The Bee’s Knees

Springtime can be somewhat magical here in North Texas, and with the new season comes a renewed sense of gratitude for all Mother Nature provides. Frisco might be a growing urban metropolis, but the beauty of nature is never too far away. One of nature’s sweetest little workers remains vital to our environment and produces one of nature’s most popular sweeteners, remedies and medicinal resources. While their work never really stops, warmer temperatures set the scene for bees’ workplaces as they work to pollinate plants, maintain their hives and produce honey that is as good for eating as it is for treating allergies. Though these little buzzing insects might have the reputation of being feisty every once in a while, their presence is a tell-tale sign that spring has sprung. 

The Buzz on Bees

North Texas is home to countless animals and insects, and honey bees have several varieties, or classes, that are beneficial because they pollinate plants, fruits, vegetables and flowers, and they produce honey and beeswax. “Domesticated,” commercially-produced and kept European honey bees were originally introduced into North America by early European settlers hundreds of years ago. Recently, the Africanized honey bee (sometimes called the “killer bee”), a type of honey bee, has entered Texas. The Africanized honey bees have more aggressive tendencies in defending their hives and are more inclined to sting in mass. 

Beekeeper and owner of Mence Farms, Kyle Mence, explains, “There are several hundred varieties of bees in Texas. The honey bees kept by beekeepers were actually imported from Europe. Bumble bees and sweat bees are native and serve a vital pollinating purpose. If you see sunflowers in Texas, there is probably a bumble bee nearby.” 

Bumble bees, whose black and yellow bodies are easy to recognize, buzz from flower to flower and are social insects that live in colonies with a queen and her daughter workers who are charged with protecting their nest site if disturbed. Bumble bee colonies are much smaller in size than honey bees’ though, containing only 100-200 workers, compared to the 15,000 or more workers in a honey bee colony. Though most people are familiar with non-native honey bees, there are several hundred bee species that are native to Texas, many of which were here long before the honey bee and also play vital roles in the state’s diverse native plant communities. Honey bees are social, too, and their colonies are comprised of three classes of bees: queens that produce eggs, drones, or males, that mate with the queen and workers that are all non-reproducing females. Only one queen is usually present in a hive and a colony can consist of 20,000 to 90,000 individuals. The hive is a busy place, as bees are constantly working and can produce five different substances including honey, beeswax, propolis, pollen and royal jelly. One of the more fascinating facts about honey bees is how they communicate. Honey bees “dance” to talk to each other. When a worker discovers a good source of nectar or pollen, she will return to the hive and dance to let her fellow workers know where it is so they can get more resources from it. They communicate by using odor cues or pheromones, which are chemical substances secreted by their bodies allowing them to elicit behavioral and psychological responses. Pheromones secreted by the queen control reproduction in the hive. 

When they are not working inside the hive to feed the colony, clean the hive or care for offspring, worker bees are out busy collecting pollen, water and nectar to bring back for food and to make honey. Master Beekeeper and owner of Bursting Bees in Aubrey, Michelle Boerst, explains, “During the honey flow (the time when flowers and trees are blooming), the bees bring in extra nectar to put away for winter. The nectar is a dehumidifier by the bees, which turns it into honey. A strong hive can bring back more nectar than the hive will need to survive. This extra nectar storage becomes honey and the beekeeper ‘robs’ that honey from the bees.” A hive bringing back more nectar than the hive needs is a testament to how hard bees work! Some lucky bees take on the role of undertaker and their role is to remove dead bees from the hive and dispose of them. A drone’s job is to simply mate with the queen who mates with multiple drones and lays eggs. During winter, bees stay inside the hive and consume the honey they made in the summer. In the busy bee time, a worker bee lives about six to eight weeks total, and many worker bees’ deaths stem from wearing out their wings from flying because they work themselves to death. 

Environmental Impact

Honey bees are critical to the environment as they are able to help support and sustain agriculture and natural ecosystems. In Texas, most plant pollination is carried out by bees. Two traits make bees outstanding pollinators, as they purposefully collect pollen to feed their offspring and as bees forage for this food source, they transfer pollen from flower to flower. During a single day, a female bee may visit several hundred flowers, depositing pollen along the way. Additionally, bees tend to be specific about the flowers they visit. During a foraging trip, a female bee may only visit the flowers of a particular plant species, which benefits the plants in that the pollen is not deposited on the flowers of a different plant species and wasted. 

