When local meteorologists began warning about Winter Storm Uri, Dan Brantner knew he had done all he could to ensure that his beehives at the Texas Honey Company in Plano were fortified for the storm. As a master beekeeper, Brantner understood how dangerous the freeze could be for the bees.

Beekeepers begin preparing for winter storms in the fall. For Brantner, part of that preparation involves ensuring that his 14 bee colonies are facing south to block the cold north winds and are fortified them with 40-60 pounds of honey inside the boxes. After an afternoon spent fortifying them, he closes the lid to the boxes holding the beehives. He knows that opening the hive just for a peek was not an option. Letting in cold air would be detrimental to his hives. It’s also the reason he reduced the size of the entrance into the hives. 

In Josephine, about 25 miles east of Plano, John Talbert, the owner of Sabine Creek Honey Farm, had shipped his stronger bees to California to pollinate almond crops. His weaker bees stayed behind to face the coming storm.

Like their bees, both Brantner and Talbert had to ride out the storm and hope for the best.

“When it gets cold, bees cluster together real tight,” Talbert says. “Bees have the unusual ability to disengage their wing muscle from the wing and move it. It’s like they’re running in place to create heat, and this helps to conserve energy. They get close around the center of the hive and the queen and work to keep the center of the hive at 95 degrees, and the outer perimeter of the cluster has contact with the honey; that way they can get to the honey and get energy to keep warm.”

If bees can’t reach the honey, even if they are half an inch away, Talbert says they will get hypothermia and die.

Winter Storm Uri wasn’t kind to Texas honey bees. They were already in crisis due to habitat losses and threats posed by Varroa mites, Brantner says, but the most recent winter storm may have exacerbated the problem.

Now the Texas Beekeepers Association is surveying beekeepers across the state to determine the honey bee colony losses suffered during this year’s cold spell. The survey deadline is March 31, and results will be available later on their website. 

Walking outside to check on his honey bees during the heavy snow, Talbert says he could tell just by looking which hives were alive and which were dead.

“On top of the hives that were alive, the snow had partially or completely melted from the tops of the boxes due to the heat the bees generated,” he says. “I knew the boxes that still had a full pack of snow held dead hives.”

Talbert lost 40% of his honey bees that stayed in Texas. He claims that he has gotten calls from many beekeepers who have faced 30% losses because their bees died from the cold weather.

“Bees — like us right now in this pandemic — we are in the same situation,” Talbert says. “Outside pathogens and parasites are killing off the bees. It is a challenge to not lose only 30% of a colony. Many beekeepers see a 50% loss each year.  That’s bad for beekeepers.”

Dan Brantner, master beekeeper, works in his apiary and opens one of his hives on March 21. | Courtesy of Dan Brantner

Threatened

Across the U.S., honey bees, critical for pollination of flowers, fruits and vegetables, are on the decline. Texas loses 40 percent of honey bee colonies every year, says Dr. Juliana Rangel Posada, Associate Professor of Apiculture at Texas A&M University. 

The decline is due several factors, one being habitat loss. Because of habitat loss, which ties to poor nutrition, Rangel Rosada says there is not enough food available for bees to eat.  

“Honey bees pollinate one third of all the food we consume and are critical for food security,” she says. “Without their help, food shortages will impact the consumer.”

Similar to Brantner, Talbert has seen this habitat loss first hand in his area. He has been working with bees for more than 35 years and has over 400 hives on his farm in Josephine, Texas.

“We used to have small plots of farmland with fence rows and wild flowers,” he says. “Now, we have no fence rows or small farms.”

Population growth, he says, is also having a negative impact. “We also have a new crop of shingles out in Josephine with houses under them. Then there is the pavement. The loss of land is making it harder for the bees and other beneficial insects to survive.”

To combat this issue, Talbert suggests that people plant wildflowers which he said contain the nectar that bees need to survive. 

“So many flowers from the nursery are bred for beauty and they take away from the nectar and pollen production,” Talbert says. “Through propagation and grafting, they breed the nectar out of the flowers because the nectar attracts bugs. And homeowners don’t want insects.”

Master Beekeeper Dan Brantner examines the bees in one of his hives in his apiary on March 21. | Courtesy of Dan Brantner

Pesticide Perile & Varroa Mites

Using pesticides to fend off insects is an additional cause for honey bee decline.  

Both Brantner and Talbert encourage people to reduce their use of pesticides to help the bees. Talbert points out that this will help increase the quality of life for small organisms, which in turn helps with human quality of life. 

“I’m not a tree hugger. I use what I have to,” Talbert says. “But, I also try to minimize my use of chemicals.”

Talbert has also witnessed the devastating impact pesticides can have. His father, a dairy farmer, accidentally inhaled a pesticidal dust as he was pouring it into a paper bag. The dust got in his lungs and destroyed them. For the next 20 years his father was operating at 20% of his lung capacity.   

“That made me aware of how dangerous those chemicals are,” Talbert says. “We don’t think about it, but the more insects we destroy, we also knock out a lot of birds. Birds eat the insects. Other, beneficial insects eat the non-beneficial insects.”

