The February freeze in Texas killed bees and wrecked their food supply. Now honey production is down

By Timothy Fanning

San Antonio Express-News — Nov. 1, 2021

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This year’s frigid winter storm and summertime droughts may be responsible for decreased honey production in Texas.

Since the state is one of the nation’s top producers, there will be even less honey and potentially higher prices.

It’s likely that South Texas was hit the hardest by February’s deadly winter storm, according to Molly Keck, an AgriLife Extension entomologist in Bexar County.

“The winter storm caused delayed wildflower bloom and that certainly impacted honey production,” Keck said. “It likely caused honey bee losses, especially in South Texas, where bees are not acclimated to that type of freezing cold.”

Bee season depends largely on temperature and the seasonal patterns of flowers. After hibernating over the winter, bees awaken in time to collect pollen and nectar from their preferred plants.

Bee Informed Partnership, a national nonprofit, found that record-high colony losses were reported statewide for the season that ran from March 2020 to April 2021.

And among beekeepers registered in Texas, almost 37 percent told surveyors at Texas A&M they had lost hives due to the winter storm.

Prior to the February freeze, Texas bee production, worth about $17 million, had been up slightly in recent years. In 2019, the state went from 7.56 million pounds of honey produced to $8.95 million in 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A honeybee colony in the U.S. produced an average of 56 pounds of honey in 2019, down from an average of 80 pounds in 1995, according to the USDA. Experts and beekeepers have attributed the decline to the widespread use of pesticides and the changing climate.

Some of the losses this season can’t solely be attributed to the winter storm, said David Holdman, who started a bee farm in Seguin. He said Holdman Honey took a gamble this year by dividing larger, stronger hives into smaller ones.

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The weather devastated small hives and losses amounted to a 45 percent decrease in bee population and a 75 percent decrease in production, Holdman said.

Keck said that while the reduced production might lead to higher prices for retail honey, it would ultimately depend on favorable local weather conditions and production.

Meanwhile, interest in hobby beekeeping is on the rise due in large part to the pandemic.

It’s happening in backyard gardens and in fields, according to Keck. There is also interest in beekeeping to gain property tax exemptions for smaller pieces of land.

Despite a drop in commercial honey production, these hobbyists and small scale beekeepers have reported better outcomes both in honey production and hive population this season.

That’s likely because health restrictions earlier this year gave part-time beekeepers more time to tend their hives, whereas commercial producers may have experienced labor shortages.

Charlie Agar, the owner of New Braunfels-based Charlie Bee Co. was driven to full-time beekeeping during the pandemic after health restrictions all but shut down his marketing business.

“As bad as the storm was in February, the worst part of this year was the rain in May,” Agar said. "It really prevented a good wildflower crop. Flowers couldn’t bloom and all the weeks of rain in May just hurt production. Bees weren’t able to forage and the rain knocked the nectar right out of the flower.”

Charlie Bee Co. specializes in bee removal throughout Central Texas and relocates hives to ranch apiaries. He also maintains less than 300 hives of his own and sells them at local farmers markets.

Agar estimates that his spring harvest is down about half of what it should have been. His company typically sells through Christmas at farmers markets but ended sales a few weeks ago.

“We’ll keep our surplus of honey and just have high hopes for next year,” Agar said.

Because Texas weather can be unpredictable, it makes it difficult to predict how well the next bee season will do, Keck said.

For now, Keck said September rains and warmer weather is helping some colonies across Texas stock food away to get them through next winter. Keck said it’s important that beekeepers monitor colonies for supplemental needs.

“Bees are much like livestock in that we are responsible to provide what nature is not providing,” Keck said. “In parts of the state, especially the southern half, flowers may be blooming into December, but most hives are closed up at Thanksgiving and not opened back up until around Valentine’s Day.”