Local/Regional Clubs the Heart of Beekeeping Communities

Trinity Valley President, Ryan Giesecke at the entrance to the Oso Bay Wetland Preserve in Corpus Christi, TX

Corpus Christi is a quiet, blue-collar town in the Coastal Bend of Texas. Its population, just over 320,000, sprawls over more than 500 square miles. It’s surrounded by industrial agriculture operations in nearly every direction that isn’t a body of water. As a result, the urban ecology abuts the ag fields directly in many cases, with some ag fields appearing right in the heart of town.

The south and southwestern parts of Texas are also home to the native Mexican Honey Wasp. These tiny little wasps are remarkably similar to honey bees. They’re black and yellow (much more yellow than honey bees), and they too collect nectar and make (small amounts) of (not very yummy) honey. Unlike our bees, they’re omnivores.

The Mexican Honey Wasp (MHW) is unusual in the native pollinator world because their habitat is actually expanding (approximately with the expansion of Mesquite). We don’t know nearly enough about these wasps. The last research was ended in the early 1990s. Their current range extends barely to Houston, across to San Marcos, and west to El Paso.

What we do know about them is that they sometimes build their nests, which resemble a hornet’s nest, in inconvenient places where they’re pests to people. Their temperament is quite gentle, however, so often, they’re able to cohabit with people. In the event they must be removed, our local group faces the challenge of habitat for relocation.

Ryan, standing by "his" MHW nest the day after relocation

MHWs build extremely delicate paper nests in trees or bushes. They’re usually just a few feet off the ground, but they can be quite high. They begin building a nest that looks like most other paper wasp nests, but as it expands to the size of a baseball, they build an enclosing cover around it. A central passageway is maintained along the vertical axis of the hive. As they build the nest bigger, they incorporate branches of the tree into the nest. These branches tend to anchor the nest in place, but can also damage the nest if the wind flexes the branches.

The branches are also a nuisance to the beekeeper removing them. Because the nest is delicate, the branches much be cut on all sides of the nest to reduce the chance a branch will catch on something and tear the nest apart. Some beekeepers leave select branches longer to use as hand holds.

Medium sized, MHW nest, upright, outer shell covered in wasps.

MHWs swarm in similar fashion to Honey Bees, but this behavior is poorly studied and only minimally described in literature.

MHWs respond imperfectly to smoke. Initially, smoke may chase the animals into the nest, but upon disturbing the nest, they will come back to visit us. Many bee removers vacuum the wasps, and most bag the nest for transport. They do sting, and they can sting multiple times. Beekeepers report different experiences with “how bad” the sting is compared to Honey Bees. Many become entangled easily in a bee suit’s mesh material and sometimes tear themselves apart trying to a) “get you” or b) get out of the material. Who knows the mind of a little wasp?

The spaces into which we can move these animals is limited. In 2016, we reached out to the Oso Bay and Wetland Preserve, a city-owned project that manages 600 acres of wetland and scrub habitat, right in the heart of the city.

In the summer of 2016, the Coastal Bend Beekeepers Assn (CBBA) wrote a Memorandum of Understanding with the City to provide habitat within the Preserve for the relocation of these native animals. Under the agreement, properly trained members of CBBA may enter the park after hours. The preserve selected a habitat that provides a safe space for the wasps to grow and thrive, close, but not too close, to the town where they once lived.

The first relocation we attempted was unsuccessful, but resulted in a nest specimen for the preserve Learning Center display. There, it educates kids and visitors on the vital importance of wild pollinators. In 2017, we relocated two other nests. These relocations were successful, but destroyed by vandals within a couple of months. The preserve erected a fence to block the trail leading to the MHW habitat location.

In April, 2018, Ryan Giesecke, President of Trinity Valley Beekeepers Association visited the Coastal Bend to speak at three events in our area: at the CBBA regular meeting, at our “branch office” meeting in the Rio Grande Valley, and at the Golden Crescent Beekeepers Assn in Victoria, TX. As luck would have it, he also had the opportunity to relocate a medium sized MHW nest! Of course, Ryan was eager to experience a new type of removal.

Locating the nest at the preserve is also a challenge. First, it’s a hike and a half from the gate to the MHW habitat area, and we have to cross the fence that has no gate. Because of the size of this nest, we elected not to bag it. And because wasps loose in the car with you is great fun, too!

At the habitat site, we must then select a tree that will hold the nest supported upright. Once placed, it becomes a race for the wasps to build their nest out and incorporate branches of their new tree before something knocks them to the ground. (We live, here, in a wind corridor.)

We wedged the nest into a tree and left them, returning the next day to make sure everything was ok.

I recently visited these wasps again to check on their progress. After checking in with the office, I crossed the fence and walked back to the place where we placed them. On the way, there was no sign of trail traffic, just some wildlife signs. At the nest site, there was evidence of hog activity in the area. And then, there was the nest!

Relocated nest, odd shape due to tilting at the new site, wasps cover the outer shell, mid-day with most foragers in the field.

Right where we left it four months ago, but much bigger! This has been our greatest success so far. Normally, MHW nests are somewhat teardrop shaped, narrow at the top, and bell-bottomed. But our relocated friends had departed from that somewhat! As you can see from the photos, the original nest was shaped like most. It was about 28 inches tall and 14 inches around at the bottom.

The odd shape of the current nest probably is the result of the nest shifting in the tree and leaning over a little. Its overall size is about 40-50% larger than when we placed it there. You may notice fewer animals on the nest. This may be due to a few factors. First, of course, at night all the foragers are home. Second, the wasps experience the same Summer dearth that Honey Bees experience, so we may assume they too reduce their numbers in the hottest part of summer. And third, it’s possible that the old part of the nest was abandoned because of the leaning, and this may have slowed the growth of the colony population. This last point is largely speculation, however.

What makes this story so compelling is how much collaboration brought it all together. Our regional club here in South Texas spans 35 counties, and we try to serve the region with education and resources. We operate monthly meetings in Corpus Christi, and meetings in even-numbered months in the Rio Grande Valley. Ryan runs the Trinity Valley Beekeepers, which provides great service in the Dallas Metro. He also works closely with the Metro Beekeepers (Ft. Worth) and collaborated with that group to produce the upcoming Dallas-Ft. Worth Area Beekeepers Conference in Waxahachie (Oct 27, watch for additional info). Ryan was recently elected President of Metro Beekeepers Association too.

Ryan experienced a variety of beekeeping activity on his visit. He kicked off his visit with “Fights About Mites” at the CBBA meeting. The following evening we moved the MHW nest. On Saturday he spoke to our new project organizing the beekeepers in the RGV in Mission, TX. On Sunday, he did some work in the out yard of our Vice President, an out yard where fresh removals were rehabilatiated, so there were plenty of mean bees for him. They did a removal from a ranch house. And then on Monday, Ryan spoke at the Golden Crescent beekeepers Association. All together, Ryan spoke to about 150 people, moved a colony of bees and a colony of honey wasps, inspected a dozen hives or so, and had a great time!

This kind of collaboration is important. As the leader of a regional beekeeping association, I’m a big advocate for the importance of local service and leadership, but what is developing across the state, is regional collaboration over state-wide collaboration. This type of collaboration was also seen in the spring at the East Texas Beekeepers Conference that brought together seven local clubs to put on a spectacular event in Longview. Other regional collaborations are in planning stages now.

Our own experience with collaboration, with the City, with other clubs, with start-ups, and with vendors, has been extremely successful. CBBA is on the look-out for ways to leverage our influence (and our 501c3 status) to benefit beekeepers in our region and beyond!

