Many of us remember a time when we were intrigued by bugs, perhaps from a distance or behind the thick glass of a jar with holes poked in the top. But to actually love bugs continuously into adult life? That’s a special person indeed. Texas native, Austin resident, and Texas Beeworks Founder and CEO, Erika Thompson, is one of those people. Enrolling in a beekeeping class to continue to cultivate this passion as an adult, Erika had no idea she’d be stung by an all-consuming love for bees. One backyard hive turned into fostering 150 hives through Central Texas. Erika’s philosophy of “hives before honey” means that she always puts the bees first, the pollinators over profits. Her goal as a beekeeper is to see bees and beekeepers thrive, not to harvest and sell honey. The honey harvesting misconception is one of many Erika clears up during our fascinating conversation about the beekeeper lifestyle, what it entails, and how she got there. Please enjoy this newest FACE of the South, Erika Thompson.
How did you get into the bee business and what training is involved?
As a kid, I just loved bugs. I spent nights and weekends playing in my backyard collecting any critter I could find. My love for insects continued into adulthood and about 10 years ago, I took a beekeeping class with no intention of ever becoming a beekeeper — I just wanted to learn more about honeybees as a species. Well, I walked away from that class completely fascinated with honeybees and I decided to start one hive in my backyard in Central Austin. Soon after I started keeping bees, people began asking me for beekeeping-related services, and I just started to say ‘yes’ to almost everything. My passion grew into a business very organically, and I went from managing one hive in my backyard to more than 150 hives across Central Texas. After a few years of doing bee work on nights, weekends and even lunch breaks, I quit my office job as a communications director and never looked back! I feel incredibly fortunate to have found my passion and to have turned that passion into a successful business that contributes to the wellbeing of our planet.
Why are bees so important, and what puts them in danger?
Bees and pollinators of all types are incredibly important to our food system and to our ecosystem. Bees are responsible for pollinating one out of every three bites of food we eat, and our world and our grocery aisles would look very different without bees. Apples, cherries, blueberries and almonds are just a few of the foods that rely on bees for pollination, and if the bees go, so do these crops. Bees face a number of threats, but the three things contributing most to the decline in bee populations right now are habitat loss, the use of harmful pesticides and certain diseases and pests — chief among them being the varroa mite, whose scientific name is actually “varroa destructor.”
What’s something that people are often surprised to learn about you?
I don’t sell honey. People always assume that selling honey is how I make money as a professional beekeeper, but it’s not. I earn a living by keeping bees for people who want them on their property but don’t want to be beekeepers themselves; by doing live bee removals; and by teaching classes or speaking at events. I was lucky enough to figure out early on that harvesting honey wasn’t my favorite part about keeping bees … in fact, it always makes me feel really guilty. Each bee only makes 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in her entire lifetime, so I don’t know how someone can not feel bad about going into a hive, taking their honey and selling for their own profit. While it’s true that bees make a surplus of honey, they need it! It’s their food source during the winter when nothing is in bloom.
I’m also a competitive bowler. I was the captain of my high school bowling team, won some bowling scholarships and bowled a bit in college. I still bowl in a league every Wednesday night and in tournaments when I can.
Speaking of honey, can you speak to the “local” honey craze? What’s considered “local”?
There really isn’t a definition for “local,” but I would always suggest buying honey from a beekeeper at a farmers market or one you know personally if you can. Beekeeper insider knowledge: There are no regulations for putting a “local” label on a jar of honey. Many times, the honey may be harvested locally but the hives were shipped somewhere far away for foraging a good crop of clover or something else that allows the bees to make more honey. If you want to help your allergies, the best thing you can do is eat local pollen. There is actually very little pollen in honey. The bees don’t store pollen and honey in the same comb, and whatever pollen you get in a jar of honey is just a byproduct of the hive.
Does honey taste different depending on the season or the flowers around it? Can you freeze it?
