How Texas Beeworks’ Erika Thompson Became TikTok Famous While Protecting Local Bee Populations
The social media star’s calming and meditative videos are educating millions of viewers on the importance of bees
By Tolly Moseley
Photos by Jenna McElroy
Picture it with me: a beautiful spring day. A humble compost bin. A swarm of bees at the bottom. A young woman lovingly scooping said bees out with her bare hands. And finally, an ASMR-like voiceover from the same young woman, calmly explaining that these bees aren’t mad — they’re just looking for a new place to live.
Erika Thompson occupies a place on the Internet that she never expected: social media stardom.
“As a kid, I was in orchestra, I was the captain of my school bowling team, I was super into bugs. I’m still getting used to being popular.”
TikTok’s a strange place (understatement of the year), and chief among its mysteries are why certain content producers catapult to fame. The cynic’s argument behind Erika’s popularity is that she’s beautiful, but I find that reductive. Photogenic people abound online, but not everyone’s videos get more views than the Super Bowl. And yet, during the spring of 2020, that’s exactly what happened to Erika, when she uploaded her first beekeeping videos (more specifically, bee removal) to TikTok. Why?
Erika’s story is a classically Austin tale of working a day job (she used to be a communications director, working downtown), while hustling a passion on the side. In this case — stop me if you see this coming — beekeeping.
“I’d heard that bees were in trouble, so I took a class on a Saturday, and just fell in love,” says Erika. “I started with one hive in my backyard, then a friend offered to let me keep hives on their land, so I kept getting more … and interest started to build. Folks would ask me, can you keep bees on my property for pollination? Can you do a live bee removal? I started to say yes! I was working nights and weekends, even leaving to go do bee services on my lunch break.”
Maybe it’s not totally accurate, but what comes to mind is a polished professional, click-clacking down the stairs to the parking garage, tossing on jeans and a work shirt, and peeling down Congress Avenue to reach her beloved: all those honeybees, efficiently doing their work. She left the office job for good in 2019; two years later, she’s been on “Ellen,” “Good Morning America” and in the backyard of Jason DeRulo, who recently requested her bee services.
“No one is more surprised at the attention my work has received than me,” says Erika — and I believe her. Her videos are decidedly not influencer in nature (“like and subscribe!”), but earnest and meditative, while she explains what we’re seeing on camera. There’s a hypnotic quality to it all: in one, the bees cover a patio chair, which in another person’s hands — a horror movie director’s, for example — would symbolize nature taking over. The futility of human leisure! First this chair, then your face.
But instead, we get Erika’s soothing voice, explaining how these bees just want to be with their queen, and build a home. (“I lifted the cover to reveal a beautiful hive that wrapped around the arm of a chair in the most extraordinary way,” writes her Instagram caption.)
Covid has a lot to do with this story, like it has to do with all stories these days. When Erika was in Austin, she lived in a 16-block radius stretching only slightly outward from UT; now, she’s on a five-acre piece of property near Bastrop with millions of bees. And before March 2020, she had a string of IRL bee education opportunities lined up, speaking gigs and the like, but when the Covid curtain fell down, all that evaporated. She did like so many niche educators do, and turned to the Internet.
There’s an evolution to Erika’s social game, one you can see for yourself on TikTok. Over April, May and June of 2020, her videos were mostly visual in nature, with either music or the bees’ natural buzz to accompany her work. But in July 2020, she started including voiceovers explaining each step of her process. Already accruing views in the millions, it was at this point those millions turned into double digits — and media came calling. “It felt like something different and special was going on,” says Erika. “My life changed overnight.”
This feels like an appropriate time to pose my best theory around Thomson’s bee fame: her tender poise in the midst of a swarm. In fact, her voice overs have become so recognizable they’ve spawned comedic imitators, like Max Clayton, who did a spoof of Erika subbing dried macaroni for bees (“I woke up one morning and my bed was covered in more cheese than usual”); this year, little girls dressed up as her for Halloween. But there’s real affection in these imitations, because people get a kick out of Erika and her bee reverence. On both sides of the political aisle, nature is so often framed as a threat: the climate is changing, floods are coming, snowstorms envelop us all. Even the nature-loving among us seem to fear it these days, cowed by its power, forgetting that we too are animals.
And then there’s Erika, embedding herself with these creatures, devoid of fear. In video after video, she locates the queen and removes her to safer conditions. The other bees smell their queen on Erika’s hand, covering it whole. She doesn’t flinch. In a quick flick, those bees are off her hand, back to their duties.
“One out of three bites of food we eat is dependent on bees,” Erika tells me, in a flurry of bee factoids. “When you have an apple or a cup of coffee, you have a bee to thank for that. Also, 90 to 100% of the hive is female. Males don’t defend the hive, they don’t contribute to food collection.” Sigh, men.
Erika’s not a honey producer (each bee only makes 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime, she tells me), and she doesn’t travel the country offering mass pollination. Instead, she is an alternative to extermination: people have bees on their property, but rather than kill them, they call Texas Beeworks. This provides Erika the opportunity to do the thing she loves most: to learn about this particular hive, then educate us in the process. All while her phone is duct-taped to the wall.
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“I think we’re more similar to bees than dissimilar,” says Erika thoughtfully. “They built all of this sustainably, with the resources their bodies gave them. I always thank them after they’ve let me spend time with them.”