You can feel the bees almost as soon as you hear them.
Tens of thousands of them are buzzing inside a stack of white boxes almost 5 feet tall, fanning nectar to dehydrate it into honey in one of nature's most distinctive and essential ecosystems.
On a Saturday morning last month, a group of students watches as Konrad Bouffard, owner of Round Rock Honey, pries open the top of the hive with what looks like a putty knife. The anticipation among the aspiring beekeepers is as palpable as the insects themselves.
Only a few bees fly out when Bouffard pulls off the top panel, but more escape as he slowly starts to unstack the boxes, also called supers. After a few minutes, he finally pulls out what they've been waiting for: a beeswax-covered frame crawling with bees that's heavy with gold-brown honey.
For many of the students, the beginning beekeeping class, a partnership between Bouffard and the Austin Nature and Science Center, is the first time after months of studying apiculture that they've had the chance to don white cotton beekeeping suits to visit a working hive.
If 2009 was the year of the backyard chicken revival, will 2010 be the year of the backyard beekeeper? There are already more than 100 residential hives in Central Texas, Bouffard says, and just as with chickens, people looking to be more self-sufficient might be intimidated until they actually see a beehive in action.
"You can read all day long, but until you do it, you don't really have an understanding of it," says Phoebe Ceresia, 42, of Bastrop, who already has chickens and will be setting up a hive next year.
Chad Cosper, 36, was just one step away from ordering bees for a hive in his South Austin backyard when he attended Bouffard's class. "I needed that up-close, personal interaction with the bees to see if I was going to enjoy it or going to freak out," he says. "I didn't want to order the bees and then realize that it wasn't for me."
Both Cosper and Ceresia say they like honey, but they mainly want backyard bees to help pollinate their vegetable gardens and fruit and nut trees. But the sweet stuff isn't a bad return on their investment: Bouffard says a backyard hive can produce 60 to 80 pounds of honey in a good year.
Within a few weeks of the class, Cosper had already put in an order for 3 pounds of Italian honeybees (about 10,000 bees) and a queen, which cost about $100, including shipping from the Georgia apiary. Cosper won't be able to get his hive up and running, however, until the company ships his order after the last frost next year. (Most apiaries recommend ordering bees in the fall for spring set-up. See box for more tips on getting started.)
Like Cosper and Ceresia, Bouffard got hooked on beekeeping after hearing that he'd have a better garden with bees. "That's the great thing about being a beekeeper. You end up discovering a lot about plants," he says. Now he has some 4,000 hives, most of them in Williamson County. He sells his honey at local farmers markets and stores. Earlier this year, he reached out to the Austin Nature and Science Center to start a beekeeping class.
Bouffard says he grew up learning about nature from his dad and that these classes are his way of being a good naturalist. He says 75 percent of the people who have taken his course have healthy, productive bee colonies.
The City of Austin allows up to two hives per quarter-acre of land and a 6-foot flyway barrier if the hives are within 25 feet of the property line. Unless provoked, bees keep to themselves and aren't a threat, he says, but it's a good idea to let your neighbors know you'd like to set up a hive.
In the class, Bouffard teaches students how to fend off wax moths and hive beetles and how to handle bees in extreme drought or cold, which decreases the amount of nectar available to them. He also explains that colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon that beekeepers first reported in 2006 in which large numbers of bees mysteriously disappear, doesn't usually affect backyard beekeepers.
Although there's no official cause of the disorder, Bouffard says that bees become stressed and susceptible to the disorder after harvesting nectar from crops treated with chemicals or being hauled across the country in trucks to pollinate certain crops, such as almonds, that depend on bees to be brought in at certain times of the year.
Another possible threat is Africanized bees, which are more aggressive than normal bees and can infiltrate backyard hives, but Bouffard teaches students how to identify and deal with them in case it does happen.
Bouffard also shows students colorful pie charts that represent where his bees are gathering nectar. Honey is only as good as the plants from which the bees gather nectar, Bouffard says. Rooftop hives are popping up in urban areas across the country, but he warns that bees that are looking for flowers in a downtown area often end up at Dumpsters, sucking the last few drops of soda from the inside of a can.
There's scant research to prove that eating honey from local bees will help people with allergies develop a tolerance to the allergens, but many people in Austin, which has one of the highest pollen counts in the country, are seeking out local honey as a way to ease their seasonal sniffles.
Bouffard tests his honey to find out what flowers his bees are visiting. "Not all local honey is local," he says. It's not uncommon, he says, for companies in the state to mix a small percent of locally gathered honey with imported cheaper honey, gathered from pesticide-laden cotton or Chinese tallow, a nonnative, invasive species on Texas' Gulf Coast. "People don't have allergies to Chinese tallow," Bouffard says.
Ceresia says she's become much more in tune with her environment by being hands-on with her food supply since filling her yard with raised garden beds and taking the chicken plunge last year.
"I like to feel like I can take care of my needs myself," says Ceresia. "It's not because we don't have the money to buy (honey) in the store; I just want the satisfaction of doing it myself."
How to get started
• Read up on beekeeping. To grasp the scope of the operation, pick up a book on beekeeping that will act as your guide and troubleshooter throughout the process. (Bouffard's class comes with an illustrated guide, and students have access to his library of beekeeping books.)
• Visit a hive. Either through a class or an established beekeeper you know, go to a hive for some hands-on practice.
• Order bees in the fall for spring delivery and set-up. Honey.com is a good resource for apiaries and other beekeeping information. B. Weaver and R. Weaver apiaries in Navasota are a popular choice among Austin beekeepers.
• Check with your neighborhood association, which might have rules on backyard livestock, including bees.
• Bouffard's three-hour Saturday course costs $125. Students are welcome to attend as many follow-up classes as they'd like. To sign up, visit roundrockhoney.com.