It only took a few seconds for my body, encased in a hazmatlike beekeeper's suit, to start gushing sweat beneath the July sun. Armed only with what looked like a boiling tea kettle with an accordion's bellows, Jesse Swanson and I trudged toward his backyard beehive in Benbrook, not far from his above-ground pool.
As we approached a white tiered box containing hundreds of bees, a question Swanson had asked me earlier in the day kept ringing in my head:
"Are you allergic to bee stings?"
Honestly, I had no idea. I asked Swanson and his 11-year-old daughter, Kaila Ann, that, if it turned out I was, to tell my mother I died bravely. (Those who are allergic to bee stings can suffer an anaphylactic reaction, which could, as the pharmaceutical commercials say, result in death.)
"Don't worry," said Kaila Ann, "We have an EpiPen."
Face to face with all those bees, and all that infernal buzzing, and the prospect of an ER visit, I was finding it hard to remember exactly how I ended up here.
But the truth is that this whole thing was my idea. I wanted to see what all the buzz (ahem) was about bees. Why they've become an environmental cause célèbre and why backyard beekeeping has been gaining in popularity locally as a hobby and a business.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, bees pollinate 80 percent of our flowering crops that constitute a third of everything we eat. Apples, oranges, melons, broccoli and even alfalfa rely on bee pollination. Bee venom has been found to have medicinal properties, too, used for treating arthritis, multiple sclerosis and fibromyalgia, and more recently to treat sexual dysfunction, cancer, epilepsy and depression.
Which explains why "there are a lot more people interested in beekeeping," said Stan Key, president of Metro Beekeepers, based in Burleson. "There's a back-to-Earth movement, and more people are interested in going green. This is part of that movement."
The scary part for bee enthusiasts, farmers and anyone paying attention to where the food we eat comes from is that the bee population has been dwindling for decades now. Considering that honeybees annually pollinate $14 billion worth of seeds and crops in the U.S., according to a Cornell University study, their survival raises big environmental questions for all of us. "One out of every three bites of food that we all take have been touched by bees," said Key.
None other than Albert Einstein once said that when the bees disappear we have four more years. That may be a bit dramatic, but his point is taken. The clock is ticking, which is why I decided to suit up and try to be brave.
The business of de-bee-ing
My bee adventure began with a call to Christine Garcia, beekeeper in chief of Bee Charmer Honey Bee Removal, based in Boyd. We met early one morning at the home of John Patterson in Saginaw. Charter Communications uses Garcia's company to remove bees from its equipment, and that morning we were to remove a hive that had made its home in one of Charter's hubs, called "peds." The peds are perfect for bees because of their shape, size and lack of entry points.
I warned Garcia and her husband, Aaron, that I was a coward, and had a generally low threshold for pain.
"They won't really attack you," she assured me. "They want me."
Garcia regularly does bee removal. She takes the hives back to her house in Boyd, where she puts them in boxes all around her yard.
"If they want to stay, they can stay. If they want to go, they can go," she said. "I have four boxes in my front yard, two more on the side and two in the back yard."
None of the honey she extracts from removals goes to waste. She harvests it and sells some, and gives the rest away to friends -- unless, of course, someone has sprayed poison on the bees before she gets to them.
Unfortunately, that was the case that morning. Someone, not Patterson, had sprayed the hive, killing most of the bees and ruining its honey.
Some people, according to Garcia, spray pesticides on a beehive believing that it poses a threat. And while bees will sting a person or animal they think is threatening their hive, they typically stay to themselves.
"Unless you have an Africanized hive -- which you shouldn't have in your back yard -- and you're not opening [the bee box] every five minutes, they keep to themselves," Swanson said. "They can fly up to five miles away. My next-door neighbors aren't going to see any bees, because the bees go far off looking for stuff to pollinate and bring back."
Garcia, on the other hand, chose to move from her home in Keller because of a combination of her operation becoming too large and the sprawling growth of the city. She said that although none of her neighbors ever complained, she wanted to play it safe.
Taking care of bees isn't for the faint of heart, and despite the color of honey, it's not exactly a gold mine. It's more of a labor of love, and sometimes an exercise in pain -- you're going to get stung eventually.
As Swanson opened the box and pulled out a screen that was covered in bees and honey, he told me to continue to blow smoke from the bee smoker. The smoke is supposed to have a calming effect and is the beekeeper's second line of defense. (The protective gear is the first.) But on the day I was there, the bees were in no mood to be shown off.
As I blew plumes of smoke on the dozens of bees trying to get at Swanson, I was horrified to notice that I was also the object of their collective angst. At least a dozen flew around my face while many others searched for other ports of entry on my suit.
Every time a bee stings you, it dies -- they are nature's kamikazes. And they were flying at me from everywhere, through the thick cloud of smoke.
"Try not to be scared," Swanson said. "Bees can sense fear, and that will attract them to you."
In that case, I must have been like a bullhorn to them. As they got closer, I didn't know if I was having a panic attack or heat stroke, but remarkably the bees couldn't find a way in. (It might have had something to do with the white polyester-cotton jumpsuit I had pulled on over my clothes, or the long white gloves, or the extra pair of socks, or the mask that was a cross between a fencing helmet and a soccer goal.)