Varroa mites, which feed on bees and carry destructive viruses, are another highly destructive cause of bee decline. Varroa mites which originated in Asia and later appeared in Africa and Europe, were first documented in the U.S. in the 198os. 

“Bees have no natural immunity,” Talbert says. 

Talbert points out that Collin County has a good density of small hobby beekeepers. “It takes a concentrated effort to manage bees in a way that they won’t die,” he says. “In our club, we make sure people are aware of the bee situation, and we ask that people encourage their friends and neighbors to plant wildflowers.”

Despite his losses, Talbert said that he has spent two afternoons checking on his California bees, and they still look strong, and some of his other hives are doing well. The hives are ready to be split in two to create new, strong colonies.

Today Talbert was starting his morning delivering honey from his surviving hives.

“The storm put us a full week behind what we needed to do on our farm,” Talbert said. “But beekeepers are optimistic people. Farmers in general are the most optimistic people in the world.”

Master Beekeeper Dan Brantner teaches children about bees and their hives at the Mountain Creek Branch Library in Dallas, Texas on June 22, 2017. | Courtesy of Dan Brantner

In the Apiary

Hearing about Colony Collapse Disorder and the plight of the honey bee population a number of years ago caught Brantner’s attention. He signed up for a two hour introductory course in 2013, and says he has been enjoying the company of bees ever since. 

He currently has 14 Italian honey bee colonies, and thankfully, they all survived the recent winter storm. Branter plans to add 12 more colonies this spring.

Brantner, along with his wife Donna, now has his own apiary business, offering between 250 to 300 pounds of honey. They also won the Texas State Fair honey competition for 2020.  

“The class was fascinating, and I immediately decided to try my hand at beekeeping,” he says. “I realized that beekeeping provided a unique opportunity to combine my love of the outdoors and the environment with my hobby in woodworking.”

Over the years, Brantner has given beekeeping presentations to various schools and youth organizations. He says the most frequently asked questions relate to bee stings.  “On average, I would estimate that I get stung about 10-15 times a year,” he says.  “I have had as many as 10 bee stings in one day. You do get used to it.“

In the spring, Talbert offers beekeeping seminars at his farm. He’s been offering classes in the springtime for 20 years. More than 1,000 people have signed up for his courses.

People interested in taking up beekeeping could learn more from Talbert, Brantner and others through the  Collin County Hobby Beekeepers Association, which provides information and support for honeybee hobbyists. 

Through the CCHBA, Talbert also offers a scholarship fund so that kids can also be exposed to the art of beekeeping. To date they have had 125 kids and their parents go through the program on the scholarship. 

“We try to expose kids to things they wouldn’t ordinarily get,” Talbert says. “Kids who have gone through our program have gone on to do great things. American Honey Queens and Princesses have been through our program.”

A sign at Burger Fixins in Celina, Texas advertises the sale of local honey. | Local Profile

Local Honey

Rangel Posada encourages everyone to buy honey from a neighborhood beekeeper instead of the grocery store. 

“The neighborhood beekeeper can tell you when the honey was harvested, what flowers the bees may have visited, and they can tell you about their apiary management style,” Rangel Posada says. 

Additionally, she says that honey purchased in a grocery store may contain contraband such as non-honey sweeteners, or may contain some honey that has been illegally imported. 

Brantner also recommends honey from a local beekeeper. “There are a number of very talented beekeepers in Texas and particularly in Collin County who are dedicated to supporting our honey bees and producing great local honey,” he says. “Once you tasted the difference between true locally-produced honey and the typical off-the-shelf honey, you will never go back to store bought honey.”   

Helping Texas Honey Bees

Brantner and Talbert suggest these ideas for helping honeybees and local beekeepers. 

  1. Plant Texas wildflowers and other bee friendly flowers.
  2. Reduce your use of pesticides. 
  3. Support your local beekeepers and buy local honey.
  4. To remove a bee swarm or colony from your property, visit Texas Beekeepers Association to find contact information for local swarm removal companies and other in information on bees and honey suppliers.

Learn More

Collin County has one of the top beekeeping associations in the state.  The Collin County Hobby Beekeepers Association meets on the second Monday each month (via Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic).   

Contact Texas Bee Supply or David Brantner, certified Master Bee Keeper and Collin County resident at 972.365.5592 .  He offers lessons in his apiary.

Take a seminar at  Sabine Creek Honey Farm with Mr. Talbert and his team. 

Visit Texas Bee Supply to find more information on beekeeping and supplies. 

Purchase Honey

Purchase honey from a local supplier mentioned in this article.

Texas Honey Company (Daniel and Donna Brantner).  If you want to be notified when honey is available for purchase, please email txhoneyco@gmail.com.

Sabine Creek Honey Farm  – in Josephine, Texas and owned by Mr. Talbert. 

To find other Texas honey suppliers, Rangel Posada says to visit Rangel Real Texas Honey, a nonprofit organization that certifies and promotes honey only produced by honey bees in Texas. Local honeybee farmers and more information on local honey producers can also be found at Texas Beekeepers Association.