It’s an exciting time to be involved in local and regional associations. Beekeeping as a hobby is expanding, prices are up, and people are eager to learn. The demand for new and better education is clear (see The State of Beekeeper Education in Texas), and local groups are starting to work together to show real leadership in beekeeping advocacy. Join your local or regional group and be an advocate with us!

Your Bees are Hot!

As the middle of August approaches, bee colonies work harder and harder to maintain their hive’s internal temperature. You probably learned from any beginner text that the workers will forage for water to use in cooling the brood space. They spread the water on the combs and then fan it with their wings, using evaporative cooling. It’s very high tech!

You may be tempted to alter the hive configuration to provide ventilation. Beekeepers disagree on this issue. Small openings such as provided by inner covers don’t pose a risk to your hive, but you should think twice before making large openings in the hive. Some beekeepers prop or shim the cover, but be sure not to open it more than 1/8th inch. Larger openings will allow robber bees, and be aware that 1/8inch is plenty of opening for hive beetles to enter. If you decide to cut an upper entrance style hole, keep it small and be aware that the bees may well close it with propolis (an indication they don’t want it).

It’s also common in hot summers for a colony to “brood down” or reduce the colony population through attrition. In extreme cases, you may even see drones ejected from the colony. Consider the cause of this. A queen may be thought of as an egg extruder. As feed goes in one end, eggs come out the other end. It’s a simplified way of looking at laying rate. In the heat, more and more foragers will be required to fetch water, reducing the feed that enters the hive. Obviously with hot dry conditions, less feed may be available in the landscape too. So less feed means fewer eggs, less brood, and a reduced colony size.

When a colony broods down is not the time to make extraneous openings in their hive. Fewer bees are available for defending entrances that permit moths, beetles, and robber bees free access.

In dry conditions, bees will more frequently make a nuisance of themselves at water sources too. If you live in a neighborhood with close neighbors or lots of pools, consider putting out a source of water. Bees love salted or chlorinated water, so consider putting up a temporary pool of water that’s chlorinated. City water is usually tasty to bees, but over the course of a few hours the chlorination treatment used by the city may break down (put it in shade to prevent this).

See bees foraging for water at a window AC unit

You may also get calls that “bees have moved into my window AC unit.” Bees don’t often shack up in AC units because of the wind (from the fan) and the vibrations they don’t like. These calls are usually bees hunting water which is created and then pooled in the units. (Modern AC units reuse this water to cool the evaporator coils. These units may not have a visible drip outside because the coils evaporate the water quickly to increase efficiency. But there’s still a pool of water inside.)

What can beekeepers do?

During periods of dearth or heat (or both), you may consider keeping your bees brooded up by feeding them. Use in-hive feeders with small openings. This season is especially risky for robbing behavior. By keeping your colony brooded up, you reduce its exposure to pests, including other bee colonies, and you keep them ready to go to work making honey when the fall flow arrives.

You can provide a nearby source of water. Don’t be discouraged if no bees show up to it the first day. Once they foragers have found a source of water, they will continue to use it. They simply don’t go looking for another. The second day may bring more bees and new foragers venture out and find the water. By providing a nearby source of water, you reduce the number of flights needed to bring it back to the hive.

Strong bees will protect themselves against pests like hive beetles, so if your colonies become weak, you may need to address this problem. The remedy is the same as always, reduce the space they must defend, making sure that both sides of each frame can be completely covered by bees, even if that means taking some frames out.

When working hives in the summer it’s important to spend as little time with the hive exposed as possible. Full, detailed and time-consuming inspections expose the colony to robbing. Once started, robbing is difficult to halt. Be aware that the queen may halt egg production entirely without feed, so consider that in your inspection plans.

Count your mites! Treat if you need to treat.

Many beekeepers in Texas lose as many colonies in the summer as they do in “winter.” Stay connected with your colonies and don’t neglect their needs during this hard season. It’s hard on bees and beekeepers, but you must get out there and help. Stay hydrated and safe. Work in short periods broken up by breaks and plenty of water and air conditioning.

TBA Suffers Data Breach – Member Uses Member Database to eMail Members about Beekeeping!

In a surprising email from TBA, Chris Moore, President, informed members that on June 22 they received an unauthorized email from someone called The Texan Beekeeper. This grievous attack on TBA came out of nowhere apparently.

But wait. What terrible news was in the email? I received the email, so I looked through it again. It opened with a brief introduction and invitation/announcement that Lone Star Beekeepers is open for business. That’s not the best message for beekeepers if you’re TBA, but it seems harmless enough to invite someone to consider something. It was polite and factual. There was a brief write up about heat stress and remedies for it. Something about “watch out for snakes” too. There was a list of local/regional clubs that currently operate as recognized 501c3s. And the Texan Beekeeper was kind enough to point folks our way at SaveTexasBeekeepers.org as well as towards a couple of other online resources. Then there was an update on the TBA 131 Committee, Ashley Ralph, Chair. That was followed by a short explanation of mite counting with sticky boards.

What is so terrible about this email? You’ll have to ask Chris if you’re confused. Email him here.

But what is this nonsense in Chris’ email? “TBA did not authorize this email….” The email did not say otherwise. The Texan Beekeeper clearly did not pretend to speak for TBA or mislead readers to think that the email had much to do with TBA at all. “TBA recognizes this breach of member information and regrets any inconvenience caused to TBA members.” Breach? What breach? Most TBA members voluntarily list themselves in the TBA member directory, available for members only (password protected area only). I know I just clicked that box last week when I renewed my membership. I am always eager to hear from my fellow beekeepers! Perhaps TBA members who didn’t authorize their listing were breached? Chris isn’t clear about this question.

If you’re like most beekeepers, you get a few emails like The Texan Beekeeper each week. Some are great. Some are worthless. Some are trying to sell you something. They’re just emails. I couldn’t tell you where 10% come from. Who cares? In the arena of ideas, we at SaveTexasBeekeepers suggest that the more, the merrier!

Chris specifically accuses The Texan Beekeeper of breaching TBA data, but then only mentions member emails as compromised. Were other data compromised? Credit card numbers? Addresses? Members’ local club affiliations? Those would obviously be more serious problems.

Perhaps this breach is related to other breaches that TBA has quietly suffered in the past? The Coastal Bend Beekeepers Association (my group) initially took advantage of TBA’s web hosting in 2016 only to suffer multiple incidences of hacking of our site, the latest resulting in our page being turned into a Japanese mattress sales site. We have since moved the page to somewhere we hope will be safer. So TBA’s concern for online security is valid, though perhaps misplaced.

Here at SaveTexasBeekeepers we publish reliable beekeeping news that is attributed to specific writers (Principle Writers of the blog, or guest writers by invitation). The practice of writing “anonymously” though, has a long and famous history. Ben Franklin was famous for his pen names. Here are just a few of them:

  • Richard Saunders (aka Poor Richard, a name so recognized and influential a Navy ship was so named).
  • Mrs. Silence Doogood
  • Caelia Shortface and Martha Careful
  • Busy Body
  • Polly Baker

There were many other names that Franklin invented and used as a force for extreme good during his time. Polly Baker, for example, was used to advocate against the poor treatment of women. Often, these pen names are open secrets. What does it matter? Certainly, anonymous writers may also disrupt too, but writing anonymously places the emphasis on the only thing that matters, the writing, the ideas. So the question becomes, what ideas are so fear-inspiring to TBA?

Texas House of Representatives Considers Pollinator Issues

The Agriculture and Livestock Committee of the Texas House will hold hearings on pollinator health issues in July. The committee will meet jointly with the Committee on Culture, Recreation & Tourism.

The charge of the hearing is given below.