I wasn't stung, but Swanson wasn't so lucky. A clever bee found a hole in his glove and stung him on the wrist. Kaila Ann, who we thought was a safe distance away taking pictures, was stung just above the eye. Both had been stung before, many times, and neither seemed fazed.
"I don't even call it a sting anymore," said Swanson. "I call them arthritis shots."
Fruits of labor
One of the reasons the bees were so agitated, besides my cowardly vibes, was because they had produced so much honey and were trying to protect it.
Swanson said he typically harvests twice a year. He and his brother George Rodriguez bottle and sell it under the name Rose of Sharon Honey. Though he only has one box in his yard, Rodriguez and he own two dozen more in South Texas. Each hive will produce about 100 pounds a year, and they sell the honey for about 50 cents an ounce. Typically, the demand for Rose of Sharon honey is far greater than the yield. Most, if not all of it, is sold on preorder.
Swanson got into the beekeeping game through his brother, who is retired and has time to monitor the lion's share of the pair's hives.
"My brother George has been a hard-core health freak since he was 17," Swanson said. "He wanted to get his own honey as opposed to buying it. So he learned all about it.
"That was about the same time the colony collapse was going on. So he thought we could help out [the environment] while helping ourselves."
In recent years, commercial honeybee hives have suffered from that colony collapse disorder, which, for unknown reasons, left many bee boxes empty. Scientists estimate that the disappearance of up to 50 percent of our honeybees may be linked to a group of systemic pesticides known as neonicotinoids, which are legal in the U.S. but outlawed in Europe.
To keep bees, you must first provide a man-made hive, in order to more easily extract the honey. Bee boxes are stacked and filled with wooden or plastic frames that can be pulled out individually. The bees create honey on these frames, which can easily be pulled out and scraped clean.
Swanson and Rodriguez got their start-up Russian bees from a vendor. Now, when their hives get overpopulated, they split up the population and take it to a different part of the state. They have to move the bees that far away because they have an inner homing beacon and will just return to their home hive.
Bee hives are quintessentially Darwinian. The older bees are typically killed or banished, and the queens are not immune.
"If a queen bee is not up to the hive's standards -- if she's not making enough eggs -- they will vote in a new queen," said Swanson. "And that new queen will rebuild the community and start over again, which is what just happened to my hive."
What's in store
Swanson and his brother learned about beekeeping from books and videos but were helped along by the Harris County Beekeepers Association, of which they are members. The local arm of the Texas Beekeepers Association is the Metro Beekeepers, a nonprofit educational group that meets once a month and occasionally takes field trips.
"Many of the beekeepers involved are beginning beekeepers," said Stan Key, the group's president. "We try to develop mentorships where we can work with some of those beginners."
The group now has more than 100 members and boasted a turnout of 77 people at its last meeting. Key, a retired educator who has been beekeeping since 1977, and other experienced keepers teach a Beekeeping 101 course; 40 people have signed up for the first class. The organization also recently awarded scholarships to an 11-year-old boy and a 14-year-old girl, who each received a beehive, protective material, free classes and mentorship by more experienced keepers.
Key said that his organization is looking to recruit younger people, because only 8 percent of all beekeepers are under age 40.
The first lesson he teaches the young keepers: "What many people don't understand is that virtually all of the honey that you see in the grocery store has been flash-fried. So it kills the amino acids and a lot of the flavor. They use diatomaceous earth to filter all of the pollen out. Honey without pollen is not honey."
Bryan Bradford, owner and chief nutritionist at Sunflower Shoppe in Colleyville, said that one of the problems with stocking local honey is that the beekeepers come and go, and the prices of the imported honey is so much less.
"That's why you're seeing a lot of honey on the shelves that has been heated and filtered," he said. "There's not much benefit to them, like you'd see in your local honey."
His shop carries honey from two local distributors, from Sunnyvale and Alvarado. Many people, he said, are drawn to local honey because it's an effective way to treat allergies, since the bees pollinate in our area, but there are myriad other benefits.
"The health benefits are tremendous, in terms of being a good whole food that has all of the B vitamins, the amino acids, trace minerals, antiseptic, anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties," he said.
The demand for local honey is growing, he said, because places like Central Market and Sprouts are driving the market. Though only 5 to 10 percent of the honey you'll find on grocery-store shelves possesses any health benefits, "a few years ago," he said, "it was nothing."
Keep on keeping on
So the good news is that the number of local beekeepers is increasing, as folks like Swanson and Key are taking the future of our flora into their own hands.
And bees are making a comeback, even if they have a lot to come back from. In the '80s, parasitic mites devastated the U.S. bee population. Now, other factors, such as climate changes, killer bees, pesticides and more, have further depleted their numbers. Farmers across the country now rent bees from beekeepers to pollinate their crops.
But backyard beekeeping is a reason for hope. While Swanson said he doesn't recommend quitting your job and tending to bees all day, he said it's an interesting hobby that nets a little extra income.
"I would recommend it, because right now North America is still really low on bees," he said. "The colony collapse disorder has really hampered the way of the bee today. If everyone who is interested in beekeeping would just keep one box, it would make a huge difference."