Busy Bees Wanted

Beekeeping on the rise in the Heart of Texas, stimulated by federal, state & local initiatives, as well as plentiful rural range

With roughly 89 percent of Bosque County’s 989.18 square miles being range and farmland, agriculture has always been a big part of the county’s economy and character. But not all agriculture is about large cattle herds or expansive fields of wheat and corn.

Unseen by most but working away diligently, every day, traveling thousands of miles, harvesting nectar and pollen from millions of flowers are the busy bees of Bosque County. According to bee experts to make one pound of honey, it takes approximately 60,000 bees traveling to possibly two million flowers – around 55,000 miles – to extract enough nectar. And besides making honey, the bees pollinate the fruit trees and vegetables, ensuring the fruit and vegetable harvest.

Channeling all this industriousness with bee-keeping is agriculture on a smaller scale. And there is a growing group of people and pollinator enthusiasts doing what they can to provide healthy environments for bees and their other busy pollinators like butterflies and hummingbirds.

For example, Clay and Karen Humphries. On their ranch, tucked away in the Bosque hillsides, beekeeping has become one of the many programs they attend to. In the spring of 2018, they planted 10 acres of clover and several acres of sunflowers, on top of the peach and plum trees they have, to supply nutrition for the five hives they set up under an old oak tree.

In the Texas heat, hives need to have a southeast exposure and shade. The sun hits the hive early and gets the bees up and running, and when the morning heats up, the hive is in the shade. Ideally, hives also should be close to a water source for the bees to carry to the hive to make the honey and to cool off the hive when it is hot. The hives are placed on pedestals, to keep out predators like skunks and raccoons.

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Bosque County beekeeper Weldon Hamilton explaining his work to Bosque County fourth graders during the Farm Bureau Ag Field Day in Clifton (above); Clay and Karen Humphries working their hives on their Bosque County ranch (top).

Local beekeeper Weldon Hamilton had helped them with information about placement and populating their hives.

Hamilton got into beekeeping for two reasons – it is an affordable and manageable way to practice agriculture, albeit on a small scale; and he is a firm believer in eating local produce. Honey is a sweet, pure product of nature, known for its health benefits like antibacterial properties, boosting the immune system, contains antioxidants, and acts as a cough suppressant .

The Humphries started with about 10,000 bees and a queen, and with her laying about 2,000 eggs a day, the hives average about 40,000 - 50,000 bees per hive. They had unusual success for a first time set up – already harvesting seven gallons of honey from the spring nectar flow and splitting the hives for a second set of five on the other side of the ranch.

“I had been fascinated by bees for a long time,” Clay said. “They seem to do only good, like hummingbirds and butterflies. That type of creature, you just can’t get mad at them, can you? Besides, having bees in the ecosystem is just good for your property.”

Some of the honey was left for the bees, so they have a filled pantry for their winter nutrition needs. But even with this success, their bees face many challenges.

Starting in 2006, beekeepers began seeing high losses of 30-90 percent of their hives due to Colony Collapse Disorder - when the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear and leave behind a queen, plenty of food and a few nurse bees to care for the remaining immature bees and the queen. But without worker bees the hive is doomed.

Once thought to pose a major long term threat to bees, the reported cases have declined substantially over the last five years according to the Environmental Protection Agency in a April 2018 report.

Whereas the colony collapse disorder seems to have halted, bees and other pollinators still face a multitude of challenges in today’s environment.

Poor nutrition, pesticides, pathogens like Israeli Acute Paralysis virus and parasites like Asian Varroa mites, and parasites like the gut parasite Nosema, loss of habitat due to big scale agriculture all affect bee populations throughout the United States. In some places, like Texas excessive heat and drought further stress the hive.

The newest threat to the beekeeping industry is the illustrious Asian Giant Hornet, otherwise known as the Vespa Mandarinia. These hornets native to Japan and South Korea were discovered in fall 2019 in British Columbia, Canada, and in Washington State. Luckily it has not been discovered in Texas yet, but vigilance is necessary.

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Pollinators such as bees are of vital importance to agriculture and for maintaining ecosystem health.

The insect is a specialized predator of honey bees in Asia. Because the Japanese honey bee co-evolved with the AGH, it has defensive behaviors that protect it from attack. However, the Japanese honey bee is not the same species used in the U.S. The European honey bee, the species used in the U.S., has no defense against the AGH. In a matter of hours, 15 to 30 AGH can kill a hive of honey bees containing 30,000 to 50,000 workers. The hornets then occupy the hive, kill the developing larvae and take this protein-rich meal to their nest.

