central Texas Beekeepers Association. “So we are trying to get the youth interested in beekeeping because of beekeeping’s importance to our world.” Photo by Sarah Beal

By Josefina Casati

Agriculture is getting sweeter in Central Texas — naturally. Beekeeping, in a backyard or on the farm, is growing in popularity in Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative’s service area. Local honey from small-scale beekeepers can be found at nearly every farmers’ market or neighborhood grocer.

The Central Texas Beekeepers Association, based in Brenham, has more than 3,300 members via Facebook.
 
The Bluebonnet area is dripping in beehives. Bee classes and seasoned beekeepers stand ready to share Beekeeping 101 wisdom with novices. Just last March, the Brenham-based Central Texas Beekeepers Association’s daylong beekeeping school drew 650 people, including someone from Canada.
 
The motivation to keep bees varies. Some want to protect them from pesticides or pests. For others, pollinating a garden or crop is the goal. Of course, gathering their honey and wax is a sweet reward.

Texas produced 7.9 million pounds of honey in 2017, the sixth largest producer behind North Dakota, South Dakota, California, Montana and Florida, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
 
The United States had the highest consumption of honey per capita — around 1.3 pounds per person in 2016. Honey is the nectar of plants, which the bees collect, transform and dehydrate, leaving it in honeycombs to ripen and mature.
 
Commercial bee operations produce most of the honey in Texas. But there are many more small-scale beekeepers who may be your next-door neighbor such as Sarah Jones in Elgin, Mike Mathews in Warda, Darren Orsag in Lexington, Jesse McDaniel in Carmine, Wendy Rohan in La Grange or Michael Kelling in Brenham.
 
The honeybees that produce the thick, golden liquid you use at home are not native to Texas. “Honeybees were brought by European settlers in the 1600s to North and South America,” said Juliana Rangel, lead researcher at the Texas A&M University Honey Bee Lab in the Department of Entomology. These European honeybees, Apis mellifera, have provided humans with honey and wax for at least 9,000 years, and possibly as far back as the Stone Age.
 
Domesticated honeybees are just a fraction of the bees in Texas. An estimated 90 percent of Texas bees are native and are responsible for a substantial amount of pollination. Unlike honeybees, “endemic bees in the state lead a solitary lifestyle and raise their brood alone” rather than in large hives with a queen bee surrounded by many worker bees, Rangel said.
 
Rangel studies bee reproduction, feral Africanized honeybees, pest management to keep bees healthy, floral sources for honeybees and the impact of insecticides and pests (such as the Varroa mite) on honeybees. She keeps an eye on commercial beekeepers from Texas who carry their active boxes of bee colonies to pollinate different crops out of state (such as almonds in California and cranberries in Wisconsin).
 
“These agricultural practices where huge acreage is dedicated to one crop is harmful to bees due to the lack of variety,” Rangel said. Bees are limited to one single crop for up to three weeks but “require 10 essential amino acids for proper physical health, and no single plant contains them all,” she said.
 
“Farmers are beginning to understand that healthier bees result in stronger crops, so they are beginning to plant other blooms along the orchards for bees to feed on.”
 
Melons and other vine crops, cucumbers, pumpkins, blueberries in East Texas and onion seed are among the crops in Texas that depend most on honeybee pollination.
 
Nostalgia motivates some Central Texas beekeepers.

“My grandfather used to keep bees, and I remember going out with him to take care of them,” McDaniel said. When he and his wife retired from airline careers to take over her family’s farm in Carmine, starting an apiary was a natural next step. McDaniel heads out to his hives on weekends and finds it relaxing. “I can watch those bees for hours,” he says. 
 
Wendy Rohan fell in love with the insect during her Peace Corps stint in West Africa, and returned home to become a beekeeper. “They are really fascinating creatures — their whole social systems and networks,” Rohan said. She and her husband, John, own Rohan Meadery in La Grange and are committed to using mostly Texas honey to make meads that are sold throughout the state. Mead is an ancient alcoholic drink made of fermented honey, water and yeast. It’s sometimes called honey wine.
 
“We make wines and ciders as well as meads, and we decided that we were only going to use U.S. honey, and about 95 percent of the honey that we use comes from Texas,” Wendy Rohan said. “Since we made this choice, our supply is limited, and we make very small batches of meads.”
 
Another reason to keep bees: You may qualify for an agriculture exemption on property taxes. Do your research, though, because rules and regulations vary from county to county. It doesn’t have to be a pricey hobby: beginners can start at about $500 for honeybees and the equipment required to raise them.
 
Expect to make mistakes, said Mike Mathews, president of the Fayette Beekeepers Association, but his group and others are ready to help. The Fayette group has members from eight counties. Mathews and his wife started keeping bees seven years ago on their 11-acre property in Warda between La Grange and Giddings. Today, they have nine hives that help pollinate the sea of wildflowers on their land.
 
Among honeybees’ favorite Central Texas plants are rosemary, agarita, Texas redbud, bluebonnets, pink evening primroses, giant spiderwort, Hinckley’s golden columbine, lantana, butterflyweed, aromatic aster and gray goldenrod.
 
Buying local honey is a good way to ensure the honey is raw and has not been heated or filtered to remove pollen, which can destroy some of honey’s beneficial properties. Pure honey doesn’t need an expiration date because it keeps indefinitely. Archeologists found 3,000-year-old pots of honey in Egyptian pyramids that were deemed perfectly edible.
 
Nearly 70 percent of the honey sold in the United States is imported. So buying local honey supports small-scale beekeepers, helps protect local agriculture and pollinators, and provides consumers with a product that is all honey rather than a blend of syrups.
 