“Study the effects of declining migratory species, such as the monarch butterfly, as well as native and domesticated bee populations on agricultural production and its economic impact on the state. Identify possible causes of the population changes and monitor national trends. Make recommendations on how to improve and promote monarch butterfly and bee populations and habitats in the state.”

Beekeepers who wish to provide testimony or speak about the issues may contact their state representatives or the committee members’ office contacts.

When:  Wednesday, July 18, 2018 at 10AM

Where:  State Capitol Room E2.010

Who:  Committee Chair, Rep. Tracy King (512-463-0194)

Does Pageantry Have a Place in a Modern Texas Beekeepers Assn?

If you believe that our young people hold the future in their hands, then you must also believe that we must empower them to take the reigns of industry and power and represent that future to the world around us. Our young people must demonstrate to the world that our industry is vibrant and productive. They must bring the message that beekeepers are open for business. They should be knowledgeable and competent. And they should have our full faith and support in carrying these messages for us.

With these things in mind, let’s start a marketing program. In this program, we will only allow young adult women to act as our spokesperson. But not just any women. These women mustn’t be married. You know how busy married women can be. That’s why she must also not be pregnant. Imagine how impossible it would be to work with a woman with a child, so she mustn’t have ever been pregnant either. As long as we’re at it, we don’t want young women who have been divorced. That shows a lack of commitment in a person, right? Of course, we don’t want any shacking up either. And by young women, we only mean between the ages of 17 and 24. We obviously want pretty women, not some old woman. Beekeeping is complicated, so we should also exclude young women who dropped out of high school. Again, lack of commitment, you know?

We should have a knowledgeable spokesperson, so we’ll quiz applicants about bees and beekeeping. After all, we don’t want our marketing programming to look like a beauty pageant, do we? Still, we should dress up the candidates in fancy dresses. And she should wear a sash, but again, we don’t want this to look like a beauty pageant, so we’ll call the sash a “banner” instead. And there has to be a tiara, since we will call her the Queen. Of course.

Welcome to 1955

While you may find the proposal above old-fashioned, out-dated, and absurd, the sad news is that these rules are real. I didn’t make up a single one of them. These are the largely unpublished rules behind the Texas Honey Queen Program, operated by the Texas Beekeepers Association.

Let’s count the ways this program discriminates.

  1. Young men are denied the opportunity to participate.
  2. Women older than 24 are excluded
  3. Married women are excluded
  4. Divorced women are excluded
  5. Pregnant women are excluded
  6. Women with children are excluded
  7. Women who have lost children are excluded
  8. Women who have co-habitated with a man are excluded
  9. High school drop outs are excluded

The question that we face now, in 2018, is what justification can we mount to excuse these discriminatory practices? The Honey Queen look-and-feel accomplishes a marketing purpose – the visibility is high and distinctive. But is the imagery of a pageant what our industry association needs in promoting beekeeping?

We should take a close and careful look at the core values of Texas Beekeepers Association. We should question why, even today, we lack a serious statement of equality and non-discrimination for our group. We must question whether it is our place to make judgements of how a young adult is to live their private life with regard to marriage, raising a family, etc.

Beekeeping is challenging, but it is also one of the few occupations that requires no formal education whatsoever. No license. No degree. No certificate. Nothing, not even a high school diploma. So shouldn’t we embrace the high school drop out who comes willing to learn and work? Is beekeeping not an excellent solution for that young person who has perhaps made mistakes in schooling? At our regional beekeeping association (Coastal Bend Beekeepers Association (Corpus Christi, TX)), I say bring on the high school drop outs! We will teach them our trade and make them productive!

If the young people are to carry our banner and speak for us, should they not reflect the membership in every manner? Of course they should.

The Texas Honey Queen Program

“The Texas Honey Queen acts as the official spokesperson for the Texas Beekeepers Association to promote all aspects of the Beekeeping Industry. The Texas Honey Queen is available for interviews, personal appearances, and is prepared to give presentations to local community groups.”

This official description of the Texas Honey Queen summarizes the purpose of the program. It is not a youth program at all. It is a marketing program, though the Queens and Princesses are selected from youth Honey Queen programs across the state. How are they selected? And who selects them? That’s much more difficult to answer. We know that TBA and other Queen program administrators preach again and again that the programs are not pageants. It’s clear why they must preach this, because of all the pageantry that is clearly part of the programs: the fancy dresses, the sash/”banner”, the tiara, etc. But in fact, they’re selected by their performance on knowledge based presentations and their skill in delivering them. The criteria are quite important to the program. It’s the pageantry that isn’t important at all.

And who selects the Queens? The Queen Committee selects queens, and that’s the limit of what we know. There is no list of committee members anywhere on the TBA web page. There are no minutes of committee meetings found on the web site. The meetings are not announced anywhere. Only the Chair of the committee is named in any way whatsoever. Nowhere is there a list of Queen activities, either past or planned.

The Texas Honey Queen Program operates quietly in closed door meetings (like much of TBA business). Who funds the program? TBA does. At the 2017 fall business meeting, the financial reports state that $5056.71 was spent on Honey Queen expenses from a fund that held $23,132.47 at the end of the report. This is roughly twice what the program reportedly generated in donations to the fund. The 2016 year-end report did not itemize the Queen program budget at all, but provided the fund balance.

Like many aspects of TBA, the membership is blissfully unaware of how and where their money is spent on the Queen program. Certainly, some is used to pay for travel for the program. And of course, the Queens are not volunteers. We do know they’re compensated, but exactly how is a mystery. A “Queen Scholarship” is mentioned in a few corners of official statements, but how much money is spent on this compensation is never mentioned. Are the Queens paid employees? Independent contractors? Or simply scholarship awardees? These numbers are not available to mere TBA members.

The Future is Within Our Sight

What does the future hold for the Texas Honey Queen Program? TBA seems set on continuing the program in its current form. TBA board member, and Publications Director, Chris Doggett explained at a local club meeting that the program is necessary in order to enable the young ladies to compete at the national level, called the National Honey Queen and operated by the American Beekeeping Federation. And certainly that is true, and an important component for the candidates. Without a state program, the young ladies would be ineligible to compete for the national titles. Is that good enough? That’s the question that TBA must answer.

At the same local meeting, Doggett acknowledged that the program does not offer equal opportunities for young men, but he pointed out that such programs do exist in the state (as youth programs only at this time). The East Texas Beekeepers Association (Tyler, TX) operates a Honey Queen/Ambassador program in which young men may compete for the title Honey Ambassador. Obviously, nobody advocates for the fellows to be called Honey Queen. The East Texas Beekeepers program nevertheless provides access to their program for young men to compete.

The Brazos Valley Beekeepers Association (Bryan, TX) considered the formation of a Honey Queen program and (at least as of this time) declined to begin a program. Instead, they propose to simply add “Honey Queen”-activities to their extremely successful and robust youth program. This has the benefit of pushing many young people into the community to carry our message. This increases the diversity of beekeepers that interact with the public, and sends the message that beekeeping is, indeed, for everyone.

Significantly, the Trinity Valley Beekeepers Association (Dallas, TX) has recently formed a Honey Ambassador Program, completely inclusive of all young people who wish to compete. Young men or young women will compete for a single title: Honey Bee Ambassador. Perfect equality.

There are other programs for young people to put beekeeping on display for all to see. In 2017, the Coastal Bend Beekeepers brought a 4H student to speak in Corpus Christi, TX. His story was about his very successful project in 4H that saw a couple of colonies turn into 40+ in just a couple of years. He came without any title whatsoever, but spoke with authority to a room of 140+ members of the community. 4H is a world-wide program with a clear and stated commitment to equality and equal opportunity for all young people. The program cultivates leaders. What better program could we possibly seek to mimic?

