Bees have long been praised as crucial pollinators of an estimated 33 percent of the food crops around the globe. But the tiny creatures are in precipitous decline everywhere. Scientists, farmers and beekeepers are troubled over what this means for our food supply.
Enter the intrepid beekeepers, who are working to conserve bee populations and, in the process, enjoying the result of their labor — honey.
Stephen Daywitt of China Spring has worked with bees since he was a boy, helping his father and grandfather build the boxes for their hives and installing the beeswax into new hives.
When he was a teenager, a big adventure for him was capturing swarms from trees and other places so his dad could create more hives.
“That’s what I thought was the most exciting,” he said.
Even though swarms can be disturbing to people on whose property they land, they’re crucial to the propagation and are “God’s way of multiplying bees,” Daywitt said.
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Beekeepers such as Daywitt are usually happy to capture the rogue swarms and give them a home, which is exactly what bees are hunting for — a safe haven. They can set up housekeeping in a new place and forage for food after their old hive has become overpopulated and can no longer sustain the number of bees.
A strong hive in the summer can be home to 40,000 to 60,000 bees.
Daywitt has 55 hives and, as vice president of the Heart of Texas Beekeepers Association, he uses his extensive experience to mentor and encourage others in their beekeeping endeavors. He recently brought back several of his hives from East Texas where they were being split. On a Friday night, he distributed 23 of them to members of the beekeepers association, most of them “newbies” just starting their bee colony.
“If you get into beekeeping,” he said, “there can be a lot of satisfaction when you sit down to the table and your family can enjoy nature at its best.”
Daywitt and his wife Liticia work as a team. She helps by bottling and labeling the honey.
Though efforts on their land in McLennan County are small steps in saving the entire bee population, these beekeepers do what they can.
Reasons for Decline
Daywitt believes the decline of bees is directly related to the use of chemicals on crops as well as the genetically altering of seeds.
“It’s because so many of our fields are treated with chemicals,” he said of the problem. Farmers who are growing grass for hay just want the grass, not thistle and other wild plants in their crops.
“They don’t want sunflowers growing in the corn or cotton fields,” he said.
Of course, the thistle and other wildflowers are exactly where bees get nectar and, in the process, also spread the much-needed pollen to other plants and trees.
When bees get into a sprayed field, they can unintentionally carry the chemicals back to the hive, an act that can weaken or kill the bees. The same goes for water that they carry back home from the ditches around sprayed fields.
Daywitt acknowledges that farmers want high crop production, but, “We’re starting to realize that a chemical environment is not friendly to our bees and our insects,” he said. “Not just bees, but butterflies. Our bees pollinate one-third of what we eat. We need our pollinators — we need our bees and butterflies.”
Chemicals aren’t the only problem facing honeybees. There are also beetles and the tiny varroa mite, which attaches itself to individual bees and eventually destroys their vitality.
Daywitt compares the parasite to a flea on a dog. “We have to treat for mites,” he said, “because it’s one of the biggest problems we face.”
Providing a safe haven for the small critters isn’t Daywitt’s only reason for beekeeping.
“Ultimately, honey is good for you,” he said. “My motivation is I enjoy keeping bees and making a harvest. There’s something so enjoyable about being able to keep bees alive. And then in the fall you have a beautiful harvest of tasty honey.”
Though money is not his motivation, he does sell part of his bounty.
“You sell some so you can support your habit (of beekeeping),” he said.
Bee society proves to be a continuing fascination for researchers and amateurs alike. Individuals in the hive know their jobs from the day they hatch, and they don’t swerve from the assigned duties until the day they die. For worker bees, that’s only about six to eight weeks.
Queens can live two to three years, laying 1,100 to 1,400 eggs a day. The drones are mostly good for mating with the queen as they can’t sting or protect the hive. The worker bees usually push them out of the hive to their death when winter hits and food supplies get low.
Not all bees have the same temperament. Some colonies are fairly mild while others can be downright belligerent.
