Beekeeping getting plenty of buzz in Central Texas

Contact: Molly Keck, 210-631-0400, mekeck@ag.tamu.edu
Rick Fink, 210-872-4569, BanderaBees@gmail.com
Lance Wilson, 512-619-3700, lw@ausapts.com

ADKINS — Looking like extras in a science-fiction movie, a small group clad in bee suits trudged through a wooded property in Adkins to get a close-up look at beehives kept by the Cole family.

The group, part of a recent Beekeeping Basics course, was there to see firsthand what it takes to be a bona fide beekeeper.

“The Beekeeping Basics program is presented by the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and our featured guests at this course were local beekeepers Mike and Travis Cole,” said Molly Keck, AgriLife Extension agent for horticulture in Bexar County, a  program coordinator and presenter. “The course is for anyone interested in beekeeping or learning how to start their own beehive for pleasure, environmental stewardship or pollination.”

Local beekeeper Mike Cole, left, and Molly Keck instruct prospective beekeepers at the Beekeeping Basics course. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo)

Local beekeeper Mike Cole, standing, speaks to attendees at the Beekeeping Basics course. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo)

The course consisted of a day of classroom instruction at the AgriLife Extension office in San Antonio, followed by two hands-on field day opportunities – one in Adkins and a second in Leon Springs.

“The hands-on opportunity in the beekeeper’s yard is where people learn the most about beekeeping and what they can expect should they decide to keep bees on their property,” Keck said. “They learn about the tools and equipment needed, how the bees react and what it takes to properly maintain the hives.”

During the Adkins field day, Travis Cole, a second-generation beekeeper, showed attendees how to load and start smokers, properly remove the tops of bee boxes, move bees without harming them, extract individual frames for inspection, and tell the difference between brood comb and honey comb.

“We keep the hives mainly so we can show them to people during beekeeping field days,” said Mike Cole, who has kept bees for about 14 years and shares his beekeeping experiences with Beekeeping Basics attendees.

“We got involved in beekeeping after seeing the Alamo Area Beekeepers at the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo,” he said. “For years, we used to participate in parades in towns like Hondo and Fredericksburg. We’d put an enclosed beehive on a flatbed trailer and decorate it. Travis would be the King Bee in the parade and they’d pick one of the local girls to be Queen Bee. It was a lot of fun.”

Travis Cole, left, prepares smokers and tools needed for hands-on instruction during the field day tour of his family's bee hives. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo)

Travis Cole, left, prepares smokers and tools needed for hands-on instruction during the field day tour of his family’s bee hives. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo)

Julie Hilberg, who maintains two beehives on her ranch near Poteet, participated in the Adkins field day. It was her second time taking the Beekeeping Basics course.

“I took (the course) a second time for reassurance and for confidence that I’m on the right track with my bees,” she said. “It’s funny, but beehives are like dogs; they have their own personality and you have to approach each of them a little differently.”

Keck said the rising popularity of beekeeping in this area is reflected in the attendance at the two Beekeeping Basics courses she holds annually – one in the spring and one in the fall.

“Each class has a limit of 20-25 people and we have consistently filled each class for the past four years,” she said. “Beekeeping is becoming more popular, partly because they want to be more involved in knowing where their food comes from and be more self-reliant. Plus, beekeeping is a really interesting and exciting hobby that requires a lot of skill and dedication.”

Rick Fink, president of the Alamo Area Beekeepers Association, said the association’s meetings often draw people from Uvalde, Fredericksburg, Floresville and other towns. He noted the association’s recent field day in Bandera drew almost 200 people from throughout the area.

“We have an ongoing membership that fluctuates from 100-130 people, and we see about five new people at each of our bi-monthly meetings,” Fink said. “Some want to take advantage of the new ag valuation for keeping bees, while others are hobbyists or interested in the environmental aspects of beekeeping. There are also several commercial operations in the area that maintain more than 200 hives.”

Fink said commercial beekeeping operations typically produce honey or transport the bees to help pollinate crops, such as the almond crop in California or the watermelon crops in West Texas.

Todd Youngblood, owner of a commercial beekeeping operation based in Pearsall and a fourth-generation beekeeper, said he typically keeps from 700-800 colonies.

“In dry years, we make more money in pollination than in honey production, but most of the time it’s about equal,” Youngblood said. “We transport our bees as far as California for pollination, and we also do a lot of pollination around the Texas Winter Garden area, mainly for cucumbers and watermelons.”

Field day participants inspected bee boxes and removed panels to see honey and brood comb. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo)

Field day participants inspected bee boxes and removed panels to view honey and brood comb. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo)

Lance Wilson, president of the Austin Area Beekeepers Association and area director for the  Texas Beekeepers Association, also said interest in beekeeping as either a hobby or as a commercial venture has grown steadily over recent years. Wilson completed the Texas Master Beekeeper Program, a minimum five-year beekeeper training and certification program provided by the Texas Apiary Inspection Service in collaboration with the Texas Beekeepers Association, Texas A&M Honey Bee Lab and AgriLife Extension.

“We have about 1,000 people who visit our website and are interested in beekeeping to varying degrees,” Wilson said. “But as for our more dedicated members, we have about 50-60 who regularly turn out for our monthly meetings, and the majority of them are what I would call hobbyists. There’s also a very active beekeepers association in Williamson County that draws close to 100 attendees to each of their monthly meetings.”

He said almost 500 people attended the association’s most recent annual beekeeping seminar in Austin and attendance continues to grow every year.

“Beekeeper attendance to seminars and local clubs is way up in Texas and all over the country,” Wilson said. “There are about 2,000 commercial beekeepers in the U.S., but most are involved in pollination services rather than honey production. The vast majority of beekeepers are hobbyists who keep one to five hives for fun and for honey production.”

Austin is also the epicenter for bee protection and relocation efforts in the region. The Central Texas Bee Rescue and Preserve provides an alternative to extermination by relocating bee colonies to a 5-acre refuge in East Austin. Through its umbrella organization, the American Honey Bee Protection Agency, the group travels throughout Central Texas and beyond — locating, capturing and moving unwanted bee populations. The agency and its volunteers relocate about 500 swarms annually in the Austin area, plus hold bee education programs in Austin’s public schools and promote legislation to protect bees.

“There’s been a real beehive of activity in this part of the state related to bees and beekeeping,” Keck said. “No matter the reason for the interest, it’s great to see people getting involved again. With colony collapse and all the other problems associated with bees in the past, it’s nice to see there’s a concerted effort to learn about them, keep them and understand their vital role in nature.”

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