Because of this threat, the Texas Agrilife Extension Department of Entomology requests citizens to place reports if they suspect they’ve seen the “murder” hornet.

If possible, safely take a photo and send it to the Department of Entomology through the Online Insect Identification Form at:  https://entomology.tamu.edu/urbanentomology/wp-content/uploads/sites/19/2020/05/Asian-Giant-Hornet-ID-Form.pdf. Do not attempt to catch a live specimen, because their sting can be lethal to humans.

If you find a dead specimen that has a bright yellow head and is over 1.5 inches long, collect it and ship it to the Department of Entomology following instructions on the same Form for Collecting and Shipping Specimens for Identification.

In an effort to keep bee populations healthy, several federal, state and local agencies initiated projects to stimulate beekeeping, and protecting their environment. Since 2012, Texas law made it possible for beekeeping to qualify for an Ag Valuation – popularly known as the Ag Exemption – on property taxes.

The food or products coming from the beekeeping must have commercial value, like honey, bee pollen, and sweets or things like beeswax candles and soaps. While human food and products must be produced, the law does not require that they be sold commercially.

The State of Texas Tax Code has set a minimum of five acres - must have six hives - and a maximum of twenty acres to qualify beekeeping as an agricultural use. Hives must be maintained and kept alive. Legitimate beekeepers will have their bees in locations that provide food for their bees, pollinate various agricultural crops, food crops, and manage their bees in a manner to keep them healthy, surviving and producing for the long term.

And the hives must be located on the property at least seven months of the year. This allows people with smaller acreage to apply for an Ag exemption. According to the Bosque County Appraisal District, this has lead to an increase in beekeeping activity in the county.

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Pollinators such as bees are of vital importance to agriculture and for maintaining ecosystem health.

On a federal level, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has developed new pesticide labels that prohibit use of some neonicotinoid pesticide products where bees and other pollinators are present.

The new labels developed in 2013 have a bee advisory box and icon with information on routes of exposure and spray drift precautions. It affects products containing the neonicotinoids imidacloprid, dinotefuran, clothianidin and thiamethoxam.

Like-minded organizations are collaborating to bring awareness to the importance of voluntary land stewardship in Texas through a statewide campaign emphasizing the role of pollinators in the environment.

In May 2018, the Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute, partnered with other organizations like Texas AgriLife Extension, Texas Wildlife Association and Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers’ Association, and Soil and Water Conservation districts to promote statewide land stewardship relating to pollinators.

Because so much of Texas land in this state is privately owned, it important for landowners to implement voluntary conservation activities to help keep soil and water resources healthy. Fortunately, many of the landowners recognize the importance of pollinators have employed voluntary conservation practices on both private and public lands to help support and grow pollinator populations like habitat enhancements like rangeland restoration which provide a benefit by increasing biodiversity — an essential component for all wildlife, including pollinators.

At Meridian’s Farmstead on Main, the Culpeppers are practicing small scale agriculture on different levels, going back to providing produce for their family, bartering produce for services, and selling excess harvest at the local Farmer’s Market. At their herbicide and pesticide-free place, just inside Meridian city limits, they have a dairy cow, sheep, goats, egg layers, meat chickens and ducks. The four turkeys are being fattened up for this year’s Thanksgiving.

This spring, with the help of Hamilton, they added a hive of 8,000 bees to their property, mainly to serve as pollinators for their vegetable garden. In the future, the Culpeppers hope to add fruit trees to their farmstead, increasing the need for the friendly and helpful pollinators. They expect the hive to grow to full capacity of 16,000 bees over the summer.

Before the bees arrived, Ryan hand-pollinated their watermelon patch. Helping keep the Bosque bee population alive and well is also a motivation to add a bee hive to their endeavors; and of course the treasure of that delicious sweet honey.

On a very practical level, the Hill county beekeepers association offers budding and experienced beekeepers a spot for information, education and sharing of knowledge.

In general, the founders wanted to be able to share and obtain information about new legislation, what's happening in the beekeeping industry, new techniques to control Varroa and other types of bee pests or disease that affect bees, as well as encourage and support the practice of beekeeping for those who may want to start a hive of their own. They feel that by promoting what they call “the art of bee keeping” the members will all benefit and help Texas bees survive and thrive.

The Hill County Beekeepers Association meets the third Tuesday of each month at the Hill County Courthouse Annex. The building is located at 126 South Covington Street in downtown Hillsboro behind Brookshire's. Visitors and members are asked to enter through the Annex door. For more information: please visit the club’s Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/HillCoBeeks/ or contact one of the officers at 254-307-0234.

Photos by SIMONE WICHERS-VOSS

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