Ewing and Sabra Brown search for the queen bee in one of their hives. PHOTO by ANDREA KURTH.
by ANDREA KURTH
for Reporting Texas
AUSTIN — Sabra and Ewing Brown step into the oversized white suits that will protect them from the thousands of bees they are about to transfer into new hives outside their West Austin home.
Ewing Brown, 63, helps his wife Sabra, 56, zip a wide-brimmed beekeeping hat onto her suit. Once they are ready, they walk to their white pickup truck, where two packages, each roughly the size of a mailbox, lie buzzing in the bed.
The Browns decided to start beekeeping as a hobby this year but hope to turn honey and beeswax into a source of retirement income in the future. The couple also hopes the project will bring them closer, they say.
“I have an entrepreneurial spirit, but there is a spiritual resonance for me as well. There’s something calming about working with animals,” said Ewing Brown, a retired minister. Sabra Brown is a retired landscaper and a Texas master naturalist.
The Browns have been preparing for this moment for months. After ordering their bees in December, they began attending classes and watching videos online to learn the installation process.
In each package, a 1- by 3-inch mesh cage separates the queen from the other bees, gathered from many colonies to diversify the gene pool. The Browns will transfer the insects into two bright yellow hives. Eight empty frames hang inside each hive, like files in a cabinet. Once they become acclimated to their new home, the bees will begin building honeycomb on the frames.
The Browns’ neighbor, Marlon Menezes, 45, who would install bees of his own the next day, and his son Mark help out. Menezes pops a small cork from the bottom of queen’s cage, exposing a tiny hole from which she can escape. The hole is covered by candy which the bees in the hive will eat to release her. A colony identifies its queen by the strong pheromones she emits.
Once the queen cage has been bound by a rubber band onto an empty frame, the Browns dump the other bees — roughly 3,000 of them — into the bottom of the hive, using a smoker to calm the insects. On top of the box goes a board with a small hole in it, then a second box. They put a feeder containing sugar water on top of the hole. Another lid goes on top of the second box.
The bees get in and out of the hive through a 1-inch gap in the lower box. While they build the colony, the bees subsist on the sugar water. Once they’re established in three to four weeks, they’ll leave the hive in search of nectar.
When frames in the bottom box are covered with honeycomb, frames are hung in the second box, and the process can repeat itself if the bees are productive. One colony can produce as much as 80 pounds of honey in a year.
Ten days after installing bees in the two hives, the Browns discover that one of the queens has disappeared. That means buying a new one, because a hive without a queen cannot thrive.
The Browns say they have spent about $1,000 on startup costs, which include the bees, two beekeeping suits, maintenance tools and $30 for the third queen. They have yet to buy the equipment, which can cost another $2,000, for harvesting honey at the end of the season.
Costs for new beekeepers can range from around $600 to $1,000, depending on what kind of bees they start with. A complete colony costs about $350 and becomes established within a month. A 3-pound package of bees like the Brown’s costs about $125 but takes longer to establish in the hot and dry conditions of Central Texas. Other costs add up to around $500.
Interest in bees and their role in organic farming has led to fast growth in urban beekeeping in Austin. Both Travis and Williamson counties boast large beekeeping associations, and Austin-area honey producers offer at least six how-to courses throughout the year.
Karl Acuri, 39, works in the tech industry and became an organizer of the Austin beekeeping meetup in 2010 after starting a hive of his own. Acuri says he had always been interested in insects but became seriously interested in beekeeping in 2003. Hesitant to start his hive without proper training, Acuri searched for local resources.
He found an Austin beekeeping meetup online, which had about 30 to 40 members but was mostly an unorganized interest group that met occasionally. It evolved into the Austin Beekeeping Association and now has 1,072 online members, 400 of them active beekeepers, Acuri said.
The group meets once a month at the Old Quarry Library in North Austin. About 80 beekeepers and aspiring beekeepers sit in a small room to hear presentations about seasonal topics. At the beginning of the year, the association gives a beekeeping basics class. Next, the topic was how to prevent hives from swarming; in March, experts demonstrated hive installation.
“The group has basically grown organically,” Acuri said. “I think beekeeping is just sort of an extension of the movement we’re seeing with organic gardens and the farmer’s market explosion.”
In addition, the media buzz around colony collapse disorder in 2009 and 2010 boosted interest in beekeeping, Acuri said. The disorder, which is still largely unexplained, is a phenomenon in which the majority of the bees in a hive die, leaving the queen and a few worker bees.
Mark Bradley, 33, teaches a yearly beekeeping class with his father-in-law, Raul Vergara, 58,. The two men co-own Austin Honey Co., and offer classes at the Sustainable Food Center in East Austin, Bradley said. They offered their first formal class last spring and were offering an eight-week course, which provides 20 hours of instruction to four students. Both men work the business full time.
“We had a lot of people express interest in what can we do to help bees,” he said.
Bradley and Vergara maintain 100 hives on six organic farms in the Austin area. They place their hives at no cost on the farms, which are all within 30 miles of Austin. For the company, honey production is second to the food mission, said Bradley, although it does sell honey and other products made from beeswax at local farmers markets.
“We merged two interests — perpetuating honey bees in nature and organic food,” he said. “We want to encourage as much organic food production as close to home as possible.”
Lance Wilson is a master beekeeper who lectures to beekeeping associations across the state. Wilson earned his certification from a University of Georgia program designed to spread scientific information about beekeeping across the country. He also teaches classes at Round Rock Honey, a local honey producer.
“A colony can have a really big impact on cultivated plants and wild plants. It makes a significant difference if you have a beehive next to your garden,” Wilson said.
Laura Weaver of Beeweaver Apiaries joined her husband’s family business 20 years ago. The demographics of beekeepers in the Austin area have changed dramatically since then, Weaver said. Twenty years ago, beekeepers were mostly retired men; now, they’re younger and include many more women.
Beeweaver sells bees throughout the continental United States, but has seen a big increase in buyers from Central Texas in recent years. At the Dripping Springs location during the April pick-up time, Beeweaver distributed 178 bee packages to be installed in the Austin area. Many of the customers are new beekeepers, and some are seasoned veterans.
“It seems to be really taking off,” Wilson said of beekeeping. “The bee clubs around the state of Texas are really filling up.”
ANDREA KURTH reports for Reporting Texas, a UT School of Journalism program, where this story was originally published. It is reprinted here through a news partnership between Reporting Texas and the San Marcos Mercury.