Russell Dittfurth, the president of the Collin County Hobby Beekeepers Association and the owner of Crooked Creek Honey Farm, admits they had no idea the environmental impact bees have until he and wife got into beekeeping. “Most people do not realize it, but 60 percent of food is directly or indirectly pollenated by honey bees,” he shares. “If we lost honey bees, things would be very different. It would be a tougher situation in regards to feeding everyone. Imagine walking into the produce section of the grocery store … half of it would not be there if we did not have honey bees.” 

Mr. Mence says, “Honey bees’ primary purpose is pollinating. The 30,000 girls per colony pollinate approximately 30 percent of the food grown in the U.S. Almonds depend entirely on honey bees, thus 90 percent of all commercial colonies travel to Calif. each January. More than 90 percent of cherries, blueberries and cranberries are pollinated by honey bees, and crops such as broccoli and melons depend on them, too. Our wildflowers also depend on bees to keep roads, fields and yards beautiful.” 

Beekeeper and owner of the Tribute Honey Co., Stephen Pool, concludes, “Without bees, we would not have anything to eat because bees pollinate almost everything that grows that we eat.” Bees might get a little testy and territorial sometimes, given certain situations, but there is no doubt they work hard to help our ecosystems, which is why locals must work hard to ensure they are given the opportunity to do just that.

The Danger Zone

Honey bees are incredibly productive, helpful and hardworking insects, but there has been a decline in their populations in recent decades, which is blamed on widespread habitat destruction, agricultural intensification, diseases, parasites and pesticides. Mr. Mence says much of the cause stems from people moving from rural to urban areas. “The small family farms have turned into large commercial farming operations. With fewer people in the rural areas, there have been fewer opportunities to keep bees. The increase in the use of insecticide and herbicides has caused the loss of many colonies and application methods like airplanes have indiscriminately killed many bees. Commercial beekeeping has resulted in large corporate bee owners who move their bees around the country. Unfortunately, this increases the spread of diseases and pests. The last couple of years have seen 20-40 percent losses of colonies nationwide,” he adds. 

The loss of bees in general would result in substantial impacts on both agriculture and natural ecosystems, given that most native plants both in North Texas and the U.S. require pollination by bees in order to produce fruits and seeds. Of all the insects that visit flowers, like beetles, butterflies and wasps, bees are the most important pollinators. While the bee decline is concerning, you can help! Ms. Boerst explains, “You can help by buying plants and flowers that are free of an insecticide called ‘neonicotinoids.’ Use insecticides like Sevin Dust or Roundup sparingly at dusk when bees are back in their homes. You can also help bees by supporting local beekeepers. Buy honey from the local guy and you know you are getting the real stuff. If you need help finding a local beekeeper, you can go to realtexashoney.com and find one on the map in your area.” 

Sweet as Honey

Just like honey bees are integral parts of our environment, so are the fruits of their labor, and in quite a few forms! Most products from a beehive can be used in some way, and honey not only tastes good, but is a popular remedy for treating allergies. Ms. Boerst explains, “The theory behind honey as an allergy prevention aid is that raw, unfiltered honey has grains of pollen in it, and every time you eat honey, you are ingesting small amounts of the very thing you could be allergic to. It is a natural inoculation against plant allergens. Honey is also antibacterial and great for topical application on wounds. When you buy honey at the grocery store, it has usually been heated for easier bottling and that will remove antibacterial properties and straining removes pollen particles. Also, most honey in the store is not local to your area. The label should read ‘a product of your area,’ and not just ‘packed in your area.’ For the best medicinal value, honey should be local, raw and unfiltered. Beware of ‘organic’ honey, as well. It is extremely difficult to have an organic apiary that produces organic honey in the U.S. Most organic honey we see is produced in other countries with less stringent regulations surrounding organic methods.” 

