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Winter Freeze Another Setback For Texas Beekeepers

A yellow and black bee flies near a purple iris-like flower, which has tall, slim soft green leaves.
David J. Phillip/AP
A bee takes off from a flower Monday, April 20, 2020, at Sheldon Lake State Park and Environmental Learning Center in Houston.

Houston-area beekeepers say the winter freeze killed off a portion of their bees, adding another setback to an industry — and insect — that is already struggling.

Jerry Stroope with Stroope Honey Farms estimated he lost about 30% of his bee colonies this winter both from the freeze and from a phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder, a problem that has been plaguing honeybees for more than a decade.

"At the moment we are racing the clock to try to raise more bees to replace those that died this winter," he said.

A large and healthy colony of bees can regulate its own temperature and survive in the cold. The bees form a ball to stay warm, with the queen and any babies at the center.

But local beekeepers say the freeze was devastating to their smaller colonies.

"A good colony of bees can regulate its own temperature, so the majority of our bees didn’t die because it got cold," said Chris Moore, the founder of Moore Honey Farm. "The problem is beekeepers now don’t have all good colonies."

Moore also estimated he lost about 25% of his colonies this winter.

Moore and other beekeepers said they’re still waiting to see if the freeze will have an impact on flowers blooming this year, which could affect overall honey production.

"I'm a little concerned because the flowers that we make honey off of, I don’t know if those are going to come back out," Moore said. "So I don’t know what our production is going to be for the year."

Local beekeepers said the winter freeze was just another obstacle on top of the challenges they're already facing.

Last year, beekeepers in the U.S. reported losing more than 40% of honeybee colonies, according to an annual report by the Bee Informed Partnership. In Texas, that number was even higher at nearly 55%.

Threats to bees — both managed and native — include habitat loss, pesticides, mites and climate change.

At least three bills filed this state legislative session aim to help protect bees in Texas, which is home to some 800 species.

One bill filed by Texas Rep. Michelle Beckley, D-Carrollton, would help create habitats for pollinators like bees and butterflies along state highways. It would require utility companies to plant pollinator-friendly habitats alongside state highways after they dig up land during construction.

"We think that’d be a really smart way to expand habitat for pollinators," said Luke Metzger, who works with Environment Texas' Save the Bees campaign. "We know that as their native habitat is replaced by roads and by lawns that pollinators are losing the food and nesting sites that are necessary for their survival. And so planting more habitat along our highways is a good way to help protect pollinators."

The bill has been left pending in the Transportation Committee, after a hearing was held Tuesday.

Other bills include one that would create a pollinator task force to study threats facing bees and another that would encourage planting bee-friendly habitats at solar farms.

Katie Watkins | Houston Public Media