Absolutely! The taste of the honey comes from what the bees are foraging and can be different season to season and place to place. There are even people who are becoming honey sommeliers and discerning the different flavor profiles of honey. And, yes, you can freeze it. The composition might change a bit, but it will always be perfectly edible!
What are some common misconceptions about beekeeping that you would like to clear up?
- That beekeepers have to harvest honey. This is just not true. The bees make a surplus of honey to have food to survive off of when nothing is in bloom. Think of bees in the wild. No one is going into wild hives harvesting honey, and those bees are better off for it.
- Male bees don’t do any work for the hive. The Bee Movie is full of inaccuracies and the biggest being that the main character is a male bee, and since the release of that movie, I’m constantly correcting what people think they know about bees. Male bees don’t forage for food, they don’t contribute to building the beehive because they don’t have wax glands, and they don’t defend the hive because they don’t have stingers. They have one job … to mate with a queen, not their queen, and they die instantly upon mating.
What’s the biggest challenge of your job?
The biggest challenge for me is the physicality of the job. People often don’t realize that beekeepers are lifting heavy equipment all day. Each box you see stacked on a beehive can weigh 60+ pounds when full of bees and honey. I’m pretty petite, and lifting box after box all day long in the Texas heat is always a challenge, but I’ve made some adjustments to standard beekeeping equipment and methods to make the work easier for me.
Do you have a story of a huge “win” that’s happened recently?
I recently fulfilled a lifelong dream of being on a game show! In May, I appeared on an episode of To Tell the Truth where a panel of celebrities try to guess who is telling the truth about their job, hidden talent or claim to fame from a group of “imposters.” I was asked to be on the show as myself … a professional beekeeper. It was such an awesome experience and a great opportunity to teach millions of people about bees!
Any tips for someone thinking about beekeeping or new beekeepers?
The best advice I can give any new beekeeper or “newbee” is to listen to your bees. They know what they’re doing and will always know more than you. You can learn so much just by watching them and studying their behavior. As a beekeeper, if you see something amiss in your hive, your first instinct shouldn’t be “what can I do to fix it’?”, it should be, “How can I give the bees the resources they need to solve the problem on their own?”
What’s something you’ve learned from your bees that has impacted other areas of your life?
The bees have taught me how to be fully present in the moment. When you go into a beehive, you’re forced to tune out everything else around you and direct all of your focus and energy on the bees and the job at hand. The smallest mistake could mean danger for you or the bees, so everything you do has to be done with care and intention. Now, perhaps more than ever, I appreciate the serenity of being with the bees.
Where can we find you on your days off in Austin?
On my days off, you can find me camping in my 1987 Volkswagen Westfalia campervan with my three dogs and my fiancé. I try to carve out stretches of time, sometimes just a couple of days, or sometimes it can be a couple of weeks with absolutely no bee work so I can unwind and truly unplug. There are so many great places to camp around Austin and the Texas Hill Country.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received and from whom?
My amazing fiancé always says, “See ball, hit ball.” As someone who is chronically indecisive, this simple phrase has changed my life. Now, instead of spending hours online searching for something I need, comparing it to everything else out there, and reading every review ever written, I see what I need and I get it and move on. This concept has also helped me with my bee work. When you’re in an open hive or doing a live bee removal, you’re on the clock and you have to make important decisions for the colony. The see-ball-hit-ball method encourages me to trust my instincts and follow my head and my heart without second-guessing myself.
Besides faith, family and friends, name three things you couldn’t live without?
The morning sun. I try to never set an alarm and wake up when the earth and my body are ready for me. My bedroom window faces East, and I love waking up to the sun streaming through the curtains. The bees are the same way. When the sun hits their hive, they go off to work.
My yoga mat. I practice every day no matter where I am or what I’m doing. My job is very physical and yoga has helped me build strength both physically and mentally for the challenges of being a beekeeper and running my own company.
Pumpkin pie! I mow through one a week and eat pumpkin pie every morning after breakfast as I finish my cup of coffee.
Thank you for chatting with us, Erika! Follow Texas Beeworks adventures on Instagram @texasbeeworks.