By Jeremy Walther
Photography by Jody Horton
For those of you with an already-full plate and a love for new projects, a warning: do not talk to a beekeeper. Their passion and love for bees is captivating, genuine and completely contagious. In other words, if you’re susceptible to such hobby siren songs, stay far away from Brandon Fehrenkamp, owner of Eastside Honey Company.
“After eight years of keeping bees and doing live removals, still one of my most favorite things to do is set up a chair by the hives, open a beer and just watch,” says Fehrenkamp reverently.
“The way their movements change each season…monthly…even throughout a day, the organizational hierarchy in each hive, the distinct flavor of honey sources from different parts of town…bees are absolutely fascinating.”
Fehrenkamp goes on to describe how the flavor of local honey is manipulated and morphed to reflect a particular environment. “Forage sources for bees change as the vegetation changes across the Blackland Prairies to the east, the Balcones Escarpment to the west, urban areas in the city’s core. So when you taste fresh honey from a specific geographical place, you are literally tasting the landscape.”
Sometimes a specific plant can even be identified as the main food source for a hive. “I did a hive removal from a house in North Austin once and noticed some of the comb had some honey,” Fehrenkamp continues. “It tasted exactly like agave nectar. Sure enough, there was a massive agave in bloom just down the street—the obvious source of forage for this particular hive.”
Eager as Fehrenkamp may be to wax at length about the nuances and complexities of bee culture, he’s also quick to note that beekeeping is pretty simple and that almost anyone can do it. “With basic equipment and a thoughtful plan, people can manage a hive to produce their own honey just about as easily as taking care of a dog,” he says. “But before you do anything, make sure you have the right safety equipment, and set up an exit strategy.”
Meaning: plan for anything. People can have allergies to bee stings without knowing it or experience a life change that forces a move, for example. By networking early on with local beekeeping groups and experienced beekeepers, beginners can not only lean on a support system as they get started, but rest easy knowing they’ll have a new home for the bees (i.e., an exit strategy) if one is ever needed.
As an architect, yoga instructor, pool cleaner, house painter and gardener, Richard Woodbury has his fingers in a lot of different pies—but as a beekeeper and avid bee enthusiast, those pies are probably sweetened with honey.
“I actually started my first beehive out of concern for plants and the sudden decline in pollinator populations,” Woodbury says. “But after regular time observing bees, watching them do what they do, I was hooked. I became an activist for bees.”
Woodbury concurs with Fehrenkamp that, for first-timers and pro beekeepers alike, safety is most important. “Coverage for arms and legs, a veil and a good smoker come first,” he says. “It’s very difficult to work with bees without the confidence that safety gives you.”
Beyond safety, consideration for neighbors, family members and even the bees themselves falls next in line. City of Austin code allows for beehives on residential lots, but it requires a dedicated water source to prevent bees from congregating around other sources, like a neighbor’s birdbath. And a colony may not be kept if it “interferes with normal use and enjoyment of public or private property.”
“Talk to your neighbors; give them as much information as you can to try to alleviate any stress they might experience just thinking about bees living next door,” suggests Woodbury. “Hives should be located in a shady spot,” he continues, “where they are both accessible and safe—so next to a patio would be a no-no, for example, but perhaps behind a vegetated area.”
Once the proper safety equipment is secured, a beekeeping network is established and the perfect place is located, it’s time to purchase or build a hive. There are basically two types of hives: conventional box hives (known as a Langstroth hive—named for 19th-century apiarist, clergyman and teacher Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth, who is considered the father of American beekeeping) and top-bar hives. Langstroth hives consist of a series of square wooden frames hung inside a rectangular box, often with manufactured wax sheets that are already stamped with cells. These cells serve as the foundation that the bees will draw comb onto. A top-bar hive is more trough-like, and instead of square wooden frames with cells already in place, bees draw out their combs with cell sizes of their own dimensions, using wooden bars that span the top of the box as a guide to keep each comb straight.
“For those on a budget, I generally recommend a top-bar hive,” says Woodbury, “because it can be built relatively easily with scrap material. But there is less internal structure in a top-bar hive, which makes a Langstroth hive a little easier to work, because the foundations are already in place and don’t require such delicate handling. Really, both work well—it just depends on personal preference.”
No matter which hive structure is selected, a hive tool (or improvised hive tool) is needed to handle the frames and monitor the combs. A hive tool, or wedge tool, is a flat bar of metal with a hook on one end that helps grab individual frames from a hive, though Woodbury notes that a large flat-head screwdriver works well in a pinch too.
Once the hive is built, it’s time to find some bees.
“There are three options,” explains Woodbury. “One: capture a swarm; two: split an existing hive; or three: purchase a nucleus hive from a professional supplier, which usually includes a set amount of bees, by weight, plus a queen. The last is by far the easiest and safest option, but availability is usually limited to certain times of the year.”
The importance of timing is also emphasized by Konrad Bouffard of Round Rock Honey. “The best time to select a location for a new hive is January,” he explains. “Hive boxes should be set out in February. Generally speaking, the best time to transplant bees into a backyard hive is in late March or early April.”
One of the most reputable Texas sources for bees is the Weaver family in Navasota, which has been in the bee business since 1888—when Z.S. Weaver received 10 bee colonies as a wedding gift. R Weaver Apiaries and BeeWeaver Apiaries specialize in chemical-free bee production and queens with heritable traits for mite resistance. They supply queen bees, packaged bees, bee supplies and honey, and are a great option for beekeepers who want to manage hives without the use of chemicals.
