It’s a warm, sunny morning in Austin’s North Loop neighborhood and Tara Chapman is happy to be outside. As the owner of a small business, much of Chapman’s work life is spent in front of a computer managing her company. Every three weeks, however, her job gets much more interesting, or terrifying, depending on how you feel about bees.
“It’s like a real life Game of Thrones in a colony! People can’t help but be fascinated at it.”
Chapman is the owner of Two Hives Honey, a small beekeeping company. Chapman not only sells honey, she helps people start and manage their own beehives, gives hive tours and teaches beekeeping classes. “When I do things where I get to tell someone or show someone something cool about bees and they get excited, that’s really energizing,” Chapman says. “Even people who seem disinterested, I’m like, ‘Give me two minutes,’” Chapman tells me as we sit near three of her beehives. “It’s like a real life Game of Thrones in a colony! People can’t help but be fascinated at it.”
Before entering a beehive, Chapman must light a small fire inside a smoker. The smoke interferes with the pheromones that guard bees release to alert other bees of danger and it allows Chapman to check on her colonies without getting attacked. The smoker is a small tin can with a spout and a bellow, which Chapman squeezes to sustain the fire. With every squeeze, the air fills with the smell of smoke. (Chapman says she’s gotten used to smelling like a barbecue.)
Once she has a steady trail of smoke around the hive, Chapman puts on gloves and a mesh bee veil to protect her face and neck. She’s used to wearing a veil to work. Before she was a beekeeper, Chapman spent almost 10 years in and out of Pakistan and Afghanistan working for the CIA and often had to wear a hijab. “I’ve just traded one type of protective gear for another,” she says.
Bees are amazing. Each one has a specific job – nurses, guardians, foragers and, of course, the Queen bee – within the hive.
Inside the hive, there are five wooden frames side by side. Thousands of bees have made honeycomb in each frame. As she slowly pulls out each frame most bees stay on the comb covering the entire frame. Chapman immediately tries to find the Queen bee. It’s like playing Where’s Waldo, except the Queen isn’t wearing a distinctive red and white striped shirt, so the process can be very time consuming depending on the size of the hive. Chapman sees the Queen has laid some small, white rice-shaped eggs in the honeycomb. Since eggs take three days to hatch, she knows the Queen has been there recently.
Next, she observes the combs, which are all different colors. The newer comb is fresh and white and the small hexagon shaped holes are empty. When the bees make honey, which happens in the spring and fall, Chapman will take that honeycomb out of the frame, cut it into pieces and sell it.
In other frames, the comb is dark brown and covered. Right now, the Queen is laying eggs so there are enough bees to build and clean the hive and gather pollen for the spring. (The average lifespan of a bee is 46 days.) When the eggs hatch, the bees cover the holes and a new bee eventually emerges.
Before she was a beekeeper, Chapman worked for the CIA and often had to wear a hijab. “I’ve just traded one type of protective gear for another,” she says.
While the bees in the first two hives are relatively calm, the bees in the third hive aren’t happy with Chapman’s presence and they let her know that. When bees are angry, their buzzing is audible. The sound fills the air as they angrily fly around her head. Chapman gets stung about a dozen times, but she barely reacts. When a hive gets ornery like this one, Chapman has to kill the Queen bee and introduce a new one to the hive, a process that can take a few days.
The bees will continue to forage throughout the summer and make honey again in the fall so they have enough food. After all, winter is coming.
Read more from the Food Issue | April 2016