A Man, a Plan, and Some Bees
Bee season, Central Texas style
On a warm spring afternoon in a remote corner of Zilker Park, three mysterious figures – puffily swathed in white from head to toe to fingertip – emerge from the trees into a secluded meadow. Are they on a hazmat mission? Refugees from a microchip clean room? Practicing for a space walk? Nope. Beekeeper extraordinaire Konrad Bouffard is leading two guests to visit the hives he recently established as teaching aids for bee classes at the Austin Nature & Science Center.
Bouffard simply loves bees. And it seems that the bees love him, too. Continuing about their business, they calmly allow him to open up the new hives to check on internal housekeeping and the well-being of the queen. "This is a perfect spot," he says enthusiastically. "It's relatively remote and near the river; it's got both sun and shade, and there's a diversity of plants for making wildflower honey. It's a happy place for honeybees."
While gently lifting a buzzing rectangular frame from the heart of the hive, Bouffard points out curious chains of bees, lining up nose to tail. "They're measuring dimensions," he explains. "Bees are little engineers; they're figuring out just what they'll need to make the comb and the honey for this hive."
Along with spouse Elizabeth, Bouffard is owner/operator of Round Rock Honey, a thriving company located in – surprise – Round Rock. Founded in 2002, the company maintains hives scattered all over Travis and Williamson counties for the production of its single product: raw wildflower honey.
Beekeepers define raw honey as that which hasn't been heated higher than the hive's natural temperature and has not been filtered through diatomaceous earth. Wildflower honey is made from the nectar of a variety of plants. Apparently, when you eat local honey, it helps build immunity to local pollens. The more types of nectar in the honey, the more types of pollen you are exposed to. "A single teaspoon of wildflower honey can contain 200 to 500 different pollens," says Bouffard.
"There's no certification for organic in Texas," Bouffard explains. "But several times a year, I send samples to Texas A&M and two other independent labs where it's tested for 6,000 pesticides, ash, and lead and to certify that it isn't adulterated with anything, such as corn syrup. They also test for the pollen ratio and the sugar profile. I want customers to know exactly what they're getting with our honey."
Much of Bouffard's time is devoted to traveling among the hive locations, setting them up, performing maintenance, and extracting the honey to be strained and bottled in the Round Rock warehouse. Bouffard orders Italian honeybees from Georgia, but he also rescues feral bee colonies from private property. In addition, he maintains the company website, works on sales and marketing, and regularly does demos and tastings at food shows and festivals. Oh, and he's a full-time teacher at Pflugerville High School, too.
So how did a social sciences teacher with an education in French and art history become a beekeeper, bee lover, and honey evangelist? "A lot of little things came together," he says. "My grandfather kept bees on his farm near Georgetown. For several years in Bloomington, Indiana, I was a restaurant forager, and I learned to appreciate bees' role in pollinating gardens and wild plants. In Round Rock, we put a hive in our backyard garden about eight years ago. I just started doing it, although I don't necessarily recommend learning beekeeping that way. Then, when the Downtown Farmers' Market started up, I was one of the original vendors selling garden vegetables. My wife had just had a baby, and I was looking for some extra income. I added our honey to the booth, and the business took off from there." Now Round Rock Honey is available online at www.roundrockhoney.com, as well as at all Central Markets, Austin Whole Foods Markets, Newflower Farmers Market, Grapevine Market, the Downtown and Triangle farmers' markets, Red Onion Markets, H-E-B in Round Rock, and several locations in Dallas, where Bouffard has established a franchise. He's looking forward to expanding the business to other Texas cities as well.
But Bouffard isn't content just to produce and sell honey. His mission is to teach people to tend bees. "I'd like to see a hive in every back yard in Austin," he says. "No other insect does so many good things for the community. People don't realize how much better life can be with bees around. In addition to the honey, there's plant pollination in yards and gardens. Hives attract butterflies, too."
So that's where the classes at the Austin Nature & Science Center come in. Beekeeping 101 is a three-session course where Bouffard covers beekeeping history, bee anatomy, the bee calendar, hive maintenance, bee safety, and the best practices for honey collection. In other words, what people need to know to get started. It also includes membership in the Round Rock Honey Company Beekeeping Society, a vehicle for information-sharing and putting beekeepers together with landowners. "Central Texas, especially around Round Rock, is uniquely well-suited for bees," Bouffard maintains. "It's got amazing biodiversity and geography and more than 335 days of sunshine a year.
"I'm still thrilled by working with bees. It's very, very fulfilling, emotionally and mentally. It's the coolest thing I can think of," says Bouffard. Does he have any words of wisdom for aspiring beekeepers? "When working with bees, go slowly, do everything purposefully and respectfully, and the bees will respond in kind." Seems like good advice for just about any enterprise.
For info about Beekeeping 101 at the Austin Nature & Science Center, contact Konrad Bouffard at email@example.com.