Photos courtesy of the Texas A&M Honey Bee Research Facility
Beehives and an errant smoker
Area programs aim to help preserve the pollinators
The virgin queen honeybees line up in cages on one side of the microscope, as the drones buzz in a screened flight box on the other. A queen is carefully transferred from an individual wire cage with a cork top to a tube. Once she bumps her head at the front of the tube, a second tube closes the end, allowing her to back her way into its open taper. She backs into the tapered end, and then it’s naptime. She won’t remember a thing.
Under the microscope, the tube is secured to a source of carbon dioxide as hooks open up her sting chamber. She’s given 10 microliters of semen from up to 10 drones and time to recover.
As gene selection science has become the epicenter of honeybee survival in the last decade, this queen bee is making history. She’ll be placed in a nucleus colony and begin laying as many fertilized eggs as her naturally mated counterparts, up to 2,000 per day if all goes well.
Bee insemination is part of the research mission of the Texas A&M University Honey Bee Lab in College Station, run by Juliana Rangel, PhD, assistant professor of Apiculture. Besides her role to provide educational services to the local beekeeping community, Rangel leads research in reproductive quality, colony survival and the effects of agro-chemicals on reproductive and colony health. She teaches honeybee biology and management and oversees the Texas Master Beekeeper Program, a five-year licensing program that launched this year.
Susan Cobey, from Washington State University, world renowned for her techniques in insemination, sits at the microscope with five students around her, peppering her with questions about drone selection.
“You can tell by the behavior,” she says. “Mature ones are rammy, you know. They’re ready to get out there.” She points to the window buzzing with escapees as the best stock in the room. “Sometimes if you look at the flight board during flight time, all the drones will be down combing their antennas. I mean, they look like little boys getting ready for the prom.
Photo 1: Inspecting the hives
Photo 2: Bee insemination expert Sue Cobey in a queen-rearing workshop by the Texas A&M University’s Rangel Honey Bee Lab.
Bee sex is serious talk for those who seek to improve stock selection and breeding in their own apiaries. With colony collapse disorder—the unexplained sudden disappearance of European honeybee colonies—a growing concern for beekeepers since 2006, the educational activities at the lab center are more than just about new practices in beekeeping; they’re the front line of our food supply.
Every apple and almond needs a honeybee, since these crops cannot depend on wind pollination to produce fruit. Wasps and butterflies do the trick, too, but honeybees are the most effective for transport to do the heavy lifting in pollinating our current food supply. Almonds, sunflowers, canola, grapes, apples, cherries, melons, prunes, blueberries and avocados—these are the top industries that use bee pollination services, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Pollination Market Services report. Bee services account for one third of the U.S. diet, and Texas relies heavily on bee pollinators today, as one of seven states at the center of pollination services, a $655 million industry.
Mark Anderson of Bellaire Honey, like many city beekeepers, is a moonlighting apiarist, but he oversees about 60 city hives. Unlike many new to the industry, he got the bug as a young teenager growing up in Italy, where he earned his practical beekeeping skills managing over 400 hives. He sells his honey by word of mouth, but to him, it’s not about the honey production. It’s about awareness and protection of pollinators and education on the role they have in a concrete jungle. Without enough pollinating plants in city garden planning, the urban bee will leave and our flowering plants will suffer. For Anderson, who devotes much of his time to bee removal and relocation services, it is essentially about saving the urban bee.
Texas agriculture has altered land use and practices away from native plants and nitrogen-rich cover crops as natural fertilizer—elements that made beekeeping thrive here a hundred years ago. The huajilla shrub is just one of over 5,000 native wild plants that Texas could again diversify to support the palette of honey variety it once had. New inter-university studies that look at the pollen diversity of flowers foraged by city bees are helping scientists give landscape architects and urban planners better support to design more bee-friendly spaces, said Rangel. “They are dependent on whatever we choose to beautify our public spaces with,” she said, not to mention how we spray our lawns for weeds that flower.
