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How a chance meeting helped Texas become the nation’s top beekeeping state

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SAN ANTONIO — Some tips that entomologist Molly Keck recently gave 26 aspiring beekeepers: Beetles might eat the pollen patties meant to feed their bees. Bees might get cranky when it’s overcast. If people drive too long with bees that aren’t properly sealed, the bees might escape into the car.

A student giggled nervously.

Keck, 42, has tight, blonde curls and an upbeat personality and works for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service in San Antonio. She started teaching Beekeeping 101 around a dozen years ago — when a new Texas law made it possible for people with relatively small tracts of land to get big property tax cuts if they keep bees. After that, interest in beekeeping “really kind of exploded,” Keck said.

The Texas beekeeping boom was the result of a chance meeting between a hobbyist beekeeper and a legislative aide for a rookie state lawmaker. That conversation led to the “bee bill,” which in 2012 created the tax break that sent landowners scrambling to beekeeping classes like Keck’s.

The bill garnered limited attention at the time, as lawmakers in Austin were having higher-profile fights over state budget cuts, abortion laws and immigration policies. But it shows how with an interested lawmaker and the right support, a regular person can on occasion influence major change in the Capitol on an issue they care about.

“This has changed everything from a business perspective because now we have people calling us all the time, like, ‘Hey, want to put bees on our land?’,” 34-year-old commercial beekeeper Blake Shook said. “It solved one of the biggest issues from a business standpoint because now we have plenty of places to put our bees, and that’s unusual, or people want to raise bees themselves.”

A Washington Post data columnist digging through the latest Census of Agriculture found that the number of Texas beekeeping operations shot up from 1,851 in 2012, when the policy took effect, to 8,939 by 2022. That was more than the bottom 21 states combined.

Molly Keck, an entomologist with the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension in Bexar county, teaches a ‘Bee Keeping 101’ class in San Antonio on Thursday, May 9, 2024
Molly Keck, an entomologist with Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service in Bexar County, teaches a Beekeeping 101 class in San Antonio. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune
Students inspect a piece of beekeeping equipment during a ‘Bee Keeping 101’ class in San Antonio on Thursday, May 9, 2024
Students inspect a piece of beekeeping equipment during Keck’s class. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

The uptick in interest came at a time when honey bees were suffering nationwide, said Juliana Rangel, a Texas A&M University apiculture professor (apiculture is another word for beekeeping). Development paved over their habitat, pesticides harmed them and climate change fueled damaging storms that washed away colonies and rinsed pollen from flowers and droughts that reduced how much nectar plants produced. A hard-to-abate parasite called the varroa mite fed on bees and transmitted all sorts of viruses.

A staggering 30 to 45% of honey bee colonies still die on average in the country every year, Rangel said. Beekeepers have responded by dividing their surviving hives to make up for the losses.

The Texas tax break brought a boost of needed hope. More beekeeping operations possibly meant more bees, which are critical for pollinating plants that produce fruit and vegetables from South Texas watermelons to North Texas cucumbers.

But the policy also brought concerns in the beekeeping community, because it attracted a swarm of novice beekeepers who don’t always manage their hives properly to prevent disease, and it led to overpopulation in some areas — too many bees in places without enough naturally growing food for them all.

“It has definitely increased the number of interested parties in keeping bees, potentially not for the right reasons,” Rangel said. “Beekeepers are becoming more creative with the ways that they make money.”

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Serendipity leads to the little bee bill

The story of how beekeeping came to qualify for tax cuts begins in 2005, when wildlife biologist Dennis Herbert retired. Herbert oversaw natural resources at the 213,000-acre Fort Cavazos, then called Fort Hood. His office managed recreational deer hunting, stocked fish and tracked other wildlife at the Central Texas Army post. When he left the job, he got into bees.

Herbert, 75, also ran a Texas art store in Troy. As he remembers it, a woman came in one day looking for items to decorate her office. She was Andrea Williams McCoy, the chief of staff for a newly-elected state representative in East Texas, stopping by on her way to or from Austin. Herbert recalled her mentioning that her boss was looking for bills to pass.

“One thing led to another,” Herbert said. “We got to talking about bees.”

McCoy, 53, had raised bees as a girl with her father in Texarkana. She cared for the hives, harvested honey and peddled the honey on her bike around the neighborhood to sell. When she tried to keep bees later in life, she realized the myriad problems they faced.

Herbert later told McCoy he thought bees should be added to the list of agricultural exemptions — a longstanding tax break for property owners who raise livestock or produce crops. He argued it would be more fair to beekeepers, who produce honey and whose bees pollinate crops. He figured it would help spread bees across the state.

