Beekeepers Bubba Duke and Laura Colburn on beekeeping relationships
“I lived here most of my life,” says 18-year-old James “Bubba” Duke as he pushes through waist-high grasses in a secluded clearing on his family’s land in Liberty Hill. He’s covered in thick military BDU pants, a full beekeeping suit, and tall, snake-proof boots, but he keeps his eyes on his feet anyway, monitoring for water moccasins and copperheads. “It’s their peak season right now, and they love this area around the beehives,” he explains. “Everyone loves honey, including rodents.”
A fifth-generation beekeeper whose family’s expertise traces to the 1800s, Bubba purchased his first western honey bee hive with his personal savings in 2010 and started his own business, Bubba’s Beez, to sell raw honey, honeycomb, lip balm and soaps, and cookbooks featuring the Dukes’ favorite honey-infused recipes.
Bubba quickly built his colony to 22 hives and attracted a worldwide customer base, including a handful of European chefs, who love the rich flavors and textures created with nectar harvested from Texas’ wildflowers and native flowering plants like sage and oak.
Bubba still sells plenty of honey online and at Georgetown’s Red Poppy Festivals and Christmas Strolls, but with college at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor looming, he’s scaled his operation back to five hives—each named after a Norse symbol in tribute to his family’s Scandinavian heritage.
All is well with the world
Bubba puffs his smoker at a hive’s entrance and uses his hive tool to pry up the steepled roof for a “general inspection.” He explains, “When you work on bees, you want to move nice and slow and have the mentality that all is well with the world. If you get nervous or angry, they’re going to check that attitude at the door.”
He slowly lifts the roof and sets it in the grass, careful not to crush any bees crawling on the underside. “My bees are as gentle as lambs, though,” he continues. “I can come out here dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, and they won’t bother me. They know me by voice and scent, like any dog.”
He pulls out the frames, from left to right. The bees haven’t done much construction on the outer panels, thanks to recent rains, but the inner frames are heavy with industrious worker bees and dark brown honeycomb, oozing fragrant amber honey.
Bubba praises honey’s ability to strengthen the immune system and combat seasonal allergies. He recommends a daily dose of two tablespoons of raw, local honey—as opposed to store-bought honey, which Food Safety News and Texas A&M University reported in a recent study is often composed of counterfeit ingredients like corn syrup, with little to no actual bee pollen.
“Raw honey is a natural antioxidant,” Bubba says. “I haven’t really been sick in seven years, so the bees are taking care of me as much as I’m taking care of them. It’s a relationship.”
In nearby Florence, insulated by tracts of privately owned farmland and wilderness, Laura Colburn and her husband, Hial, keep 12 beehives amid cultivated flower garden plots and towering sage bushes.
“People get into beekeeping for different reasons,” Laura says, leaning “out of the flight path” to watch the steady stream of harvesters arriving laden with pollen and leaving empty again. “Some people only care about the honey they’re going to get, and some people do it for tax purposes. I do it because I just really like bees. I like watching them fly in and out of their hives. I love hearing them hum around me. Even after all these years, I still get a thrill when I see eggs and my queens.”
Laura started her first hive in 2012 after researching beekeeping for a year to learn how to best care for “her girls.” Despite her meticulous approach, she’s still had to overcome many challenges to protect her bees from common dangers, such as parasitic Varroa mites and Africanized bees. “Sometimes, new beekeepers think they can set up a hive and not check it for several months,” she explains. “Bees need more attention.”
Laura checks her hives at least once per month and conducts frequent tests for Varroa mites, which attach themselves to bees like ticks, feeding off them and infecting them with deformed wing virus. “By the time you can actually see the mites, you have a significant problem,” she says, and once a hive is thoroughly infected, available treatments aren’t always effective and can sometimes strengthen the mites.
Another threat to European honey bees is Africanized bees, an extremely aggressive species that will take over an established hive either by slowly cross-breeding their way into the hive or invading by force, assassinating the current queen and replacing her with their own. “One year, one of my queens mated with Africanized drones, and her hive quickly turned ‘hot,’ which is a beekeeping term that means ‘aggressive’ or ‘defensive,’” she says. “I couldn’t walk through the yard. Even if I wasn’t anywhere near their hive, they would come out and chase me.”
According to Laura, the best defense against Varroa mites, hive takeover, and most other threats is frequent hive inspections. “If you spend time getting to know your bees and testing them for Varroa mites, you’ll know right when a problem starts and can deal with it early on.”
In 2016, Laura implemented another strategy. Disheartened by mail-order queens’ short lifespans and low mite and virus resistance, Laura began raising her own queens and encouraging the hives that displayed higher resistance, longer lifespans, and friendlier temperaments to raise as many offspring as possible. This not only improves the health and temperament of her hives but also positively affects wild colonies. “My bees are flying up to three miles or more, and they’re interacting with other local bees, so I’m controlling disease and flooding my area with drones that I like,” she explains.
Though she started her beekeeping journey alone, Laura soon discovered a community of fellow bee lovers in the Williamson County Area Beekeepers Association (WCABA). Now vice president, she teaches monthly Beekeeping 101 classes and beginner-level courses and hosts tours of her apiary through her Florence shop, Busy Bee Beekeeping Supplies.
Laura designs her classes to teach new or aspiring beekeepers to select and use equipment, understand bee biology, guard against pests and other problems, increase the number of hives through “splitting,” grow native pollinator-friendly plants, harvest honey, and otherwise keep their bees healthy.
“There’s been a lot of interest lately, people saying they’re thinking about getting into beekeeping and wanting to know what’s involved and how they can get started,” says Laura as her bees hum in the Texas sage bushes outside her kitchen window. “My main message is that we need to be good stewards for them. It’s so important.”
To learn more about Bubba Duke and his beekeeping philosophies, or to purchase Bubba’s Beez honey and related products, visit www.BubbasBeez.com.
You can attend one of Laura’s beginner beekeeping classes through the Williamson County Area Beekeepers Association at www.WCABA.org or Busy Beekeeping Supplies at www.BusyBeeSupplies.com. Follow Laura on www.Facebook.com/HappyFlorenceBees.