Sunday, July 14, 2024

The Buzz on beekeeping in Hood County: a sweet tradition

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In the tranquil landscapes of south Hood County, amidst the tranquil breeze and blooming wildflowers, Kirk Kirksey enriches his life while contributing to the local ecosystem as a small-scale beekeeper. "We sell some honey every year. We occasionally sell bees," he says.

 

Married for 52 years to his beloved wife, Joy, the Kirkseys have two grown children and two grandchildren. A Master Gardner, Joy is no stranger to outdoor pursuits and supports their beekeeping venture, even feeding the bees if need be. Together, they extract and bottle the honey post-harvest.

 

What inspired Kirksey, a retired healthcare computer executive who loves new experiences, to start beekeeping? Eight years ago, he faced health challenges that limited his mobility, leaving him unable to continue previously enjoyed sporting activities. "I read a lot about beekeeping and had a friend who was a beekeeper. It looked like something I could study and do, so I bought six hives," explains the retiree.  

 

Kirksey invested in essential tools and equipment needed for his budding enterprise, such as the hives — "the physical structure where one hopes the bees will live," he says, adding, "Obtaining bees and tools like protective gear (suit, jacket and gloves), a hive tool, and a smoker were next." Each element plays a crucial role in ensuring both the beekeeper and the bees thrive in harmony.

 

Italian honeybees are Kirksey's choice. He feels they are better adapted to our climate and environment, whereas beekeepers in the northern U.S. may prefer honeybees better adapted to cold weather. He acknowledges that other types of honeybees often appear in his hives. 

 

Bees can be kept in a backyard or a rooftop, but safety should be a prime consideration. Children, pets, and service persons playing or working near a hive can be at high risk of being seriously stung. Kirksey warns, "Honeybees can be very, very aggressive (and unpredictable) at times."  With safety measures in check, soon, his backyard was a haven for the hardworking pollinators.

 

"Getting stung occasionally, I will say, just goes with the territory," admits Kirksey. "However, good quality protective gear, if used correctly, will eliminate most stings." 

 

Yet, beekeeping is not without its stings and surprises. The beekeeper recounts a memorable moment — he got too close to the hot metal when lighting his smoker, which resulted in a small hole in the veil (face netting) of his bee suit. "…the bees," he says, "found the hole instantly. I got several stings on my face. I learned quickly that if bees are in your bee suit, running away doesn't do much good."

 

THE RIGHT QUEEN

 

"The life of a honeybee begins with the queen," Kirksey says, 

"She's responsible for laying up to 1,000 eggs a day during spring and summer. These eggs hatch into larvae, which then develop into capped pupae. Finally, they emerge as mature worker bees.”

 

Beekeepers constantly must check to ensure the queen is present and healthy and that worker bees are developing as they should. "A healthy hive is often referred to as "queen right." Worker bees, who live for about 45 days, have various tasks inside the hive before spending the last two weeks of their lives outside, foraging for pollen, nectar, water and resin which they use to make propolis — the “glue” bees use to reinforce hive structure and provide protection against pathogens.

 

Beekeepers have special tasks to attend to each season. The following dates are approximations and depend on local environmental conditions.

 

Throughout the year, beekeepers have distinct responsibilities with the changing seasons. Kirksey explains during the first bloom period from Winter Solstice to mid-May, "the queen resumes egg-laying after winter lull. Bees gather pollen from small blossoms to convert to larval food. Populations inside hives explode as new worker bees are born. Hive peak population could reach 20,000-30,000 individuals." During this time, beekeepers may need to supplement honey stores with sugar syrup, adjust hive configurations to prevent swarming, and treat varroa mites to maintain hive health.

 

In the season of nectar flow (mid-May to the end of June), large nectar-bearing blossoms appear. Bees bring home nectar to convert to honey, and beekeepers may split hives to prevent swarming.

 

"The summer dearth beekeeper season is June to mid-September," Kirksey says, "The dog days of Texas summer have burned up most wildflowers. Bees may gather "honeydew" from oak and pecan trees as a nectar substitute."

 

 In winter prep, mid-September to Nov. 1, bees conserve resources, and beekeepers prepare hives for colder weather. Bees reduce their population to around 8,000. "In our area, honeybees must have 20-30 pounds of honey inside the hive to survive the winter," says Kirksey.

 

Finally, during winter (mid–November to mid-March), bees cluster to keep warm, allowing beekeepers a break from active management.

 

Understanding these cycles is crucial for beekeepers to maintain healthy colonies year-round. Honeybees use a complex biochemical process to transform plant nectar into honey. The last step requires them to reduce the water content to less than 18% and seal it with a wax cap. Beekeepers extract honey by removing wax caps from frames, which are then spun in an extractor to remove honey. Extracted honey is strained to remove beeswax. Lastly, the Kirkseys only bottle their honey in glass jars.

 

When asked about the most memorable moment in his beekeeping experience, Kirksey answered, " … the first time I tasted honey fresh from my own hive."

 

CONTROVERSY

 

Beyond the honey harvest, hive caretaking and inspections, Kirksey recognizes that environmental conservation and biodiversity are very controversial issues. He emphasizes the vital role honeybees play as mass pollinators.

 

"Honeybees and other insects share the same problems, mainly loss of habitat and the poisoning of food sources with pesticides and herbicides. Insects/pollinators — not just honeybees — benefit from the scientific and political effort to solve these problems."

 

 Beekeeping is exciting and can be done in different ways, whether you're a big business or someone with a few hives. But it's easy to underestimate how much time, money and know-how it takes. Many new beekeepers need help, with about 70% failing in their first year. 

 

"The essence of beekeeping is problem-solving. There is no cookbook formula for success. In many ways, successful beekeeping relies more on the resilience and adaptability of honeybees than on the beekeeper's skill. There is always something new and often surprising to learn. Beekeeping is a continual learning/trying journey. There will be failures. There will always be successes." After all, as Kirksey aptly puts it, "Ask three beekeepers the same question, and you'll get five different answers. Each answer will start with 'It depends … ' Many things work. The key is finding what works best for you."

 

CONTINUALLY LEARNING

 

As the president of the Glen Rose Dino-Bee Beekeeping Club, Kirksey and other local beekeepers learn from one another and promote beekeeping practices. He is also a board member of the Texas Honeybee Education Association (THBEA), which is part of the Texas Beekeepers Association. Kirksey says, "We are committed to promoting beekeeping education across Texas. Clubs like ours try to give people a clear picture of what beekeeping involves, both the good parts and the tough parts." 

 

Through teaching, workshops, mentorship programs and community outreach, Kirksey is honest about the work, risk and money involved. "It might sound discouraging," he says, "but it's important to know what you're getting into if you want to succeed in beekeeping."

 

If you are interested in more information about beekeeping and classes, visit www.dino-bee.com or on Facebook.