Hive Mind

The buzz about backyard beekeeping

Austin Bees' Brandon Fehrenkamp (Photo by John Anderson)

The masterfully orchestrated, clandestine society of bees eludes complete human understanding. But for nearly 10,000 years, honey hunters have risked body and sanity for another drop, and the ancient vocation of beekeeping still enraptures. "You have this enormous volume of knowledge and stories and anecdotes and legends and lore, all the way up to modern science, which is just adding on to the pile," says Austin Bees owner Brandon Fehrenkamp. "It's not like this is stamp collecting or something."

It's easy to get obsessed. Recently, a surprisingly diverse group sold out an all-day beekeeping seminar at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. True, it's part of the trend toward fully local food systems, but the tiny buzzers seem to inspire particular devotion. Fehrenkamp says, "I think the bees choose you sometimes."

There is, of course, all that honey. "Honey never spoils," Fehrenkamp says. "It will last long after all of us are dead and our grandkids are dead. It will still be edible, but some of the floral compounds and scents and flavors, they fade over time." The sticky, sweet treat has purported benefits ranging from allergy relief to arthritis and multiple sclerosis treatments. It's loaded with antioxidants; it's antiseptic, antifungal, antibiotic, and antibacterial. "In the springtime when the bees are starting to bring some nectar in, go in there and cut out a piece of honeycomb with your pocket knife and just chew it. It's not processed, it's completely fresh and completely raw, and it's amazing," he says.

It's a good motivation for putting on the suit, veil, and gloves. Backyard beekeeping is often the next step after raising backyard chickens. "They go hand in hand with each other," says Fehrenkamp. Three or four generations ago, "we completely lost touch with our food supply," but people are migrating back to knowing the origin stories of our food. "Beekeeping is just a part of that puzzle."

For the budding beekeeper, though, there's plenty of other things to consider. Honey's flavor profiles depend upon the nectar the bees forage, meaning there is mesquite honey and sunflower honey, and crops colored almost white to dark brown. At the Wildflower Center seminar, Texas Master Naturalist Becky Bender discussed pollen analysis and planting pollinator-friendly native plants. Rainfall affects nectar flow, so in a drought year, for example, honey could have a strange taste. "Snow on the prairie makes honey taste like jalapeños," Bender says. In planting, she encourages people to "go a little wilder" because a rainbow of food sources means optimal health and adds, "Things we typically mow are in my honey every year."

There's also the environment to consider. One-third of the food supply depends on pollination, including most crops grown for their fruit – tomatoes, fiber (cotton), hay (livestock feed) – and a type of insecticide called neonicotinoids are known disruptors. Opting for chem-free beekeeping is best. The city of Austin allows backyard beekeeping (with specific regulations), and February is the time to get a backyard hive set up. "Bees are very incognito, if done correctly. It's crucial to have the apiary sited correctly," says Fehrenkamp. A solid safety plan is critical, for humans and bees.

All that may sound overwhelming, but Austin offers a variety of resources for those who have the beekeeping bug. "There's an old saying that if you ask 10 beekeepers you're gonna get 15 answers," says Fehrenkamp. "Very true." Austin boasts a long list of knowledgeable voices, including fellow seminar speakers Tanya Phillips of Bee Friendly Austin and co-organizers of Austin Area Beekeeping Association, Lily Rosenman and Karl Arcuri. Even some inmates of the Travis County Jail are being taught beekeeping.

And those who aren't quite willing to be a backyard locavore can still be part of the buzz. Austin's thriving food scene embraces local, raw, unpasteurized honey – the best kind – from farmers' market suppliers like Round Rock Honey and Austin Honey Co., to restaurants such as Lenoir and Gardner, which feature honey-based dishes and drinks and champion local resources. There's even a new restaurant inspired by the honeybee, Apis – now taking reservations for Valentine's Day.

But there's still nothing quite like doing it yourself. "Beekeeping helps pollinate things in your area, and you'll get honey and wax out of it, but the greater thing is it opens you up to this entire other world that's out there. You start to notice all these things – subtle changes in the seasons, different things blooming, little things you normally wouldn't notice, and can't notice with just your human senses," Fehrenkamp passionately explains. "Every single day you wake up and do [beekeeping], you're gonna learn something new. You're going to go to your deathbed having questions that are totally unanswered about bees. That's kind of cool."

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