Whether you like honey in tea, on a peanut butter sandwich or even in your favorite recipe, its benefits are very notable. Honey contains not only pollen local to the areas in which the bees make the honey, but it contains antioxidants, helps improve cholesterol, is free of harmful substances (fat, cholesterol, sodium and gluten), calms coughs, sooths sore throats and even heals wounds.

Mr. Mence adds, “Honey is the only known food that does not spoil. 3,000+ year-old honey has been found and consumed in Egyptian pyramids. There are some people who get relief from arthritis pain from honey bee stings and there are beekeepers who sell individual bees for this purpose. I personally have been taking raw bee pollen for many years, even before I started bee keeping for my local allergies.” 

Keeper of the Bees

Oftentimes, when we think of hobbies, we think sports, books or even travel, but, for many, beekeeping has become so much more than a hobby. Ms. Boerst says, without hesitation, “Bees are just that stinking cool! I am not really sure about others, but they are pretty fascinating insects for us, and we enjoy learning more about them.” Mr. Pool says bees have struggled to survive in the world humans have created, and many like to do their part in helping the environment, as well as helping bees. He adds, “Plus, it is very addictive and enjoyable!” Mr. Mence says that it is a wonderfully rewarding job. “My bees pollinate my peach orchard and I love eating the fruits of our labors. I enjoy honey in my morning coffee. I like introducing people to the joys of beekeeping. When I do bee removals from homes or properties, I get satisfaction from saving the bees and providing a service to my community. My favorite part of beekeeping is watching a colony of bees at work. Each bee has its job and they work together for the community. I love that they dance to show the other bees where to go for pollen, nectar or water, and how they care for the eggs and larvae. Honey bees are a microcosm of how a society should work. I do not see how someone can keep bees and not believe in God.” Mr. Mence continues, “My clients keep bees for a variety of reasons. Some want to produce their own honey for personal consumption, Christmas gifts, etc. Some sell bees for arthritis treatment. Some sell honey at county fairs and farmers’ markets. Some sell in their personal storefronts. Also, it may be possible to get an agriculture exemption on property taxes. The annual tax savings makes it worth having honey bees and you get the wonderful honey for your coffee, tea, toast or biscuits.”

Ms. Boerst’s advice to anyone looking into the hobby is to join a local bee club and find a mentor. “You can also find master beekeepers in your area willing to educate and mentor new beekeepers!” she shares. The Collin County Hobby Beekeepers Association is a great place for anyone looking to get into beekeeping, as the organization helps others begin their education from the ground up. Mr. Dittfurth explains, “Our organization is primarily hobby beekeepers and we teach new beekeepers and anyone interested in beekeeping to get them started. We meet monthly and tell them what they need to look out for the next month until we meet again. There is a plethora of information you have to take in and it is constant education for the beekeeper.”

Rare and Expensive

So, what role does the beekeeper play in providing safe and thriving homes and environments for these little buzzing insects? Undoubtedly, they are as important as the bees! Ms. Boerst explains, “The beekeeper’s job is to make sure bees have enough food for winter and to feed them if they run short. The beekeeper checks the hive for diseases and pests and treats the bee colony with medicine, if needed. The beekeeper also makes sure not to take too much honey from the bees. They provide water, an environment with food sources and protect bees from predators, such as raccoons, skunks, bears, etc.” 

Hives include only one queen, so as the she lays more eggs, more bees are born, and the hive grows. Mr. Pool says the beekeeper’s responsibility lies in providing bees with enough space to live so they do not swarm to find a larger home. Also, beekeepers maintain and feed them in the winter months when food is scarce for them. “This is the part where most people lose their hives due to lack of room to live, starvation and even Varroa mite infestation,” he says. Varroa mites are a parasitic mite, similar to a tick, that cause the hive to abscond, or, like a tick on a dog, they will suck blood from the bee and the viruses can get into the bee’s system and debilitate or kill the hive. In addition to beekeepers providing a safe, disease-free environment, Mr. Dittfurth adds, “Not only do you have to know the biology of the bee, you need to know botany along with the industry because of the plants and seasons and knowing which plants are honey producers.”