As the beekeeping industry moves into the future, the role of young people will determine the success of the industry in general. Historically, beekeeping enterprises are handed down inside a few families. But today, we’re seeing fantastic growth of new beekeepers. Many of those will wash out when they learn that beekeeping is WORK, but a few will stay. Some will build their own enterprise. And a few will carry our message to the world, that the beekeeping industry is strong and vibrant, that we’re open for business, and that beekeeping is for everyone.

Honey Bee Health Coalition Announces 7th Ed. of Essential Guide

 

Today, the Honey Bee Health Coalition (HBHC) released the newest edition of their important Tools for Varroa Management guide book for beekeepers. Since the first edition, the HBHC has diligently updated their guide for beekeepers. Indeed, no beekeeper should be without a copy of the guide.

Notable additions over the years include the addition of video demonstrations (page 11) to help beekeepers of all levels learn exactly how to properly manage varroa in bee colonies. This 7th edition includes guidance for the new product Formic Pro in the listings for treatments. This is particularly important because Formic Pro offers additional application options that are new to beekeepers.

We’ve provided the link to the guide below. Be sure to visit the HBHC’s web site for additional tools and learning opportunities. Don’t skip this important resource dedicated to keeping managed bees healthy.

Tools for Varroa Management (7th Ed.)

Swarms, Removals, Splits, and Nucs – Know the difference and don’t buy junk

New beekeepers face a myriad choices when they decide to get started. What type of hive? Screened bottoms? Which foundation? Where to locate the apiary? How many colonies? It can feel quite overwhelming.

The question of where and how to buy bees is one of those initial problems for new beekeepers. One aspect of buying bees that gives beginners trouble is the jargon we use to describe bees, and how that jargon is often misapplied to bees that should be sold for a steep discount, or not at all.

We’ve all heard the terms, and their meanings are specific. A swarm is (usually) a reproductive division of a colony, whether feral or managed. A swarm arrives with nothing other than bees. Bee sellers usually don’t sell “swarms,” but they do sell “packages,” which are man-made swarms.

A removal colony is one that has been removed from a place where the bees were a pest or nuisance. This is sometimes called a rescue colony.

A split, or divide, is a brand new colony that’s made by a beekeeper from a managed colony.

A Nucleus (a nuc) colony is the gold standard of buying bees. A nuc is a small, queen-right colony that contains the resources to begin a new production colony. The difference between a nuc and other starter methods is sometimes subtle, but a beekeeper can build a nuc from any method. A nuc for sale should contain emerging brood from the queen in the box!

Let’s examine each of these colony options in detail, and along the way, we can take a close look at what makes quality bees in each option. All specific advice in this article is aimed at beginner beekeepers who are just getting started and it may not apply equally to all beekeepers. My goal was to point new beekeepers in the direction of best practices and ensure them the greatest chance of a successful and rewarding beginning in the craft of beekeeping.

Swarms

Swarms come in three varieties: reproductive, abscond, and package.

When a colony grows beyond a critical mass, it will naturally divide itself. This division could be because the bees lack the physical space to expand further, or because the colony is simply too big (generally around 60,000 bees). When a colony divides itself, the initial, or primary swarm, leaves the colony with the mother queen. The primary swarm is usually strong and arrives with a queen that is ready to go to work. If the old colony has sufficient bees, it may issue a second, third, or more swarms. these swarms will be accompanied by one or more virgin queens. The unmated queens in these after-swarms go on mating flights after their swarm colony arrives at their new home.

Obviously, a swarm headed by a mated queen is preferable to an after swarm headed by an unmated queen. Virgin queens carry the added risk of mating failure (approximately 20% according to accepted queen rearing wisdom), and so these swarms may fail at higher rates than primary swarms. Experienced beekeepers can usually tell a virgin from a mated queen by looking.

After swarms will eventually reflect the genetic profile of feral bees in the local area. In some parts of Texas, this can be quite good, but in other parts of the state, that profile may make the bees unsuitable for beginners or for back yard beekeeping.

What makes a quality swarm? A primary swarm with a mated queen is the best bet. However, many beekeepers observe that swarm queens are often replaced within several weeks of arrival. This replacement is handled by the colony, but may pose difficulties for a new beekeeper. Handling queen cells often causes damage to the developing queens, and so a beekeeper should avoid handling frames with queen cells. The timing of queen development, hardening, mating, and final development difficult to pin down with uncontrolled queen production. For this reason, a beekeeper should be patient with the colony and intervene only after the developing queen is definitely beyond hope according to the calendar. In the alternative, the beekeeper may replace the queen before the colony decides to do so. Clearly, there’s a little beekeeper skill involved in managing swarms.

One great advantage of swarm collecting is that it can be (more or less) free. A beginner beekeeper, thus, could easily make several attempts at swarm collection per season and accumulate the experience needed to be successful at it. But understand that a swarm is the most risky of all methods of acquiring bees. Bee swarms must be convinced to stay in the hive chosen by the beekeeper, and they regularly decide otherwise. The bottom line, as a beginner beekeeper, you can collect swarms and take your chances, but you should not pay for a swarm, ever.

A common method of buying bees, however, is the 3-pound package of bees. In a package, you get worker bees (3 pounds, as the name implies), and a mated queen. A package is basically a man-made swarm, but differs from a natural swarm in important ways. First, a package is usually shipped with a mated queen (though you may also order queenless packages). This mated queen is unrelated to the workers, but the time the workers and the queen spend together in transit generally bonds them into a cohesive unit, with all the workers clustering around the only queen they’ve know for many hours.

Package bees are fraught with trouble too. Shipping is hard on bees, and so some mortality is expected. Packages ship with liquid feed (usually), but it’s common for bees to arrive with an empty feed container (especially when producers use marshmallows instead of liquid feed). Temperature is a critical factor in the movement of any colony of bees, and packages are no different. Exposure to high temperatures stresses the bees and raises the mortality rates. Nevertheless, package bees are a popular method of acquiring bees, and most packages produce success for new beekeepers. If you buy package bees, talk to your supplier for support and guidance.

Removals

When honey bees make their home where they’re a nuisance or a pest, people will sometimes call upon a live bee remover to collect the colony, their combs, and their queen. This is often difficult work, requiring skills not common to general beekeeping. A colony situated in the soffit of a home or in the cavity of a wall is ideally arranged as a cohesive unit. This is an ideal condition for bees. They are confident in their strength. They possess some food stores, perhaps. They may be defensive of their home. They may have access to vast areas in which to flee and re-establish their colony after removal.

Many beekeepers consider bee removal an entirely separate skill set and barely related to beekeeping. Some bee removers do not keep bees at all, instead selling what they remove quickly (flipping them). No matter your view on this, removing bees from structures requires a significant level of skill in construction trades and handling of bee colonies as a unit.

When a colony is removed from a structure, the brood combs are cut to fit in hive frames. The combs are temporarily held in place by rubber bands, until the colony can build the combs into the frames. This is a critical point to evaluating the quality of a removal job, and the resulting colony success (and value). We’ll return to this subject.

A bee colony that’s established in a cavity, going about its business will necessarily be greatly stressed by having their home disturbed, removed, cut to pieces, and taken away. The stress imposed upon them can not be over stated. We tend to focus on the stress placed on the adult worker bees, the most numerous and visible of the colony. We also take note of stress placed upon the all-important queen bee, but stress is also placed upon the silent members of the colony, the brood.