“Each hive has its own personality, and it all goes back to the queen,” Daywitt said. “Usually the more aggressive hives make the most honey. They’re serious about it!”
Bees are so valued as pollinators that individuals and companies often rent hives from beekeepers. Some of Daywitt’s beehives were rented out and shipped from Central Texas on an 18-wheeler all the way to the almond orchards in California to help pollinate the trees there.
At a recent meeting of the Heart of Texas Beekeepers Association, several couples as well as individuals heard a speaker from the Texas Beekeepers Association and exchanged tips on beekeeping with each other. Some of the wives suit up and work with the actual hives. Others prefer to help by bottling and labeling the honey.
Marvin and Martha Moore of China Spring divide the labors of their beekeeping, with Marvin handling the outside tasks and Martha working with the collected honey. The Moores don’t sell their honey, but make family and friends very appreciative with their gifts of the delicious sweet treat.
“I love to give it away,” Martha said.
Helping a neighbor with his bees got Marvin interested in starting his own hives. Last August he harvested 35 pounds of honey from the hives on his property.
Marvin, an Army veteran, enjoys the solace that beekeeping provides.
“It’s so fascinating watching the little creatures,” he said. “It’s unreal how they communicate and deal with everything. They’re so soothing and relaxing. It’s the best for PTSD, and lots of veterans have beehives for that reason.”
Indeed, a nationwide veterans nonprofit organization called Hives for Heroes seeks to help veterans who may be struggling get into beekeeping by giving them a purpose — honeybee conservation — and by providing mentors and healthy relationships.
Though beekeeping is an ancient craft, technology is beginning to make its mark. Martha recently gave her husband a nifty, small camera that’s electronically linked to his phone. He puts the camera into the hive and can then watch the bees’ activities on the screen of his iPhone.
Some beekeepers in other states have begun installing GPS trackers into their hives to combat theft.
Many beekeepers, including the Moores, feed sugar water to their bees over the winter when the flowers are gone. That’s not only to help the creatures survive but also perhaps encourage them to remain in the hives. However, Marvin learned that doesn’t always work.
“Just because you feed them doesn’t mean they’ll stay,” he said.
When checking his hives one day this spring, he discovered that all the bees from one hive were just gone. He’s now replenished that hive.
Another local beekeeper, Jeb Leutwyler, who lives in the country near Lorena, learned about the benefit of bees, and decided to get his own hives in 2018.
“I wanted to do it because Barbara (his wife) had a garden and we have several fruit trees,” he said. “I’d read that having bees around really helps you get a better crop.”
He started with two hives, but after a very hot and dry summer, the harvest was disappointing.
“They produced about two gallons each, which I thought was terrible,” he said. “ But I found out that nobody got much because it was so hot.”
The bees need to keep the hive at about 90 degrees all year round. During hot weather, they expend extra energy just maintaining a constant temperature, and because of dry conditions, there’s less water for them to use inside the hive.
Though there’s a stock pond nearby, Leutwyler also provides water in a container near the hives for his bees so they don’t have to go far to collect it. The creatures will usually fly as much as two miles from the hive to find food and water.
This year he has four hives and is expecting a better harvest than last year.
“I think it’s going to be a good year,” Leutwyler said. “I’m seeing lots of flowers and I don’t believe it’s going to stay that dry.”
He has seen the number of his hives go up and down throughout the years, with the weather being one major factor. From his start with two in 2018, he had eight hives by 2020.
But that winter proved challenging. “I lost a bunch in that big freeze,” he said. He’s now in the process of building up his colony again.
Leutwyler points to the numerous previously strong bee colonies around the world that have collapsed, perhaps because of pesticides.
“Almost all crops need pollination,” he said. “Bees are one of the primary things that pollinate the crops. If we don’t have bees, we’re all probably going to starve to death.” ￼
The Heart of Texas Beekeepers Association is affiliated with McLennan Community College and meets in MCC’s Emergency Services Education Center, 7601 Steinbeck Bend Drive, at 6:45 p.m. on the fourth Tuesday of each month.