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Credit: Mackenzie Smith Kelley
The Way We Eat

How a TikTok-Famous Beekeeper Takes Care of 5 Million Bees in Central Texas

updated Dec 11, 2020
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NameErika Thompson
Location:  Elgin, Texas
How many people eat in your home: 2; Erika and her husband, Andrew.
Avoidances: Bananas contain a compound called isoamyl acetate, which is the same compound in the honeybees’ alarm pheromone that can cause them to be very defensive and aggressive. Since one of the major ways that bees communicate is through scent, Erika doesn’t eat bananas before she does any beework. She also don’t eat meat.

Like many others, I have spent an inordinate amount of time scrolling through TikTok this year. I’ve gawked at secret rooms in kitchens, and teared up watching someone brush a cat with a toothbrush. But nothing compares to the short videos from Erika Thompson of Texas Bee Works. With 2.3 million followers and an ASMR-like voice, Erika brings viewers along to compost bins and water meters where she gently removes bees and transfers them to her hive box. Oftentimes, to the delight and horror of her commenters, she does this with her bare hands.

In a year of hard things, Erika’s enthusiasm for what she does is a balm for many. I recently had the chance to talk with her about the weirdest bee removal she’s done this year, how working with bees has changed the way she eats, and her deep love for HEB pumpkin pie.

Credit: Mackenzie Smith Kelley

Is beekeeping something you’ve always been interested in?
I’ve been a huge animal lover my whole life. When I was growing up, my mom would never let me get a pet — I lobbied hard for a hamster, and it took me until I was 9 years old to get a dog. So I would go into my backyard and collect bugs and put them in jars, and try to keep them as pets. I think that’s where my love for bugs really started.

Then about 10 years ago, I took a class about bees. I had no intention of becoming a beekeeper; I just wanted to learn more about them. But I walked away from that class just totally fascinated. I tried to learn everything I could about bees, and I ended up starting my first hive in my small backyard in Central Austin. A typical beehive usually has around 50,000 bees, but it varies. I think my first hive had 30,000 bees.

Credit: Mackenzie Smith Kelley

You’ve been working with bees full-time for almost two years. How many bees do you have now?
I’ve got well over 150 hives across five counties in Central Texas now, so about 5 million bees. A lot of what I do is keep bees for people who want bees on their property, but they don’t necessarily want to be beekeepers themselves. So that’s what enables me to keep all those hives.

You’re known for these epic bee removal videos on TikTok. Tell me a little about what that process is like?
I get calls from people in all sorts of situations. Sometimes the bees have been there for a while and weren’t really causing any problems — and then now, for whatever reason, the people want them removed. Or a lot of times people were fine living alongside the bees, and then the hive grew and they decided they needed them removed. The removal process can be challenging on the bees. By bringing them back to my house it’s easier for me to keep an eye on them and give them supplemental food. I want to make sure that they have all the resources they need to be able to continue the important work that they do.

Credit: Mackenzie Smith Kelley

What’s the weirdest place you’ve removed bees from?
This summer I removed bees from under the sink in the tiny bathroom of an RV camper. That was a pretty weird one. I didn’t want the entire RV to fill up with bees because I wanted to collect as many of them as possible, so I kept the bathroom door closed during the removal. I brought as little gear as possible and my hive box just barely fit in the tight space. I rested it on the toilet the whole time and I made myself a nice little work space.

It was also a unique removal because despite the tight space it was really comfortable! The RV owners turned on the AC for me and I had running water — both of which are luxuries in my line of work! It felt like the Four Seasons of bee removals as far as location was concerned. 

In a lot of your videos, you remove bees without any gloves or protective gear, and you always get so many comments about this. I’m curious if this is something you’ve always been comfortable doing.
It’s really just experience and knowledge. I started to work with less gear more out of necessity. The thing you don’t realize, when you’re watching those videos, is a lot of times it’s 100 degrees out. Sometimes removals take me 45 minutes, sometimes they take me four hours or more, and the beekeeping gear is very thick and heavy. And when you’re wearing beekeeping gloves, in particular, you lose a lot of dexterity. When you’re wearing the veil, you lose some visibility. With the full suit, you lose a lot of mobility.