While beekeeping is quite a popular hobby for those invested in the craft, some would agree it has become a bit rare due to expenses and lack of space. “For the small apiary to be successful, the beekeeper has to look at all the ways to maximize profits. Property tax exemptions help, but every means must be considered,” Mr. Mence explains. Ms. Boerst believes the rarity may stem from the fact that many do not have property on which they can sustain the hobby. She says, “Urban beekeeping has gotten more popular in the last 10 years, and that helps bring more bees to the city. Many housing additions have rules against bees and other wildlife due to fear from neighbors. It is very easy and fun to have backyard bees, and education is the key to HOA and city ordinances.” 

Just like a car, you can get a basic model or one with bells and whistles, which can be expensive. With the different types of equipment, you can stay basic and reasonably priced. There is an investment up front which is approximately $300-$400 for a hive with equipment you can use for years.

Safe Travels

For those who do not care for how close bees are to their home or business, experts in the area are able to relocate them to a safer place through bee hive removal services or swarm pickups. Because bees hibernate during the winter, oftentimes, their hive has grown too large and a new queen hatches. She will take part of the hive and start their journey to find a new home, which is a process called “swarming,” that usually takes place in early spring. Mr. Mence explains, “If bees move into an area where they are in direct contact with people (the siding of your house, soffits, outbuildings, etc.), contact a bee removal service to have them relocated. In late March through June, bees that run out of space in their current home may split. The old queen and about half of the bees will leave. The remaining bees will make a new queen and continue in the old location. The swarm will look for a new place to call home. If you encounter a swarm (a ball of bees the size of a volleyball or larger), contact a local beekeeper and they can come collect it. A swarm is when bees are the least protective. They have no brood, food or colony to protect, so they are not too aggressive. Give them space and you should not have problems until the beekeeper arrives.” 

A ball of bees that have moved into a tree, bush or the corner of your house in one day is a swarm, and bees in swarm mode are very gentle. Though it might be one’s first instinct, do not spray them with insecticide or hit them, just call your local bee experts to help them find a suitable home. 

Face Your Fears

Bees might be vital to the environment, but that does not take away from the fact that their stings hurt! While many might disagree, bees are not to be feared, as they often sting for a reason. When worker honey bees sting, the barbed stinger is left in the skin with the poison sack still attached. Each bee can only sting once, which is fatal for the bee. Stingers need to be removed promptly to prevent injection of additional venom. Experts suggest scraping the sting and poison sack away with a knife or fingernail and to avoid slapping or pinching because this will inject additional poison into the skin. 

Ms. Boerst says, “Honey bees are like all wild animals. Some are sweet, some are a little cranky and some are a lot cranky. Bees are only defending their honey, home and family when they chase people. If you see a bee in your yard, they are only interested in gathering nectar, pollen or water. They are not defending their hive and will usually only sting if swatted at or stepped on. If you see a beehive, bothering the hive/bees in any way is seen as a threat to their home, and bees become defensive. A bee in your pool, on your flowers or in your birdbath is a really cool insect to watch. They may even land on you, find out you are not a flower and fly away. Bee eyes see things that move quickly. The faster you move, the easier it is for the bee to see you. Moving slowly is the best way to approach a bee. Bees in your flower and vegetable garden provide you with better crops and flowers.” 

Mr. Pool adds, “Bees typically do not attack people unless provoked, or if they are Africanized bees, which we do not see very often in our area. Bees have ‘lookouts’ or ‘guards’ at the entrances of bee hives. If you get too close, they will sound the alarm to the rest of the hive. I personally have bees around me and my truck daily because I have the smell of them on me. They never sting or bother me. I actually had one come in my lake house the other day and hang out with me on the counter as I was preparing food for them!” 

So, yes, honeybees might be a bit territorial when anyone encroaches on the home they have worked so hard to build, but, at the end of the day, it is hard to be mad at a tiny, relatively unassuming creature that works so hard to make our environment beautiful! We have them to thank for the incredible native vegetation, flowers and honey. They literally work themselves to death to produce amazing hives and products, so next time you hear the distinct buzz of a nearby bee, try to do just what it is doing … buzz off!

Allie Spletter
Allie Spletter is a wannabe foodie and lover of all things pink and crafty.