Where Are the Future Beekeepers?

Organizations look to younger generations to help grow the bee population.

By Meredith Nudo January 17, 2019

This is the second of a two-part series looking at the growth and challenges of beekeeping in Houston. Read Part 1 here.

A beehive in Houston, as part of the Bee2Bee Honey Collective.

Image: Sam Franklin

One of the biggest concerns for beekeepers across the Houston area isn’t just ensuring that bees keep the local ecosystem thriving, but that the craft becomes more equitable and continues through generations.

Beekeeper and educator Shelley Rice took up all things apiary after reading The Secret Life of Bees and attending a leisure learning course. An enthusiast of ecologically friendly approaches to the craft, she oversees hives at Lamar High School, Discovery Green, McGovern Centennial Gardens, and other Houston-area locales. 

With a decade of experience, Rice teaches intensive workshops on natural beekeeping. Eager attendees range in age from teens up to retirement. Being a woman in a predominantly male hobby inspires her to share her knowledge with an inclusive mindset.

Attracting more women and youths to beekeeping is a high priority, though traffic and inclement weather closures challenge attendance at the workshops. Her busiest season for high schoolers is the summer because of little competition against school and extracurriculars.

“Sixty-five percent [of beekeepers] are over 50,” she says. “The [percentage] of young beekeepers coming up is 11 percent. That’s just not sustainable.”

Despite this initially disconcerting number, Rice remains positive. New media makes for the ideal conduit for outreach, considering that environment and climate change rank high on the list of concerns for globally minded millennials. Plus, the Colony Collapse Disorder events of the previous decade remain fresh in people's minds, along with news of the decline of local bee populations over the past 15 years.

“I know we’re in a much better position now in 2018 than we were back in 2008,” she says. “The internet and social media have had a lot to do with that.”

The Harris County Beekeepers Association similarly strives to encourage the next generation of beekeepers. At 110 years old, it’s one of the oldest organizations in Texas dedicated to the hobby. It offers educational initiatives, a directory of Houston-area producers, and resources on natural hive control and bee removal.

The HCBA claims more than 100 members and around 50 show up to the monthly meetings, with at least a few complete newcomers showing up every time.

Harrison Rogers, vice president of the nonprofit, turned his interest in bees into a beekeeping practice after attending a farmer’s market in Pearland.

“There’s always new things to learn even though it’s an old vocation,” he says.

Leaving sugar water to feed bees at a Houston beehive.

Image: Sam Franklin

But how does one get started? Even before attending the meetings, enthusiasts can create and tend to gardens that attract and feed bees, in turn helping sustain the local population.

Organizations such as The Herb Society of America provide an easy first step for home gardeners wanting to feed nearby bees. Its classes, research, resources, and events nourish thumbs in all shades of green. For Houstonians who can’t invest in setting up or maintaining their own beekeeping practices, planting even a small patch of herbs outdoors can support people like Rice, Rogers, and their students and contemporaries.

“Almost any blossoming herb is attractive to bees, including oregano, rosemary, catnip, mint, bee balm, [and] chives,” says Dr. Karen Cottingham, program director of the South Texas Unit of The Herb Society of America. She also regularly sets aside some arugula plants to flower and seed. Bees enjoy the nectar from this popular leafy green, and it requires less effort from the gardener to maintain a steady stock.

Planting herbs is also a great way to draw kids into the life of bees. Cottingham recounts a previous Herb Society event educating the community on how the food supply relies on bees and their keepers. With the help of an 8-year-old member, Giselle, the organization sold “Borage for the Bees” to raise money for scholarships benefiting Texas-based college students studying agronomy, botany, and/or horticulture.

“[Borage] is a cool-weather plant that cannot tolerate the Texas heat much past May, but for the fall, winter, and spring, it is a life-saver for bees,” says Cottingham. “An added benefit is that the plant re-seeds … so once borage is introduced into the garden, it reappears every year.”

The borage plants sold out. Quickly.

As for Giselle, she worked closely with Cottingham to plant, water, feed, and groom, all the while learning about the relationship between Gulf Coast gardeners and local bee populations. Her involvement reflects The Herb Society’s role in promoting an interest in plants and ecosystems among promising youngsters, paralleling Rice’s efforts in beekeeping.  

“Some of us in The Herb Society are very interested in introducing children to gardening, cooking, and nutrition, and the cultivation of herbs is a good way to get children interested and involved,” says Cottingham.

Urbanites who care about their environmental impact have numerous options for growing bee populations. Whether they decide upon beekeeping, herb gardening, or a combination of the two, they're not only helping to improve conditions for bees in Houston, but they're setting a precedent for future home ecologists.

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