Texas Beekeeping: Have Pollen, Will Travel

"A honeybee's lifespan varies. They live until their wings wear out."

For generations mothers have told their children, "You leave the bees alone and they'll leave you alone." And while that's generally good advice, it's a warning Chris Moore, and other Texas beekeepers, can't afford to heed. Moore has to keep his millions of bees' stingers on the move. They spend January and February pollinating almond trees in California before heading back to Texas where they feed on melons and sunflowers around Lubbock during the summer before returning home to Houston to rest and recuperate for the winter before starting their migration again.

Black market honey has turned Moore and his bees into gypsies, selling both their sweet secretions and their pollen transport services.

"You can't really stay home and make one honey crop and make a living anymore," explains Moore, who's been keeping bees for twelve years. Competing on the world honey market is tough in Texas because bees in the Lone Star State don't generally produce the light, clear honey that's used on most tables.

"Our honey is dark and very strong," Moore says. "It's what's called 'commercial grade,' mostly used by bakeries."

Sticky Competition

And bakeries use a lot of it, tons at a time, creating a hotly competitive market for the sticky stuff. And where there's competition, there's cheating. Despite tariffs to keep foreign honey from being dumped in the U.S., some users buy their honey illegally, keeping prices low and forcing U.S. beekeepers to look for additional revenue sources.

Just like Moore, beekeepers from all over the country rent their bees to California almond growers every spring. With 800,000 acres of almond trees, requiring two colonies per acre, Moore estimates two thirds of all the bees in the United States spend part of January and February on the west coast.

At an average of 20,000 bees per colony, that's 32 billion bees. And while it's profitable, the process is difficult for the beekeepers and hard on the bees, especially those from Texas, home of the red imported fire ant.

California farmers want billions of bees but no fire ants. That presents a pair of problems for Texas beekeepers. Bee populations are usually at their lowest in winter since there's little food available. The pallets bee colonies rest on are perfect habitats for fire ants. First, Moore must build up his bee population and then make sure the 1,400 hives he sends to the west coast every year are ant free, either by cleaning or replacing the pallets they rest on.

"Queen bees lay eggs according to the resources that are coming in as far as nectar and pollen," he explains. "In the springtime, she'll lay 2,000 eggs a day. In the fall, she may cut back to 500 or even 100. So what we do is manipulate her into thinking it's spring and there are plenty of resources coming in. We give them a protein supplement and feed them sugar syrup so they think there' nectar coming in to keep the queen in production so come January, when we grade the bees to go to California, there'll be enough in each box."

Once Moore has his colonies populated and cleaned, transporting them to California is yet another challenge. It's not like he can just shrink wrap 28 million bees and drop them in the mail.

It's All in the Timing

Bees won't fly at night or when it's cold. That, says Moore, is the key to getting them to the west coast.

"We start loading the pallets on the flatbeds at night so we'll finish just as it's getting light," Moore explains. "You want the trucks loaded and full of fuel just as the sun's coming up so they don't have to stop during the day. It's not really a problem in the winter when it's cold during the day, but in the summer, you can't stop.

"We're pretty careful about who we hire. All the beekeepers and truck drivers know each other. If one of them sees a truck full of bees parked during the day, he'll let us know about it. You have to keep the air moving over the colonies during the day. That's enough to keep the bees from flying.

"Once that truck starts rolling in the morning, it has to keep going until dark. If it's a 600-mile trip, that's okay, because you'll be on the road all day. But if you only have 400 miles or so to go, you might have to drive 45 or 50 miles an hour all day to make sure you arrive at your destination after dark."

Moore says beekeeping is much like dealing with any other livestock. There's feeding, watering, population management, harvesting and, in the case of bees, massive mortality.

"Honey production runs anywhere from 200,000 to 300,000 pounds a year. But our production hasn't been good for the last five years or so just because we're having so much trouble keeping the bees alive."

Moore lost more than two thirds of his 1,800-colony swarm between September '06 and January '07. And while global warming gets the blame for most bee colony collapses, Moore says there are a number of factors.

No Smoking Gun

"There's not one smoking gun. The biggest thing is a new virus the bees weren't used to they believe was brought over by Australian bees they were bringing in to pollinate almonds in California. They've since banned those bees.

"And the Varroa mite has been going on since the late '90s. It's a big host to a lot of these viruses because it travels from a bee colony to a flower and then another bee will land on that flower and take it back to its colony. And you can imagine when you have 1.6 million colonies in the central valley of California for a month. It's a huge breeding ground for spreading viruses.

"The mites are very hard to treat because you're dealing with a bug on a bug. Whatever's toxic to the mites is also going to be toxic to the bees."

Moore says the forced breeding to produce bees in January is also taking its toll on animals he says are like a set of tires.

"A honeybee's lifespan varies. They live until their wings wear out. If they're born in the fall when there's not much foraging and no reason for them to fly, they might live six months. But if they're born in the summer when they're flying every day, they might live six weeks. But if a bee's lifespan goes down from 48 days to 40 days, for example, then the whole dynamic changes. New bees don't have as long to mature, and adult bees don't live as long.

"It used to be in June or July you couldn't even see the boxes because of all the bees flying around them. There were just bees everywhere. Now, we're not getting that enormous population anymore."

A Spoonful of Honey

One bit of good news, according to Moore, is the old wives tale about local honey being good for allergies. "That's true," he says. "When bees land on a flower, they pick up whatever kind of pollen is on the petals. That's going to include allergens that have settled there. That pollen gets turned into honey and that honey has minute traces of the allergens in it. Eating a tablespoon of that local honey everyday means you're getting tiny doses of the local allergens. By doing that, you'll build up a tolerance for those allergens."

Honey Packed Peaches

  • 2-3/4 cups water, divided
  • 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 5 pounds peaches, peeled, pitted and cut into wedges (apricots or nectarines may be substituted)
  • 1-1/4 cups honey
  • 2 tablespoons vanilla extract
  • 6 small strips lemon zest

In a large bowl, mix 1/4 cup water and lemon juice. Stir fruit in gently, coating all pieces. Set aside.

In a small saucepan, bring honey and remaining water to a boil. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla. Cover pan to keep contents hot.

Pack fruit gently into six hot sterilized jars, filling to 1/4 inch from top of jar, and place a piece of lemon zest in each jar.

Fill jars with honey mixture to within 1/4 inch of rim. Wipe rim and place caps.

Makes 6 pints..