It’s the Bees That Bring Us Together
Shelley Rice is doing the waggle dance in her kitchen.
“It’s how bees communicate,” she tells her guests. She weaves back and forth in a figure eight, imitating a bee telling its hive mates there’s a tasty sunflower field five miles to the east.
Rice, known in Houston as “the bee lady,” is eagerly explaining bee behavior as she harvests a batch of honey from hives hauled in from Sealy, Texas. Guests nibble on gooey honeycomb, chat, and snack on salami and cheese. Rice savors the moment.
Rice started dreaming about keeping bees back in 2003 after the book “The Secret Life of Bees” piqued her interest. When she brought her first bees home, “it was like taking a new baby home from the hospital,” she says. Since then, she’s helped hundreds of Texans start their own hives, teaches classes on raising and rescuing bees, speaks to groups about beekeeping, and is studying to be a master beekeeper. For Rice, bees have become a way to bring people together. They’ve also changed her life.
“It’s become more and more about community and communication and relationships over the years,” says Rice, who’s dealt with anxiety, depression and attention deficit disorder over the years. “I know what it’s like to suffer,” she says, “and working with bees has taught me how to live and thrive.”
Just Like Wonder Woman
Rice balances a wooden frame on her kitchen island and, with a sharp knife, scrapes off the protective layer of wax covering the honeycomb. Amber honey begins to ooze out. She digs out orange bits of packed pollen for guests to taste.
She’s gathered with a group of early Local Sun adopters—families, retirees—to harvest the solar farm’s inaugural batch of honey. The bees have been hard at work pollinating and making honey in Sealy since Rice set up eight hives on the farm last spring.
When a microburst hit Sealy last month, Rice’s thoughts immediately turned to the bees. Had they survived the storm? Seventy-five homes were destroyed that day, and the solar farm saw minor damage. The odds didn’t look good. Rice jumped in her car and drove out to Sealy to survey the scene. “It’s like checking on your kids,” she says.
The weather had already taken a toll on the bees the last few months. An unseasonable freeze killed one hive, quick-freezing the bees. A few more hives had lost their queens. Driving up Route 36, Rice passed debris scattered on the road, collapsed buildings and a parking lot packed with emergency vehicles. “I started getting a little teary,” she says.
At the farm, every hive had toppled to the ground. Rice approached one box and heard buzzing. She righted it, moved to the next and heard more buzzing. That’s when she ran to her car to retrieve her bee suit. “I felt like Wonder Woman out there,” she says, “picking up these huge hives all by myself.” Bees in the hive’s lids had drowned, but the rest had survived.
A Hive For Everyone
At her kitchen tables, Rice shows guests how bees seal off open spots in the wooden frames using a wax-like substance called propolis they make from resin they collect from trees. She inserts a frame into a round, plastic container called a honey extractor. As she spins the handle, honey flies off the frame into the barrel. “Everybody should have a hive,” she says. “Bees create so many incredible products.”
Honey can be used as an antibiotic cream; honeycomb can be made into bandages or molded into candles. And of course it tastes good. But it’s also nutritious. Raw honey contains powerful antioxidants and minerals such as iron, zinc, potassium, and calcium.
Rice’s four children rotate in and out of the kitchen throughout the evening. They all embrace their mom’s beekeeping way of life. In the garage, John, 19, pulls a caged queen bee from Rice’s work space in the garage to show guests. He recently picked them up in Brenham for Rice to introduce to several new hives that dot the front yard of her Bellaire home. In the back, a hen pecks her way across the lawn.
The bucket now heavy with honey, Rice pours its contents through a strainer to catch wax cappings that covered the honey. The Sealy hives will ultimately make about 45 pounds of honey this harvest. Honey ends up taking on the taste of the plants bees pollinate, and with grass abundant near the solar farm, the honey has a slightly grassy flavor. Every Local Sun customer will get a bottle of the farm’s inaugural honey. As the harvesting continues, so do Rice’s stories.
Once, she delivered bees to a woman who had brought her husband to Houston for prostate cancer treatment. She needed them for the bee sting therapy she used to treat her Lyme disease. She later invited the woman and her two children to move into her home for two weeks before her husband passed away in hospice care. “That’s one story out of dozens where the bees have changed my life,” says Rice.
Rice currently works with private clients, including the Houston Congregation for Reform Judaism. She heads up the beehives for Lamar High School Future Farmers of America and the garden hives at Discovery Green and McGovern Centennial Gardens. She likes to share excess wax with locals making their own wax-based products, lip balms or candles. Her hives are healthy; she doesn’t treat them with chemicals.
“I love being able to help someone with something they’re passionate about,” Rice says, “and to know I’m giving them a really good product, a local product.”