Brood is important to a colony because it is one of the primary missions of a colony, and it is the most delicate part of a colony. While adult bees can tolerate wide variations in temperature, brood must be maintained in a narrow temperature range, and must not dry out. These are simply not the conditions during a removal. Brood can be chilled (below about 70*F) or overheated (above about 95*F). Desiccation can occur at any temperature when the humidity falls below 80% RH. Time is critical during a removal. The brood must be protected from environmental conditions and rough handling.

Less than ideal brood conditions are a serious problem for removal colonies that are ultimately left without a queen. Let’s talk a little about the difficulties that queens pose to removal work.

According to Laidlaw and other researchers, the conditions under which a queen develops is critical. Very large numbers of bees are required. The term “boiling with bees” describes a condition in which frames are sometimes difficult to remove or replace in a hive because of the congestion of so many bees. Colonies raising queens must be well fed and provisioned. Larva selection is critical. Each of these requirements must be met in order to produce high quality queens.

A removal colony must never be asked to raise a queen. If the colony’s queen is lost for any reason, the colony should be provided a queen from another source that meets the best practices of queen rearing. A quality removal job is incomplete without a quality, mated queen in the hive at the end of the job.

Evaluating a removal colony is similar to any other colony, but care must be taken to verify the quality of the removal work. The ordinary features of a colony must be present. A laying queen that is fully accepted by the colony, whether the colony’s own queen or one provided by the remover or beekeeper. The “bee math” of the colony must be acceptable. Generally, the popular advice to “keep strong bees” applies to removal colonies. Let’s take a moment and review what it means to “keep strong bees.”

A strong colony does not necessarily mean a large colony. Generally, strong bees are able to completely cover both sides of each frame in a hive. This condition provides for sufficient defense of the colony from pests or robbing. But this is not the only measure of strong bees. A colony must also possess the strength to build, weather a dearth, forage for themselves, and raise additional brood when conditions warrant. This critical mass of bees is generally considered 2 or 3 pounds of bees (the size of a reproductive swarm or package). Each of these conditions must be present in a removal colony in order to consider it strong and viable. Colonies that do not meet these conditions should be used for purposes other than sale.

Removal colonies feature a reliable tell-tale measure of colony strength: the degree to which the cut combs have been fixed and attached to the frames. A fresh removal will have no attachments between the combs and the wooden frames at all. A strong colony may attach them completely in just a few days. A weak colony will take much longer, or may abandon some comb sections entirely. Abandoned comb sections is a sign of a poor quality removal colony, and should be removed for safety.

Regardless of a colony’s strength, combs should be attached to the frames prior to sale. Before combs are attached, a colony’s stress may still be high, and unattached frames carry the risk of damage from displacement from the frame. A good solid warning sign is the condition of the comb attachment compared to the condition of the rubber bands. If the rubber bands are chewed or broken before the combs are attached, then beware of the quality of the colony. If rubber bands are buried in wax and the combs attached to the frames, this is a sign of a quality colony that is functioning well.

A key component of a removal colony is the compete absence of queen cells. Removals should not be asked to raise queens, and so these cells should be destroyed and regarded as sub-standard for producing high quality queens, and concomitant high quality, robust colonies. Never purchase any colony that already has queen cells. This is particularly important for removal colonies for one additional reason – queen cells are delicate. Queen cells of unknown age must be treated with extreme care. The colony with these cells should not be inspected (and therefore not sold) because handling cells can damage the developing queen. The colony must not be moved for the same reason. Any queen cells of unknown age should be destroyed and a properly made queen provided by the beekeeper.

To review, consider these items as deal-breakers for purchasing removal colonies.

  1. The presence of queen cells.
  2. Insufficient numbers of bees to completely cover both sides of all frames.
  3. Combs that are not attached to the frames.
  4. The absence of a laying queen, or a queen that is sequestered in any way.

If your inspection of a removal colony discovers any of these conditions, look for a better colony. To be sure, each of these conditions may be remedied by an experienced beekeeper, but if you’re just starting out in beekeeping, avoid these troubles at all costs.

Splits

When a colony reaches the capacity of a hive (no more space) or becomes too large, it will swarm. This is bad for production colonies, and so beekeepers try to avoid swarms by splitting a colony into smaller colonies or nucleus colonies.

Beekeepers have developed many, many methods of splitting, or “dividing” colonies. Some are conservative, some are more aggressive, and some are just crazy. But whatever the method, the results should be nearly the same – a few frames of brood, a frame of food stores, a laying queen, and some room to grow.

In the next section, I will describe the nucleus colony as the gold standard of bee buying. It’s safe. The colony is established. The queen is accepted and working. Brood production is underway. The colony can forage for itself. A split is not yet like that.

When a colony is divided, there is always a question of getting the right bees in the right box. A split must be provisioned with enough nurse bees to carry on with brood rearing. It needs enough foragers to collect the resources needed for the new colony. It needs bees ready to build combs. It takes time to establish that all these needs are in balance, and so, fresh splits are not necessarily the same as an established nucleus colony.

Splits are often provided an unrelated queen, and in certain situations newly introduced queens may be “balled” by a fresh split. Exactly why this happens isn’t perfectly understood, but it can cause the loss of a new queen.

When buying nucs, you may encounter a split instead. Ask your vendor to explain the history of your nuc. When was it made? By what method? How long has the queen been laying in this colony? There’s no hard and fast answers to these questions, but the general trend is obvious. A split made last week clearly has not had time to build a cohesive colony around the new queen (none of the workers are related to her).

Observe the workers returning to the colony. They should be bringing pollen in the door. You should see at least some fresh nectar in the combs inside. You should never, ever buy any colony in which the queen is in a cage or clip (or sequestered in any other way).

Nucleus Colonies

The “nuc”, pronounced “nuke”, is the product that delivers the greatest chance of success to a beginner beekeeper. While the configuration of a nuc may vary slightly, the condition of the colony should not.

One variable is the number of brood frames. The more the merrier, right? A quality nuc will have at least three frames of brood. These frames should be covered in bees, and the brood area should cover 70-80% of the frames. Brood should be in all stages of development, not just eggs (an indication of a recent split). Encircling the brood should be pollen and nectar or honey. You may observe some nectar being stored in the brood area. This condition may be a warning that the bees are running short on space, but it also indicates good foraging behavior. If you buy a nuc like this, provide additional space as soon as you’re able.

Some suppliers provide different configurations.

NUCS
A Nuc pick-up day at a Dallas area urban farm market
NUC Box
Inside this NUC box is a small colony of honey bees. There are five deep frames of brood, honey & pollen ready to be transferred into a larger hive box.

The frames with foundation or food stores are highly variable from one supplier to the next. Other frame count configurations are offered too, and these may have a place in the apiaries of experienced beekeepers, it’s best to stick to the ordinary configurations of 4- or 5-frame nucs.

The common features of quality nucs are these:

  1. A laying queen, not a confined queen, not a recently released queen
  2. Workers that reflect the genetic profile of their queen. That is, at least some portion of the worker population should be the daughters of their queen.
  3. Enough bees to completely cover both sides of all combs in the nuc.
  4. Enough young bees to tend to brood (look for royal jelly in brand new larva cells) and build wax (look for white combs being built.
  5. Enough foragers or enough food stores to carry the colony.
  6. All combs permanently fixed in place by some mechanism (build onto the frames by the bees or on foundation/wire).

The buyer has some responsibilities too. The buyer accepts responsibility for the colony’s care when (s)he takes it from the seller. The seller should take the time to inspect the colony with the buyer if asked. This practice reduces the chance of a dispute over a viable queen or replacement(s).

Ask your seller if they will provide replacement queens if asked, or what their policy is.

The buyer MUST take care of the colony. It must be protected from heat. It must not roll over in the truck (this is a common mistake). The queen is the responsibility of the beekeeper. If the seller verified the queen at pick-up, the buyer should not expect her to be replaced afterwards.

