Urban beekeeping is buzzing in San Antonio. Local millennials, baby boomers, and those in between are swarming to courses like Beekeeping Basics, an all-day workshop offered by the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service.
Entomologist Molly Keck, who oversees the beekeeping class, remembers when it started in 2012. “We held it once a year,” she said. Now, the six-hour tutorial for 40 to 60 people occurs once a quarter.
The course teaches best practices for beginners and includes a separate hands-on field day at which students open a hive and conduct routine inspections. The March 29 class has been sold out for weeks and has a waiting list.
“Urban beekeeping is definitely on the rise,” said Keck.
Rick Fink, 62, worked 35 years in medical sales and management. These days he serves as the president of the Alamo Area Beekeepers Association (AABA) and spends most days working with bees. Fink removes and relocates unwanted beehives from trees and attics in town and also mentors newbie beekeepers through one-on-one sessions and workshops.
When he started beekeeping 17 years ago, the AABA had 60 members; today, the organization boasts 150. He estimates San Antonio is home to 350 urban beekeepers who pursue beekeeping as a hobby, often with backyard hives.
Beekeepers cross all demographic lines, but baby boomers and young environmentalists seem to dominate. People in their 50s and 60s who enjoy a sense of community and purpose make up one contingent. Environmentally aware young folks who want to do something to address climate change constitute another demographic.
“It’s one thing to read articles online and read books, but I really wanted to dip my toe in the water and do something,” said Trinity University senior Hannah Elise Konyecsni, 22.
Konyecsni serves as the interim president of the Trinity Bee Alliance, an association of 30 to 40 students who tend two beehives atop the school’s rooftop garden. “I wanted to see what the life cycle is like, what the environmental factors are, and what can we do about it,” said Konyecsni. The bee club recently harvested honey on a cloudy day and the bees “were not happy.” But it was a cool experience, she said.
Cecile Parrish, 29, an urban farm manager at Eco Centro, a community outreach center for environmental sustainability, ranks as a master beekeeper, someone well-trained in apiary skills. She’s planning to stage beekeeping workshops at Eco Centro and suggests the reason millennials are attracted to urban beekeeping is “wanting to find something tangible to do” about pollinator decline.
“A lot of times, people don’t feel empowered to do something, but with beekeeping, you can,” Parrish said.
The surge of interest in urban beekeeping occurs at a time when the commercial side of the pursuit faces serious obstacles. Beekeepers who make their living growing bees, beeswax, or honey have had an especially tough year, with some losing 40 percent to 50 percent of their hives, according to some reports. Varroa mites and small hive beetles combined with a changing climate and colony collapse disorder have caused many small beekeeping businesses to consolidate or shut down.
Texas hosts an estimated 200 commercial beehives, according to Mary Reed, chief apiary inspector for the state of Texas. Reed’s staff of four is charged with controlling disease in commercial operations, focusing mostly on bees that cross state lines, as occurs when Texas beekeepers take their hives to California to assist with the almond harvest. Reed said she’s noticed “huge growth” in small-scale beekeeping.
“In the last couple of years, we’ve certainly had a lot of commercial beekeepers decide they just don’t want to do this any more, because there’s too much stress associated with it,” she said.
Varroa mites are the biggest problem, she and other apiary experts agree. Since the parasites arrived from Florida in the 1980s, they have become the primary threat to honeybees, weakening the population and spreading viruses.
While all beekeepers battle parasites, disease, pesticides, and unpredictable weather,
Liz Rendon, 56, an IT manager at UT Health San Antonio, and her beekeeping mentor, Richard Treviño, were conducting a routine hive check in her backyard across from the Southtown Belgian restaurant La Frite one summer afternoon in 2011 when she spotted an oddly colored honeycomb. “What could that be?” she wondered aloud as bright red and neon green honey spilled from the frame she lifted for inspection.
“That’s Big Red and Mountain Dew honey,” said Treviño.
Even though lush gardens existed close by and the San Antonio River beckoned a few blocks away with blooming native plants, Rendon’s bees were dumpster-diving. Bees will forage for nectar and other sweet liquid carbohydrates wherever they can find them, usually within a mile or two of their hive. “The bees will be lazy if they can be,” said Rendon.
The incident motivated Rendon to move her hives out of downtown to a friend’s property in Pleasanton. Now she tends hives there and elsewhere.
An amendment to the State Tax Code in 2012 has made such arrangements beneficial for urban beekeepers and landowners. Anyone with 5 acres or more can qualify for agriculture valuations on their property taxes by raising bees. Rules vary by county about the ratio of beehives per acre. In Bexar County, landowners with between 5 and 20 acres can raise six to 12 hives to take advantage of the tax exemption.
That’s how Rendon has managed to grow her hives from two downtown to more than half a dozen at two separate properties a 15-minute drive from her house. Most weekends, you’ll find her at “the Luckey,” a 100-acre plot owned by a friend who has granted her beekeeping rights. Another pal encouraged Rendon to set up beehives on his 16 acres to take advantage of the ag exemption.
Rendon finds solace in keeping bees, admiring their “beautifully cooperative nature.” Even though she is allergic to bee stings and wears two pairs of jeans and double sets of gloves to protect herself when she checks her hives, she can’t resist their calming buzz. And sharing homegrown honey with friends gives her a sense of pleasure and peace.
“Even opening the hive is meditative,” she said.