New beehives greatly benefit from supplemental food and water sources as the colony establishes itself. “In Texas, it’s critical that the bees be close to water,” says Bouffard. “A creek, or even a dripping faucet in the backyard, works great.” And Fehrenkamp notes that plain sugar water works well as a temporary food supplement for new hives. “I use mason jars that fit on top of a hive box,” he says. “Just plain white sugar is good; raw sugar, like turbinado, isn’t easily processed by bees.”
There are very few limitations to raising bees in Austin, and plenty of local honeybee advocates to help along the way—but as in all things, consideration for the bigger picture is important. Dr. Jack Neff, considered the native bee expert of Texas, points out that no honeybees are native to the Americas, and that they have been imported to the U.S. for nearly 400 years, leading to the rapid spread of pests and diseases currently ravaging honeybees worldwide.
One very common pest for honeybees is a parasite called the varroa mite. One mite-infested bee can infect an entire hive, and that infection can quickly spread to adjacent hives. Heavy importation of bees from one country to another has spread varroa mites across the globe—from Japan and Russia in the 1960s to Hawaii and Australia in the late 2000s.
And imported honeybees have the potential to present threats not related to disease. “Honeybees can, in some circumstances, compete with our native fauna for limited floral resources,” says Dr. Neff. “The best thing people can do for bees is to provide more native plants for bee forage.”
The internet is filled with information on beekeeping—some of it dubious, at best. Ferehnkamp encourages newbies to do their homework, keep open minds and try to avoid feeling overwhelmed. “For new beekeepers, I’d say the most important things are to have a solid foundation of basic information from good sources and to be safe,” he says. “Other than that, each individual has to find his or her own way. I’d bet that even the best-known beekeepers in history, like L.L. Langstroth, carried unknown answers about bees to their grave[s]. That’s something I love about keeping bees…it’s a journey of a million questions.”
Texas Beekeeping Association, for bee research in Texas: texasbeekeepers.org
Austin Bee Helpers: web.me.com/jackmills
Bee Source: beesource.com
The Bee Space: thebeespace.net
BeeWeaver Apiaries: beeweaver.com
City of Austin beekeeping code: ci.austin.tx.us/health/eh_ch-3-6_beekeeping.htm
DIY Beehive: diybeehive.com
Eastside Honey Company: austinbees.com
Living Off the Grid: livingoffgrid.org/top-bar-bee-hive-perfect-for-backyard-beehives
Round Rock Honey (beekeeping classes): roundrockhoney.com
THE SWEET STUFF
Our love affair with honey goes way back. Humans began hunting for honey at least 10,000 years ago, and have prized the amber nectar for its sweetness as well as its symbolic and medicinal properties ever since. More than just sweetness, honey brings an earthy complexity reminiscent of its floral source to dishes in which it’s used. True wildflower honey has a diverse pollen profile, typically has great body, color and a complex aroma, and if locally sourced, may guard against seasonal allergies.
Honey’s hue ranges from almost white, to amber, to a rich dark brown, but color isn’t always an indicator of flavor concentration—some mild-flavored honey can be quite dark, while some of the most intensely flavored honey can be almost white. Generally speaking, though, the darker the honey, the higher the mineral content and the higher the aroma and flavor levels. Whatever its source, honey represents a captured place in time, a gift of sweetness from the bees and the promise of flowers and fertility in the coming year.
HONEY ICE CREAM
Makes 1 quart
2 vanilla beans
2 c. heavy cream
1 c. whole milk
½ c. honey
Cut the vanilla beans in half lengthwise and scrape the seeds from the pods with the blunt edge of a knife. Stir the vanilla seeds and scraped pods into a pot with the cream, milk and honey. Heat over moderate heat until the honey melts and small bubbles form around the edge of the pot. Remove from the heat, cover and steep for 1 to 2 hours. Remove the vanilla bean pods and refrigerate the mixture until completely chilled—overnight if possible. Stir the mixture again and freeze in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions.
HONEY-GLAZED GRILLED PORK CHOPS
½ c. honey
¼ c. olive oil
¼ c. apple cider vinegar
1 T. minced garlic
2–4 t. herbes de Provence
1 t. salt
½ t. pepper
4 bone-in pork loin chops
4 red onions
Combine the honey, oil, vinegar, garlic, herbs, salt and pepper in a shallow bowl. Add the pork, turn to coat and refrigerate 2 to 4 hours, turning occasionally. Remove the pork chops from the refrigerator 30 minutes before grilling.
Prepare the grill for a medium-hot fire with an indirect heat area (build coals on one side of the grill). Slice the onions into ½ to ¾ inch-thick rounds. Remove the chops from the marinade and boil the liquid for 1 minute. Taste and add salt if necessary. Grill the chops over indirect heat until cooked to desired temperature, brushing them with the marinade as they grill.
Grill the onion slices over direct heat, brushing them with the marinade as they grill. Once the onions are well marked and beginning to soften, move them to indirect heat to finish cooking. When the chops are cooked, remove from the heat and let rest for 15 minutes before serving. Serve the chops with grilled onions.
FRESH MELON SALSA WITH HONEY
3 c. diced melon (any combination)
6 T. lime juice
¼ c. honey
¼ c. diced red bell pepper
1½ T. finely chopped cilantro
1 T. seeded, minced jalapeño pepper
½ t. salt
Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and mix well. Refrigerate overnight to allow the flavors to blend. Serve with grilled shrimp, fish or chicken.
HONEY THYME MUSTARD
Makes 1½ cups
1 c. Dijon mustard
½ c. honey
1 t. crushed dried thyme leaves (or 2 T. chopped fresh)
Whisk together all ingredients in a small bowl until well blended. Transfer the mixture to an airtight container and refrigerate until ready to use. Serve with pretzels, sandwiches, grilled sausages or brush on pork before grilling.