Backyard beekeeping has steadily caught on in Central Texas, but a few bee stings can be the least of a hobbyist’s worries.
Waco’s city code stipulates that beekeepers must have consent from everyone who lives in a 300-foot radius of a hive. Kimberly Barrett, a local hobbyist, ran up against Waco’s city ordinance for beekeeping when a neighbor complained, requiring Barrett and her husband to get rid of their hives. The pair approached city officials about changing the ordinance, saying Waco’s differs considerably from others in Texas.
“The whole impetus of my husband wanting to start this was to help the environment,” Barrett said. “It was going to be a hobby of his, but he was doing something good.”
Fort Worth’s and Austin’s ordinances list extensive requirements for land, placement and equipment, including limits on how many hives someone can keep based on the amount of land they own, and both have rules in place for handling demonstrably aggressive colonies. Temple’s ordinance is even stricter, prohibiting anyone from keeping bees within 300 feet of a neighbor, and Houston does not have an ordinance at all.
“The one thing they all have in common is that you don’t have to ask for consent,” Barrett said. “It isn’t up to your neighbors whether you have the bees.”
Barrett said they kept their bees on .175 acres in their backyard for about six years and only encountered trouble after new neighbors moved in about two years ago. She said after appearing before the Waco Animal Advisory Board, meeting with an assistant city attorney and speaking to the city council during a public hearing, they sold their hives.
“We just want them to fix the ordinance so that it gives us some kind of protection and people don’t have to make this investment, have this hobby (and then lose it),” Barrett said. “We want them to fix the ordinance and make it appropriate for the times.”
Over the course of six years, they spent $1,000 on hives, $400 on bees and close to $1,000 on equipment including bee suits, smokers, brushes, barrels and various additions. Barrett said she estimates they spent close to $2,500 on bees and bee accessories.
“Some of it, we added over time, but a lot of it we had to buy up-front,” Barrett said.
Stephen Daywitt, vice president of the Heart of Texas Beekeepers Association, said situations like Barrett’s are rare. Most of the group’s 90 regular members live in rural areas. Those within city limits either live on acreages or store bees on friends’ land. He said for the most part, he has been able to persuade concerned neighbors by finding compromises or sharing honey with them.
“If you’re going to keep bees in town, you need to share,” Daywitt said. “People are understanding. If you’ve got somebody who has to carry an EpiPen because they’re deathly allergic, a decent individual would say, ‘Well, I don’t want my bees to hurt somebody. I’ll find some other place to put them.’”
Daywitt, who often assists with wild bee removals, said bees are out in full force in Waco this summer thanks to heavy rain. He said most of the calls he receives are for bee swarms in urban parts of Waco.
“Whether there’s a beekeeper next door or not, there’s a good chance there’s a wild hive of bees in someone’s eaves, in the garage,” he said. “Whether or not there’s beekeepers in Waco, there’s bees in Waco.”
Daywitt said association membership has grown steadily in the past five years.
“There’s a lot of interest,” Daywitt said. “I think, because of the internet, people have been getting more aware of the fact that we’re having a problem with losing bees, and one third of everything we eat, bees are responsible for.”
Texas produces more than 6 million pounds of honey each year, and the state boasts more than 35 regional or county beekeepers associations, said Juliana Rangel, an associate professor of apiculture, another term for beekeeping, in the Honey Bee Lab at Texas A&M University. More than 90% of Texas beekeepers are hobbyists. Fewer than 5% of beekeepers are commercial beekeepers, though they hold 95% of the hives.
“I’ve seen a lot of clubs being created in the state, even in Austin,” Rangel said.
She said Texas has mild winters and a good ratio of agricultural land to open pastures that is ideal for bees, and Central Texas’ ecology and climate are particularly suited to beekeeping.
“Texas is an important state because it’s centrally located,” Rangel said. “Lots of bees are stored here in winter, then moved to the Dakotas or Minnesota.”
According to national surveys from The Bee Informed Partnership, beekeepers in Texas who participated reported losing 26.6% of their colonies during the winter of 2017-18. Rangel said that number is lower than most states’, though it is impossible to track every beekeeper’s activity, let alone wild bees.
“Overall, our bees are doing well in that we have more people keeping bees and being aware of the plight of the pollinator,” Rangel said.
Tough starting out
She said while interest in hobby beekeeping is growing, much can go wrong for a first-time beekeeper, and many people drop out after a few years. Bees can die, get sick or starve during winter.
“It’s disheartening when you’re following a colony and then it dies,” Rangel said.
If they feel threatened, bees can flee their hives, a behavior known as “absconding.” Africanized bees, now common in the United States, are also prone to absconding if food becomes scarce.
Colony collapse disorder, which occurs when the worker bees suddenly abandon the hive, leaving only the queen and a handful of bees, poses another threat. Rangel said while the exact cause is unknown, colony collapse disorder is associated with the varroa mite, a menace beekeepers have to continually watch for. Rangel said the varroa mite is a parasite that spreads viruses.
“It’s new to our western honey bee, it only arrived in the 1980s” Rangel said. “Keeping bees was a piece of cake compared to what it is now.”
She said new beekeepers are prone to some common mistakes. Someone might be uncomfortable managing their bees and leave them alone too often, might fail to identify issues in the colonies, or might use pesticides nearby that end up killing their bees. Rangel said when someone fails to catch a varroa infestation, the damage can spread beyond one hive.
“You can end up having varroa ‘bombs,’ ” Rangel said. “You’re not just hurting your colonies, you’re putting others at risk. Bees drift, they can get lost, go to the wrong hive, and it can spread.”
She said varroa prevention products can also pose a risk to humans if mishandled. She suggested beekeepers join a group or find a mentor to avoid common pitfalls. James Fairchild, a hobby beekeeper with the Heart of Texas Beekeepers Association who has been beekeeping for two years, said he has experienced that benefit firsthand.
“Like worker bees, your survival rate goes up when you’re part of the hive,” Fairchild said. “It’s so easy to isolate yourself, but working together is so important.”