This is the first of a two-part series looking at the growth and challenges of beekeeping in Houston. Part 2 will be published next Thursday.
Nicole Buergers and I trudge through the tall grass of a Kashmere Gardens backyard. Sporting bulky white jumpsuits, we resemble retrofuturist spacefarers preparing to board a craft into the unknown, though our activities this afternoon are purely terrestrial.
Buergers is tending to the 30,000 to 50,000 bees that comprise this yard's five hives. She slips pine needles into a smoker and lights them, noting their low smoke point, before blowing gentle puffs over a box to calm the bees’ defenses and allow her to check the hive’s hygiene. Curious guards bop against our jumpsuits to determine our threat level. Workers feed larvae and fill hexagonal cells with honey.
The bees flit in harmony with one another as if a wondrous organic machine–a performance worthy of the Alley stage. Their precise specialization also performs a crucial role in Houston’s ecosystem.
“Bringing more pollinators means higher yields on fruit trees, vegetables, and flowers, and that’s really what a lot of my clients want to do,” Buergers says. “They want to make their neighborhoods a better place.”
Houstonians are slowly and surely seeing the benefits of beekeeping and buying natural, local honey. Buergers’ organization Bee2Bee Honey Collective, which has grown considerably since its founding in 2016, and the Houston Natural Beekepers Association, are among those leading the pack in pushing awareness of the hive life.
Bee2Bee started with 20 hives and 12 beekeepers; now, it encompasses 15 sites, more than 75 hives, and more than 50 beekeepers across the Houston area. As the founder, Buergers’ responsibilities include installing and maintaining both private and public hives, representing the organization at farmers’ markets, and providing opportunities for members to sell their harvests to consumers and businesses. Bee2Bee also collaborates with Houston Dairymaids (where Buergers works part-time as a cheesemonger), the South Texas Unit of the Herb Society of America, Urban Harvest, and the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, among others.
Recently, the organization partnered with Councilman Jerry Davis in District B to teach elementary schoolchildren about entrepreneurship, using 10 hives, a community garden, and a chicken coop. Buergers devotes time to multiple environmentalism events promoting beekeeping’s role in conservation and sustainability efforts.
She’s not the only one keeping busy. Also formed in 2016, the Houston Natural Beekepers Association has anywhere between 50 and 70 participants, according to member Dean Cook. That organization stresses beekeeping sans unnecessary and/or harsh chemicals through classes and mentorships.
“Each person defines what [natural] means to them,” says Cook. “There’s parasites and diseases that affect the bees, and some people like to use antibiotics and pesticides or natural treatments. I don’t do any of those. The bees, if we leave them alone, will evolve to adapt.”
Buergers agrees. She also warns against consuming mass-market honey. The mixing and pasteurization processes involved in creating a uniform flavor robs it of nutritional, antiviral, and antimicrobial value, she says. Healthy honey comes bottled in glass for optimal maturation and should be labeled with a way to contact the producers for further information about their hives and practices.
Houstonians may purchase local honey through Bee2Bee, with new infusions debuting every month as part of the Honey of the Month Club. There’s plenty of honey to go around: over a two-week period last summer, Buergers harvested more than 400 pounds.
“Honey is the most concrete example of local terroir—that is the taste of a place—that you can find,” she says. “The 27-square-foot radius around the hive, that’s what the bees are foraging on, so you are tasting the most local thing.”
In a city so massive, the flavors vary from neighborhood to neighborhood. Houston’s terroir may taste of clover, tallow, citrus, and common garden herbs and vegetables, depending on the harvest location. There's only one thing left to do: Taste it.
“Know your beekeeper,” says Buerger. “Know where they’re actually keeping their hives. A lot of people say, ‘It’s local!’ but it could be from anywhere in the state. You’re not really sure unless you have that knowledge or connection to the product or the beekeeper.”