Unfortunately, definitions vary from one supplier to another. The important thing is that the buyer and seller agree in advance on what is to be delivered. Every product described above has a market. An experienced beekeeper may readily buy rubber banded combs all day long, but that product is inappropriate for the beginner. I hope this examination of bee-starter products will help you determine the correct product for your beekeeping project, and I hope it enables you to ask the right questions and get what you expect!

Good luck, and happy beekeeping!

The State of Beekeeper Education in Texas

In November, 2017, the Texas Beekeepers Association passed two resolutions concerning beekeeper education in Texas. First, in Resolution #8 the group pledged continued support to those involved in the Texas Master Beekeeper Program. It’s no secret that TBA considers the Master Beekeeper Program, a project initiated by our past Chief Apiary Inspector Mark Dykes, a valuable source of beekeeper education. Second, in Resolution #9, the TBA renewed a less commonly known desire, to add an Apiary Extension Agent to the AgriLife Extension Service.

Generally, colony loss rates directly reflect the education of the category of beekeepers. Commercial beekeepers, professionals who keep thousands of colonies, consistently report the lowest colony losses. Sideliner beekeepers, though who keep substantial numbers of bees as a side business to their regular jobs, experience higher colony losses. And backyard beekeepers, generally newer beekeepers and those with modest investments in their bees, report the highest colony losses. This is a general, nation-wide trend as described in the management survey data by the Bee Informed Partnership, and it presumes that each level of beekeeping represents progressively higher education exposure and longer experience times in the business (https://bip2.beeinformed.org/survey/). So it’s easy to see why the Texas Master Beekeeper Program is valuable to Texas beekeepers.

All beekeepers, in all states combined data

 

Let us take a stroll through the beekeeper education currently available in our great state. We’ll look first at the in-person education that happens around the state, which consists of local club sponsored, day-long concurrent seminar events. Next, we’ll examine the bulk of beekeeper education in the state that takes place at regularly scheduled monthly club meetings. Most, if not all, of these educational activities focus on introductory material for beginner beekeepers. A small but growing number of private businesses have entered the market of intermediate and advanced beekeeper education, and we’ll take a close look at offerings and opportunities. Finally, we’ll crunch these numbers and attempt to quantify each category of education in Texas, and then take a look at what the future might hold.

Significantly, the Master Beekeeper Program does not conduct any actual education itself. This is consistent with other “master” programs around the state. Instead, the program defines a framework of curriculum that candidates pursue through existing education infrastructure, and through the use of online resources for self-study. Most candidates seek opportunities in the state, but a few have reached outside Texas for special opportunities. Texas Master Beekeeper Program candidates are required to deliver a certain amount of training content, but that delivery is represented here by the various training venues we address below.

The Big Events

We enjoy five day-long, concurrent seminar formats in Texas. Texas Beekeepers Association provides its annual conference and a “Summer Clinic” that follow this model, with the conference offering additional lecture series prior to the seminar day. These events each draw approximately 350 and 600 attendees respectively and offer 30 or so 1-hour seminars. For ten years now, Central Texas Beekeepers Association (Brenham) produces the biggest show and draws more than 600 people from around the state. Brazos Valley Beekeepers Association (College Station) puts on a smaller event in the fall with approximately the 400 attendees. In January, Austin Area Beekeepers Association attracts about 400.

The day-long concurrent seminar event is obviously popular across the state, but it’s not without drawbacks. With formats that limit lectures to 50 minutes, these seminars eliminate the possibility of delivering intermediate or advanced training. Brazos Valley Beekeepers has taken steps to abate this limitation by extending the time allotment to 90 minutes for a few lectures, and building in “extra time” between lectures which allows a speaker to “run long.” This is a significant improvement over the rigorous 50 minute lecture-10 minute room set up that is always a scramble.

The format notwithstanding, some “intermediate topics” are always listed on the schedules. Consider, however, queen rearing. Raising top quality queens is no joke, and it takes time to learn. The state bee lab spends an entire day (in May) on just this very topic. If you’ve ever sat in on a 50 minute queen rearing workshop, you know it is necessarily limited. The topic is so important, and so varied and complicated, that it’s often a train wreck to compress it into just 50 minutes. IPM techniques, Nutrition, Pest Management, and other topics suffer the same trouble. The topics are breezed through, questions are cast aside, and the schedule pushed hard and fast – indeed, the next class starts as a speaker is sometimes wrapping up. The result of the format is that an “intermediate” topic like queen rearing, becomes an introductory or survey lecture on a far deeper subject than could ever be covered in the time allotted.

It goes without saying that this format provides almost no hands-on experience. The Brazos Valley school offers some field experience at their school, and recently partnered with the bee lab to expand upon that experiential learning opportunity.

Despite these criticisms, these events are wildly successful and very highly regarded by beekeepers, as they should be. The vast majority of attendees at these events are beginners, sent by their local club leaders. And the events are ideally suited to these learners. Each seminar does an excellent job of catering to the beekeeper who is just beginning on a long journey. Short topics from colony organization, basic biology and behavior, basic skills, and installing a colony provide exactly the guidance needed at this critical stage in beekeeping.

We must not overlook that these events are primary fund raising efforts too. Together they generate tens of thousands of dollars in income, and this income in turn goes to support further programming. Most events provide funding to other groups, ranging from the Honey Queen to the Texas A&M Honey Bee Lab. We’ll consider this important funding more in the next section.

Some Small Events

The state bee lab, as mentioned already, offers a single, day-long seminar, “The Art of Queen Rearing”. Invited guest Sue Cobey, certainly an expert in production of the best queens, visits to help with this important workshop. Still, attendees have said that the presentations made at the workshop are often repeats of those made at the seminars, or are not about queen rearing at all (e.g. “Queen Introduction”). Obviously exposure to Cobey is a special treat for beekeepers, and the seminar is an incredible bargain at it’s current price. The day-long seminar is conducted at a comfortable pace and includes a small amount of hands-on activities out in the apiary.

In addition, the state bee lab provides speakers to events around the state. Their staff appear on the seminar schedules on a great variety of topics, including updating on the activity of the lab itself. Beginning in 2017, the lab also served as co-organizers of the Brazos Valley Beekeepers fall seminar.

As mentioned above, some regional events donate a portion of their proceeds to the bee lab. These range from $500 to a reported $8,000. These funds enable the lab to offer university courses that serve a few dozen students each year (TBA Journal, 18-1, p. 10) and support graduate studies.

2018 promises an influx of collaborative events and to further expand beekeeper education. In March, Texas will see the first Northeast Texas Beekeepers Conference in Longview. This event is a collaboration between six local clubs and the Gregg County AgriLife Extension Service. The costs of putting together an event such as this are high, estimated at $5000. Such a significant commitment from small local clubs is courageous indeed.

In October, a collaboration between Trinity Valley Beekeepers (Dallas) and Metro Beekeepers (Fort Worth) will add another seminar event to the roster of education. The event, to be held in Southlake, already has a venue reserved and is starting to lay out the plan for speakers and programs.

Each of these two new events faces the challenges of financing the plans. Most local clubs move less than $5000 through their club in a whole year. This may be an area where another group could step in to assist in the initial start up of such projects. Rather than fund the projects outright, another group could back a start-up event with the promise of a loan. We already know these events generate surplus revenue, so the offering of a loan carries little risk, while delivering to the sponsored groups the financial surety to pull off a big event. In the end, the “lending group” would be repaid if indeed the loan was used. It’s likely that the loan would not ever be tapped because of the revenue generated. It would provide only initial funding for expenses that must be paid in advance of registration, and because it’s a loan and not a gift, the sponsored group(s) are encouraged to remain thrifty.