Some small-scale beekeepers have a “Real Texas Honey” campaign, which operates under the auspices of the Texas Beekeepers Association, to promote Texas beekeepers and their honey. The group’s website, texasbeekeepers.org, offers a “Honey Locator” map showing where to buy local honey around Texas. Small-scale beekeepers make up 95 percent of the statewide group’s membership.
 
“Know your beekeeper — know your honey,” the group reminds consumers.



Tastes like Texas

Ample land in the country gives keepers more control of what type of honey to expect. “My bees are eating a lot of mesquite, so I know what my honey will taste like when I begin to harvest in June,” says Sarah Jones who started the Elgin Beekeepers Association three years ago and currently has seven hives.

If beekeepers want to sell their honey, in Texas they can “as long as it’s sold directly to consumers, face to face,” explains Jones, which is how she sells her 1-pound honey jars. Last year, her sixth as a beekeeper, she estimates she got  about 240 pounds of honey from her seven hives.

“I developed a profound respect for the species and how they operate when I studied entomology” at Texas A&M University, Jones said. Scientists call the colony of bees a  superorganism because each bee acts in the interest of the colony rather than the individual.

“Very few species function this way, where each member acts as a specific organ, and as a group they are the equivalent of a human body,” explains Jones.



Growing new beekeepers

For generations, children have helped raise large animals on family farms in Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative’s service area. Now they’re learning to care for small honeybees, too.

“Beekeepers tend to be 60 to 70 years old, and cannot continue to keep bees forever,” said Michael Kelling of Brenham president of the Central Texas Beekeepers Association. “So we are trying to get the youth interested in beekeeping because of beekeeping’s importance to our world.”

Each year, 10 to 12 students meet monthly to learn about beekeeping in the association’s two-year youth training program. In March, when they graduate, they receive a protective beekeeping suit, bee boxes and frames to assemble their first hives, and a 3-pound package of bees that contains a queen and around 10,000 worker bees. “This is about $700 worth of equipment per student,” Kelling said.

While designed for young people in 5th through 12th grade, the program is open to anyone. Tim Elliott is the association’s youth program director. Get more information at centraltexasbeekeepers.org.

 


Leave hive removal to the pros

Beekeepers may enjoy time with their buzzing buddies, but regular Central Texans aren’t as fond of bees that take up residence in or around their homes, backyards or barns.

Take some advice from the experts: call a professional handler to get rid of unwanted bees. Home or business owners who try to exterminate a beehive can suffer injuries and leave behind honey that will just attract ants and other pests.

“The last removal I did, I recovered about 2 gallons of honey. But hives could have much more,” said Darren Orsag, who runs LeeCo Honey in Lexington. “Imagine what would happen if you dumped a few gallons of honey in your home.

“A strong hive will have tens of thousands of bees. If all you bring is a can of wasp spray to kill the hive, at best you’ll make them mad and at worst you or others in the area could be injured,” Orsag said.  

Orsag has been working with bees for a couple of years. Even though he removes offensive bees, he is a big bee proponent, with 11 hives of his own, and a supporter of local honey.

Get more information about beekeeping from the Texas Apiary Inspection Service, a state agency administered by Texas A&M University. Go to its website, txbeeinspection.tamu.edu, and click on the “bee removal” tab.

 


Suiting up for bee duty

Safety suits for beekeepers look something like the bulky head-to-toe outfits worn by space-walking astronauts or hazardous materials clean-up crews. But the white, mummy-like ensembles are essential protection from a barrage of bee stings.

Fortunately, “most beekeepers are not allergic to bee stings,” said Jesse McDaniel who keeps bees on his farm in Carmine and sells his honey at his Electric Motor Service shop in La Grange. “I get stung almost every time I work my bees, three or four times per week, so 10 to 15 times per week,” he said. “Most of the time I get stung when I take the suit off, and the bees are still crawling around.”

The best solution for a sting is to remove the stinger as soon as possible “because it continues to pump poison into you, like a beating heart, even after the bee has been removed,” McDaniel said. He uses honey on the injury, but other beekeepers prefer ice, ointment or antihistamines.

“Beekeeping is not a gentle hobby,” said Mike Mathews, president of the Fayette County Beekeepers Association.

Mike Kelling, president of the Central Texas Beekeepers Association, offered a description of a suit that’s new to the market: It has two layers of cloth like tulle, a fine mesh. “The wind blows through this new suit, but it's so thick that the bees can't sting through,” he said. “It makes it easier for (beekeepers) because it’s so hot out there. The regular cloth suit costs about $75, and these new ones are a bit more expensive, around $200.

“But it makes beekeeping a lot nicer, especially in the Texas heat,” Kelling said.

 


Want to learn more about beekeeping?



Six bee facts

  1. European settlers first brought Italian bees to North America in the 1600s.
  2. The USDA says one third of the world's food crops are derived from insect-pollinated plants, and honeybees are responsible for most of that.
  3. A single bee produces less than a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.
  4. Varroa mites are bees’ biggest blight and affect almost one-fifth of the national bee population. Bees also face hive loss, Colony Collapse Disorder and shrinking foraging areas.
  5. Five or more bee colonies qualify as a farm in the U.S., and those beekeepers have almost 2.7 million honey-producing colonies (Texas has 120,000 of the colonies.)
  6. Hail to the queen bee, whose sole function is to make new bees. She lays her own weight in eggs every couple of hours, up to 3,000 eggs per day.


 

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