Bees are visible inside a hive at Entomolgist Molly Keck’s house during a bee keeping class in Boerne on Friday, May 10, 2024
A hive at Keck’s house during a beekeeping class in Boerne. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune
‘Bee Keeping 101’ class led by Entomologist Molly Keck in Boerne on Friday, May 10, 2024
Students wear protective gear to inspect a hive at Keck’s home in Boerne. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

McCoy was shocked beekeepers didn’t qualify for tax reductions already.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she remembered thinking. “You couldn’t even have agriculture without beekeeping.”

McCoy took the idea back to her boss, state Rep. George Lavender, a Texarkana Republican. She remembered that he thought it fit his rural, agricultural district, and that he explained it to some of his constituents and they supported the idea. Because bees pollinate plants, Lavender figured beekeepers “deserved the same break everybody else got,” he said.

Lavender filed what McCoy dubbed the bee bill. It set a minimum of five acres but left it up to local regions how many hives would be required because the local ecosystems were so varied.

The Texas Farm Bureau supported the bill, and Herbert said he drove to Austin to help convince legislators. He remembered seeing the light bulbs come on over their heads as he explained his reasoning and thinking that they hadn’t considered the issue before.

McCoy remembers that county appraisal districts didn’t like it — another exemption meant less tax money in their coffers. The bill fizzled out and passed instead as an amendment to another piece of legislation.

It’s not lost on Herbert how rare it is for an idea to become a bill and pass in one session. Herbert attributes the bill’s serendipitous success to God.

“It was still all because of the problems that bees were having, the losses that were taking place, and then obviously the importance of bees as pollinators,” Herbert said. “You have to have an incentive for those small landowners; they have something that’s needed and extremely important.

“I was just the goofball that carried it to the Legislature.”

Beekeeping isn’t easy

Bees are a prominent option for getting a tax reduction on smaller parcels of land or rocky land that might not be good for grazing or cultivating — and they aren’t cheap or easy.

The day after her classroom lessons, Keck invited students for a hands-on session checking out the hives at her Boerne home.

Marci Pehl wore a yellow cap with an image of a bee, next to the word “kind.” Bee kind. The cap was meant to keep the mesh of the bee suit off her nose so a bee couldn’t sting her face.

New beekeeping students (clockwise) Marci Pehl, Crystal Treviño, Melissa Bustamante, Dwayne Reeves and Juliet Reeves attend the agrilife extension beekeeping course in Boerne.

Pehl, a 66-year-old who works in healthcare insurance billing, and her husband, Jim, a 74-year-old retired police officer and UPS security manager, were exploring whether they could handle beekeeping on their nearly seven acres just east of San Antonio.

The couple liked the quiet out there, but they hadn’t expected the $4,800 tax bill. Her dad owned the land before them and had received a tax reduction because it was a hay field. She started reading about their options.

“We need to do this because it’ll be a savings,” Marci Pehl said. “But it will be something fun too in retirement.”

The day was overcast, the kind of day Keck had warned them about. The large property felt far from San Antonio with an expansive view of the natural landscape.

“It’s beautiful out here,” said Crystal Treviño, 39, exiting a shed filled with white bee suits. “So peaceful.”

Treviño had bought 11 acres near her parents southwest of San Antonio and hired someone to keep bees on it. She works in government contracting and figured bees were low-maintenance compared with goats or sheep.

Her godsister, Melissa Bustamante, 39, who works for a bank, planned to help Treviño care for her bees as soon as they learned how. Bustamante stuffed her right leg through a white bee suit, then her left. She stood to pull on the rest. Her name — Melissa — means honey bee.

Keck, with her hair pulled back, tugged the bee hood over Trevino’s head and zipped her up.

The group went up the driveway to the hive, looking like aliens in their white suits. Keck took off the hive’s lid. Bees buzzed about.

Molly Keck, an entomologist with the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension in Bexar county teaches a ‘Bee Keeping 101’ class at her home in Boerne on Friday, May 10, 2024
Protective suits hang at Keck’s Boerne home. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune
A student learns how to inspect a hive of bees at Entomolgist Molly Keck’s house during a bee keeping class in Boerne on Friday, May 10, 2024
Students pull a frame from a bee hive at Keck’s house during a beekeeping class in Boerne. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

“They’re not mad,” Keck reassured the students. “They’re just making noise.”

One by one, each student pried loose and inspected the rectangular frames of bees that hung like files in filing boxes.

“Way to go honey,” said Juliet Reeves, 52, as her husband Dwayne, 56, lifted up a frame.