Private Business Offerings

Private industry conducts significant education delivery in Texas. All, or nearly all, beekeeping supply houses in the state provide regular training, usually weekly or monthly. The great benefit of these, usually brief, trainings is their ability to reflect exactly what is happening in local apiaries, and provide quick answers by local beekeepers. It’s difficult to quantify this training, because it’s generally advertised to local beekeepers only. However, it is usually also limited to relatively soft-ball topics in beekeeping.

Bee Weaver is an exception to this rule. Their apiary offers a two day seminar on queen rearing that provides large portions of their curriculum as hands-on training. The queen rearing staff at Bee Weaver is legendary, and the quality of the course speaks for itself.

Gretchen Bee Ranch is preparing to offer up to three intermediate level training courses, including a familiarization with Instrumental Insemination. They expect these courses to be four or five hours each and provide the majority of the time as hands-on experience. Details are not yet released for these exciting additions.

Bluebonnet Beekeeping Supplies also delivers more advanced training by offering a series of courses. They recently rolled out a program series on Queen Grafting and Rearing. The program currently has 3 groups of 6-7 beekeepers looking forward to the 4 week hands on course. Course study covers all aspects from creating a Drone yard to perfecting mating Nucs. Students will be able to perform and supervise their grafts all the way to emergence and mating then gain ownership of the queens they made to use in their own apiaries.

As already stated, firm data on privately offered education is not generally available. We will not venture even a guess about attendance and performance of these offerings, but it’s significant that most or all advanced beekeeper education is offered privately.

The Numbers

The data in this section is reported by club leaders in general, but some of the data is estimates based on experience. For example, seminar attendance numbers are fairly firm, but we estimate here the number of hours each club spends delivering training. Some clubs meet for an hour a month, but many provide much more. For example, some clubs offer two programs, youth programs, etc. The data is clear however. Clubs are a powerful tool for providing education to beekeepers, and they must not be ignored as critical links in this important mission.

You may disagree with these estimates, and we encourage you to copy this table into Excel and play with the numbers. You will simply not be able to make estimates that tell a different story, even by wildly overestimating the seminars, and underestimating the club programs. Nevertheless, you can learn much from examining the data as you see fit, and we encourage you to examine it closely.

 

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Table Notes

1. Attendance data provided by clubs. CTBA is the average of five years. AABA and TBA events are general estimates provided by organizers. BVBA is an average.

2. “Seminars” means the total number of offerings. “Max pp Contact” means the greatest number of seminars a single attendee could possibly attend and is derived from published seminar schedules.

3. Local bee club data is estimated. Attendance varies widely as does club size and meeting duration. Meeting formats include youth programs, field days, etc. We believe the estimates in the table are conservative.

4. In this table we use TBA-reported total of 51 local clubs. We know this to be untrue, but use it as a guide because active club operation is difficult to track or verify. A few new clubs pop up occasionally and a few drop into inactivity too.

Quality and Efficiency

We have already considered the fact that quality is important in curriculum format, however, we must also take a sober look at the type of training we deliver too. At least some of the seminars and no doubt many local meetings might be considered “fluff” by experienced beekeepers. While encaustic painting is interesting, it does little for “keeping bees alive.” We make no effort here to differentiate this judgement and leave it to the reader.

There exists a clear benefit to seminars in that beekeepers make a selection of which “track” to follow across the day’s offerings. This is enormously beneficial to attendees who do not live near robust local clubs, and provides the chance to experience a wider array of training than can be delivered by a single club across the course of a year. Further, it provides a beginner with the chance to partake in several important seminars at one time, rather than waiting on the delivery of individual topics at the local club. At the same time, local clubs deliver a staggering 3 times the total training.

The format at the local level is also problematic. A club’s mission must be to support all local beekeepers, and so the mix of training offered must reflect the several levels of member abilities. At the Coastal Bend Beekeepers, for example, four meetings are devoted to beginning beekeeping, with four devoted to more advanced beekeeping. At least one is aimed at the general public, and the other three fall somewhere in between beginner and expert. For a beginner, it’s a risk that they will miss a key meeting, or that some skill will be delivered after it is needed.

It must not be overlooked that the seminar events are largely fundraising events. Each collects large sums to fund its own programming, and each sends sizable portions to support other programs ranging from TBA to the state lab. The events are extremely successful in each of their intended purposes: education, social opportunity, and fundraising. And of course, fundraising empowers the sponsoring group to provide that much more education in the following year or operation.

Conclusion

The data above suggest that local beekeeper clubs provide the most opportunity for new and growing beekeepers to learn the craft. We must consider the opportunities to deliver critical training “at home.” Local club leaders bear a great responsibility to manage programming as a priority. Too often, club leaders beg the membership to provide programming suggestions. While member input is certainly important, this approach neglects the idea that beginners may simply not know the right questions to ask. So the task falls to us to step up and provide the leadership for which we were elected. Let the club guide intermediate and advanced topics, but never forget the basics that enable beginners to keep up and grow.

Our deficiencies are few. Texas does an excellent job of offering training to new beekeepers. The Master Beekeeper Program encourages a track of learning for beginners that they can follow for their critical first few years. The annual seminar events are popular for good reasons. Our local club meetings provide a powerful state-wide force to foster fellowship among beekeepers who live nearby. They connect those beekeepers who share a common experience in the local climate.

Though we did not examine it directly, you must conclude from this too that each of these educational programs build relationships that are incredibly valuable, perhaps more valuable than the training itself. New beekeepers can meet experienced folks and forge learning connections that last many years. We also did not directly examine the powerful social media tools that allow beekeepers to share questions for experience in near real-time. The connection of people might be our highest achievement in beekeeper education. It is what local club leaders use to drive their own program choices and it greatly expands the pool of talent available to inject outside influences into local groups.

The greatest conclusion from this is simply that Texas enjoys excellent beekeeper education. Together, we deliver a combined 72,000 training “person-hours” to beekeepers of all levels. That is a Texas sized number for sure!

The Future

The popularity of beekeeping in Texas has risen dramatically in the last few years. Although each club must ultimately make their way into the world on their own, beekeepers across Texas should support the efforts of other groups where possible. Already, TBA offers a speakers list from which local clubs can draw for program additions. TBA also offers a small handful of ready-made programs that clubs can download, study, and deliver at meetings. Club leaders are usually willing to chat with other groups about their success and struggles.

But running a club is sometimes tough. The skills that make a successful club leader are beyond what makes a successful beekeeper. Managing a club’s business is critically important. Issues such as banking, state and federal filings, arranging venues, programming, and financing are real challenges for many club leaders. Leadership development is conspicuously absent in Texas beekeeping.

Even established clubs face challenges. The new seminar event in Southlake is a prime example of a program that could potentially benefit from financial backing. Beekeeper education in Texas has now reached a maturity that demands better organization and support of local efforts, regional collaborations, and new events.

Indeed, the numbers suggest that the reach of local clubs is greater than one might expect. Contributing to this is the fact that three of the major regional beekeeping education events, soon to be five, are run by local clubs. Those local clubs send money out of their events to various causes: the Honey Queen Program, the state lab, etc., but there’s a real question of whether the local clubs might put those funds to better use themselves, or apply them to jump starting a neighboring club or event.

We aren’t talking about small amounts of money. These events produce many thousands of dollars for education. Texas beekeepers should carefully consider the effectiveness of the programs they support and consider what the numbers say about reach.