Shelley Rice’s T-shirt may say she “has her mind on her honey and her honey on her mind”, but, really, she just fell in love with the biology. With her first year of Master Beekeeper training at the Honey Bee Lab complete, she offers startup kits and mentorship for beginners, and is a bee ambassador in the city. She gives classes in schools and at workshops including the Central Texas Beekeepers Association Beekeepers School. With over six years of skills under her belt and dozens of hives in her care around the city, she’s often at the East End Farmers Market on Sundays giving demonstrations with her long sandy blond hair and energetic smile.
The sweet-sour smell mixes with the smoke from pine needles in the climbing rays of afternoon sun, as she examines her comb. In the middle of the day, the hive is not as crowded. Foragers are all off at work while the nurses are at home. From her backyard apiary in Bellaire, she’s checking for larvae. Some queens are more productive than others. Rice uses Langstroth hives, boxes with a wired beeswax foundation on each frame, the common method for commercial beekeeping. Each box functions as a multistoried factory that is easily manipulated by the beekeeper, a more hands-on approach.
The other common method is the top bar hive approach, said Dean Cook, an area expert who has taught hundreds on the more natural method of beekeeping. Top bar hives rely on the bees to build the comb. It doesn’t require as much equipment. He prefers the wild stock and says it’s the strongest, adapting to fight off disease and pests naturally.
While beekeeping has been a buzz in recent years, many worry that bee management skills will not take root to the depth that is best for the bee. The recently launched Texas Master Beekeeper Program is designed to increase the knowledge of the beekeeper while educating the general public through service projects, thereby increasing the overall health of the apiary industry. Rice hopes that as the program creates more mentorship and community, small Texas beekeepers will not only improve but also gain the support needed to become experts who lead the next generation of responsible beekeepers. As Rice and Anderson look for young recruits, they have run out of space to facilitate the practical skills transfer to the next leaders in the community. Creating space for serious beekeeping practice in Houston would help, said Anderson. It could fit in simply as part of urban development of unusable land, he said, and operate as a wildflower bee refuge and learning center.
Support Local Honey
A selection of local honey producers and beekeepers includes:
by the Reed family in Montgomery maintains over 2,000 bee colonies and harvests huajilla honey, which they sell at local farmers markets (beewilde.com)
Pioneered by Jamie and Dalia Zelko (of Zelko Bistro
), Heights Honey Bee Project
works to relocate unwanted bee colonies to hives where they might flourish to encourage and support the local wild bee population
As of 2012, the U.S. Department of Labor set over 2,500 full-time apiculturists on the books.
Like the cottage food industry bill that came before it, the honey bill is in the state legislature session this year. If passed it will allow home honey distributors selling under 2,500 pounds to operate with fewer restrictions.
Bees are shipped from state to state for their pollination services. So a bee may be from Minnesota, but spend most of its year on trucks, spending three weeks gorging on pollen from almond flowers in one state, and moving on to another. Those stressors contribute to poor nutrition. Like nomads commercial bees spend most of their time on the road. They are shipped on tractor-trailers to the sites, at up to 500 hives at a time, each hive having up to 30,000 worker bees. Most get sent to the California almond bloom.
It certainly has an impact on the market of foods associated with pollination as the cost to rent just one hive for almond harvest went from $76 in 2005 to $157 in 2009, an all-time industry high due to a rapid increase in honeybee loss rates. A bee rental on almond trees is rough on the bee, and bad for honey production, so the almond crop rates are the highest.
Honey is made when a bee gathers nectar from flowers and the bee’s stomach enzymes convert the sucrose of nectar into glucose before it stores the liquid in the comb of the hive. From there the worker bees fan the mixture, drying it out until it has about 18% water content. Then the bees cap the cell with wax and store it for food.
If you have an unwanted bee colony on your property, do not destroy it. Contact the local Harris County Beekeepers for safe removal and relocation of the bees to a hive where they can flourish. “Beekeepers are aging out,” said Rice, and with bee colonies in a fight for survival around the world, “we just need more to help manage the issue.”
Sarah Junek is a freelance writer in Houston. She is a graduate of the University of North Texas Mayborn School of Journalism. She grew up on a cattle ranch west of Houston and has agricultural roots across the state, on all three sides of her family tree, from Eastland and Burleson, to Austin and Waller counties. Sarah’s “Seed Stories” was nominated for an Edible Award earlier this year