The Reeves plan to build a house on five acres they bought last year north of San Antonio, close enough for their daughter to keep going to the same school in the city but far enough to have a buffer from their neighbors with room to expand. She’s active duty Army and he’s retired from the Army.

Dwayne Reeves thought the bees might help make the land more marketable or a better inheritance. Problem was, they were an acre short to qualify for the tax reduction.

But he wasn’t deterred. He loves honey. In a strawberry shake. On bread. On a spoon.

The bees buzzed louder as the morning wore on.

“I think we could totally do this,” Treviño said, pausing. “As long as we have the suit.”

Business is booming for beekeepers

When some of the many new novice beekeepers in Texas give up, they might call a professional like Gary Barber to tend bees for them.

Some people are beekeepers, and some are bee havers, Barber jokes.

Barber was feeling worn out recently as he sat in front of a mostly eaten lunch. The May 31 deadline to get bees onto property in time to qualify for the tax reduction in Dallas-area counties was approaching fast.

Honey Bees Unlimited co founder and beekeeper Gary Barber moves hives as they prepare deliveries for the night in their apiary in Gainesville on May 24, 2024.
Gary Barber, commercial beekeeper and co-founder at Honey Bees Unlimited, moves hives in preparation for night deliveries at his Gainesville apiary on May 24, 2024. Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune

“That’s why I’m working so hard,” Barber later said.

The 50-year-old beekeeper and his team had signed on to handle some 200 sites. They used a data management system (called “Nectar”) to track where they had already installed bee hives (164 places) and a spreadsheet to show what they had left.

Barber had pretty much stopped looking at emails because he couldn’t keep up. He hadn’t taken time off since mid-March, he said, when they began splitting hives for the season. Even though the weather was hot, he’d been turning on his seat warmer to soothe his aching back.

The night before, Barber and a teammate delivered bees to seven locations, trying not to get the Ford F-550 stuck in the mud. They worked overnight, when the bees are tucked into their hives, moving the bee boxes from the truck bed onto private land. The moon and the red lights on the loader illuminated their work.

Honey Bees Unlimited beekeepers Kasey Needham and  Gary Barber talk over their delivery route of properties to deliver their bee hives to on May 24, 2024.
Beekeepers Kasey Needham and Gary Barber review the delivery route to property owners who have purchased their bees. Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune
First: Gary Barber transports hives under red lights that help calm the bees during the move. Middle: Beekeeper Kasey Needham prepares for deliveries that can last until nearly dawn. Last: Honey Bees Unlimited hives are delivered to a property in Pilot Point.

Barber didn’t go to sleep until maybe 4 a.m.

When Barber and his brother first started their company, he thought beekeeping for others who wanted the tax break would be a quarter of their work. He tried to sell people their own bees, believing the state needed more beekeepers. He was a relative newbie to the business himself. He got curious about the insects after a career in photography, including at The Dallas Morning News.

Now the background image of Barber’s iPhone is bees. The phone autocorrects his spelling of “be” to “bee.” He got a bee tattoo inked on his left shoulder, and another on his left leg. He notices what’s blooming, like purple flowering vitex trees and red blooming yuccas. He calls himself a beek — a bee geek.

After lunch, he drove to his bee yard north of Denton to get more pallets to prep more spots for night-time deliveries. He navigated bumpy roads around the pastel-colored bee hives, hopping out to pick up the pallets where he found them, unfazed by threat of a bee sting. He likes to work without gloves; his hands are peppered with small bee stingers.

Barber went next to pick up an employee, 29-year-old Kasey Needham, and drove to meet their third coworker at a subdivision around Denton. Needham dusted sulfur powder on their legs to fight chiggers. The group dropped two pallets in the grass behind a white fence. They reminisced about past encounters at other spots with horses, donkeys and a llama. Then they were on their way to the next subdivision site.

Honey Bees Unlimited co founder and beekeeper Gary Barber scans bee hives after dropping them off onto a property in Aubrey on May 24, 2024.
Gary Barber scans bee hives after dropping them off at a property in Aubrey. Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune

Beekeeping on other peoples’ land is now a majority of Barber’s business. Sometimes he has to deal with kerfuffles: Bees might flock to a dog’s water bowl. One time a client spilled tea on the porch and complained that it was attracting the bees. But Barber believes the state tax break is helping to restore habitat and build up both beekeepers and bees.

“We love this law,” Barber said. “It’s a gift from the state of Texas. It does so much for the bees. It’s like other ag (reductions); it allows people to invest in the bees just like it has always allowed them to invest in cattle and invest in goats, other livestock.”

Disclosure: Texas A&M AgriLife, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, Texas A&M University and Texas Farm Bureau have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Credit: by By Emily Foxhall, Texas Tribune

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