The Texas Honey Bee Education Association (THBEA) is a recent development from TBA. According to Roger Farr, Chairman of the group, “THBEA was founded to solicit funds, pool them, and then distribute them in support of beekeeper education, informing the general public about honey bees, and supporting honey bee research, among other [projects].” THBEA is currently involved with just one project, distributing a $7,000 grant to Texas beekeepers for hurricane Harvey relief. (For details refer to http://texasbeekeepers.org/thbea/apply-for-a-grant/.) THBEA is ready to receive donations by check or Pay Pal and is actively seeking suggested projects. It’s important to note that THBEA has been formalized just a short time now, so their impact will be in the future of beekeeper education in Texas. We are hopeful for their success and encourage beekeepers to contact THBEA directly to lend support or offer suggestions.

One thing is certain. Beekeeper education is firmly rooted in Texas and must continue. While the survey data suggest that beekeepers are making progress in colony losses, that progress appears painfully slow. We must continue to work at providing quality training to new and intermediate beekeepers. We must focus our efforts on improving the quality of training and continue to devote resources to this important mission.

Is a pet-borne pesticide causing problems for your bees?

Fipronil is nothing new. It’s been in fields and applied for along time, but it’s use has diminished in the last decade or so, partly because it is extremely toxic to bees. But today we want to alert you to an exposure you may not consider for your bees.

Fipronil is the active in pet flea meds, like Advantage. It works using a very small amount (a testament to how effective it really is). But that efficacy can harm your bees, and you may have hemolymph on your hands for it.

We don’t think about flea meds, except once a month. We apply it, and it “goes away.” But it does not go away. It’s there working, and you can transfer small amounts to your hands when you pet your dog or cat. That small amount is not enough to hurt your whole bee colony, not at all. But if you pet your dog, then go handle your queen, you can cause real damage.

If you use these products on your dog or cat, keep them away from your hives. Wash your hands before you work in your hives. Make sure your bee gloves remain free from these products.

The Failure of Texas Ag Code Chapter 131

 

Texas Ag Code Chapter 131 sets out provisions for regulating Bees and Honey. This section is characterized by a register-inspect-quarantine-treat/destroy regime that has failed Texas Beekeepers from the start.

Registration under current law is voluntary and free. Registration is currently used for appearing “official” in two regards. First, land owners are frequently required to register the hives on their land in order to establish ag valuation for ad valorum property taxes. The registration is one way in which county appraisal districts can defer to a state agency, in this case Texas Apiary Inspection Service (TAIS) for the purpose of recognition of ag use of properties. Second, the registration is required for Texas Master Beekeeper Candidates for official recognition of their activities in beekeeping. Both uses are somewhat arbitrary.

Bee inspections in Texas are focused on disease and pest identification and management. Historically, inspectors usually focused, as they should, on commercial operations that sell queens, packages or nucs, and commercial pollinators – those perceived as having a high risk to vector disease. For instance, large shipments of bees from out of state arrive on trucks in quantities of approximately 400 each. Their potential to vector disease results from 1) their high numbers, and 2) their migratory nature and concomitant exposure to diseases from a variety of ecologies across the entire continent. Nevertheless, these migratory, commercial pollinators currently vector very little disease into the state as their hives are heavily and frequently treated for disease and pests.

Resident beekeepers are occasionally inspected and the results are similar to migratory operators. Economic realities force these operators to carefully monitor and treat their hives.

Hobby beekeepers are seldom inspected as part of the state inspection program, but any beekeeper may request an inspection. These requested inspections require a fee (currently $75) and the results are dramatically higher levels of disease and pests. According to TAIS, for example, the average mite counts for commercial or sideliner operations is 1.8-1.9 mites per hundred bees. The same metric for hobby beekeepers was 5.7, approximately 3 times the level of professional beekeepers.

The mere idea of a quarantine of honey bees is absurd. Bees can not be confined to a geographic area of course, because they’re free to fly. When they forage they will encounter and/or spread whatever diseases or communicable pests that are present in the local ecology. It is also pointless to “quarantine” managed bees when they are surrounded by high densities of feral colonies that will vector any disease or pest around the managed colony quarantine.

This point can not be over emphasized. A leading entomologist at Texas A&M University has written, “As someone who has worked with invasive species my entire career, I can’t think of a single instance where a quarantine stopped the spread of any invasive insect or plant.” He also recognized that feral bees play a critical role in vectoring any pest or disease around “quarantined” managed colonies. “…when Africanized bees first were detected in the State I would have argued vehemently against any quarantine effort. It would not stop Africanized bees and it would only waste resources [and]…feral populations of bees in some parts of the state are more dominant than managed bees.” This was exactly what happened with Africanized bees in Texas. These costly and damaging measures must be considered in the context of efficacy, cost to beekeepers, and benefit to the state.

The bee inspector also has the power to order treatment or destruction of hives, and this authority goes hand-in-hand with quarantines. Despite inspector-ordered destruction of thousands of colonies, this dangerous and economically devastating measure has never stopped the spread of invasive honey bee pests such as varroa and tracheal mites. Occasionally American Foulbrood (AFB), a highly transmissible bacterial infection of honey bees is identified and a hive ordered destroyed by inspectors. The apiary is quarantined and reinspected after treatment. The result of this regime, combined with the economic realities of commercial beekeepers, is that AFB cases are carefully monitored and treated before an inspector can make such a discovery. Professional beekeepers, like every other animal husbandry activity, are perfectly capable to monitoring and treating these routine disease cases without the state supervision. Abandoned hives infected with AFB may warrant a bee inspector’s intervention, but feral colonies remain impossible to inspect, treat, or destroy. The inevitable result is that AFB will persist in the honey bee population.

Current law authorizing the seizure and destruction of hives has been abused egregiously in the past. A former Chief Apiary Inspector ordered thousands of hives destroyed in a futile effort, justified by the inspector as necessary to keep Varroa mites out of Texas. A subsequent quarantine imposed by a former bee inspector when a beekeeper advised the inspector of the presence of small hive beetles in Texas caused economic damage to the beekeeper who was forced to identify his live bee products (nucs and packages) as produced in a SHB infested apiary. Did this quarantine and destruction of bees protect Texas from SHB or Varroa? Of course not. They are ubiquitous now as they were then. Was the law applied equally to all beekeepers found with SHB or Varroa? No. Was the declaration of SHB as a dangerous pest or the declaration of a quarantine reviewed by any expert panel? Was it deleterious to beekeeping in Texas? Are we still issuing quarantines for this pest? No, no, no.

The regime of register-inspect-quarantine-destroy has failed for every imaginable pest in the past, and, according to experts, it is likely to fail for every pest in the future. No disease or pest of the honey bee has been halted or contained in Texas. As we’ve already seen, SHB are everywhere in Texas. African Honey bees spread their influence across the greater portion of the entire state, stopped only by climate/ecology in some regions. The Varroa mite is in every colony in North America, managed or feral. Nosema is common in Texas. Section 131 has failed in each of these introductions.

HB 1293 seeks to expand upon this complete failure with more registration, more inspection, and additional authority to declare quarantines and destruction. Along the way, the bill adds non-honey bees to the authority of an ag inspector.

The declaration of disease and pest should be made by experts after consideration of complicated factors in ecology. A single state official should not possess the power to destroy a business. As with the case of SHB, a single inspector may be badly wrong in his determination. HB 1293 does not provide such oversight by experts or accountability of the Chief Inspector.

The mission statement of TAIS says

“The mission of the Texas Apiary Inspection Service is to safeguard the apiary industry of Texas through the application of science-based regulations, educational opportunities and open communication with the industry.”

HB 1293 does not reflect science-based regulations. It builds upon decades of failed policy, while adding costs and interference to beekeeping in Texas.