I’ll always wear protective gear whenever the bees tell me that I need to. I listen to the bees, and if I can get away with less gear then I think it’s better for both of us.

Credit: Mackenzie Smith Kelley

What do angry bees look like?
The bees will send you signals to let you know how the colony feels. Sometimes they’ll just start stinging you. Sometimes their flight pattern will be a little erratic. The frequency of their buzz sometimes goes up.

You’ve said you don’t like to take much honey from the hives — why is that?
When I started my business I decided there were two things I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to offer mass-pollination services, where people truck bees across the country to pollinate different crops. And I didn’t want to sell honey. I didn’t want to be known as a honey harvester. Every bee, in her entire lifetime, only makes 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey, so I always feel a little bit guilty when I go into a hive and harvest honey. I’ll harvest an incredibly small amount each year for personal use and for clients, if the bees can afford to share it with me.

Credit: Mackenzie Smith Kelley

In a couple videos I’ve seen you eat fresh honeycomb during a bee removal. What does that taste like?
Ah, it’s so good. It’s my favorite way to eat honey — warm, straight from the hive. It’s gooey, and the beeswax just melts in your mouth. When I’m tasting it in a removal, I never know what it’s going to taste like, because I usually don’t have bees in that immediate area. So it’s always fun to taste the different varieties.

Credit: Mackenzie Smith Kelley

Bees are incredibly important to how we eat on a day-to-day basis. How has working with bees changed how you eat?
One out of every three bites of food we eat is dependent on bees. And so I think it forces you to think about our food system as a whole, and how fragile it is really. To see the hard work that the bees do every day, not only for themselves as a species, but also for us — it’s really inspiring. It’s one of my favorite things about being a beekeeper. Working with bees has definitely made me want to live a more sustainable lifestyle. We try to support local whenever we can, and make small choices every day that will hopefully benefit future generations, and the planet down the line.

Is honey a part of your regular diet?
I eat honey and bee pollen every morning. I also like to harvest a little bit of fresh pollen, and keep it separated according to the date I harvested it, so that I can tell what the bees are foraging, and what they’re bringing in.

Credit: Mackenzie Smith Kelley

What do you eat for breakfast?
Every morning my rescue dog, Lime, and I eat breakfast together. I have a Greek yogurt bowl with some blueberries, granola, fresh pecans from our yard, and then I drizzle some honey on top and some bee pollen. After breakfast I have a really bad habit of eating pumpkin pie every day throughout the year. I’m convinced the grocery store makes two pumpkin pies a week, just because they know I’m going to buy it. It could be April, and HEB has pumpkin pies.

What makes HEB’s pumpkin pie so good?
They’re available! It’s just a pretty standard pumpkin pie, but I crave it. I’ve just always loved pumpkin pie, and I feel like it lends itself to be a breakfast pie really well. It’s not too sweet. It goes really well with coffee. It’s just one of my favorite things in the world.

You just got married — congratulations! What have you been cooking this year?
It’s the first time I’ve ever had vegetables fresh from my backyard, so that’s been a real treat. We’ve got a ton of herbs, zucchini, kale, lettuce, tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, and some broccoli. I also have lemongrass, which I can use for beekeeping. And then I have also been making a whole lot of beer bread — it’s the easiest recipe I know. We had too much leftover beer from our wedding.

Credit: Mackenzie Smith Kelley

As consumers, how can we better help and support the bees?
As a consumer, you can choose to buy products that haven’t been treated with pesticides. Certain pesticides have been shown to have very harmful effects on bees, and wipe out entire colonies. They interrupt the way the bees communicate. They make it hard for them to navigate. They suppress their immune system, and ultimately shorten their lives.

If you’re looking to plant anything in your yard or garden, the best thing you can do for the bees is provide pollinator-friendly plants. And then you can also support your local beekeeper. You’ve got to start purchasing honey sustainably, and in a way that’s good for the bees.

Thanks so much, Erika! Be sure to follow her on TikTok and Instagram, and also check out her site.

The Way We Eat is a series of profiles and conversations with people like you, about how they feed themselves and their families. We’re actively looking for people to feature in this series. You don’t have to be famous or even a good cook! We’re interested in people of all backgrounds and eating habits. If you’d like to share your own story with us, or if you know of someone you think would be great for this series, start here with this form.