Three years ago, Tanya Phillips could have undertaken any number of “normal” backyard hobbies—gardening, birdwatching, grilling—but like many of us here in Austin, Phillips is a little more adventurous than your average urbanite. Having always admired honeybees, she took a beekeeping class.

As she discovered, it was love at first buzz.

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Phillips and her husband, Chuck Reburn, accumulated 25 hives in that first year and their apiary has since grown to include 45-50 hives, honey sales at farmers markets, consultations with new beekeepers, various speaking engagements, swarm removals, and beekeeping courses of their own. And that’s not even counting Phillips’ regular job, or Bee Friendly Foundation, Inc. and the Travis County Beekeepers Association, two organizations that Phillips started to fund bee research and education, and connect bee enthusiasts.

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Tanya Phillips, the “Queen Bee.” Photo: Courtesy, Chuck Reburn.

The fact is, if it’s bee-related and it’s in Austin, Tanya Phillips probably has a hand in it, so it’s no surprise that she’s heading up Austin’s 2nd Annual Tour De Hives from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on September 20.

Le Tour De Hives is a self-guided tour opportunity to various beekeepers’ aviaries throughout the greater Austin area. The tour will begin in Southwest Austin at Bee Friendly Austin Apiary (9874 Wier Loop Circle) with a grand tour of Tanya Phillips’ bee operation. Then they move on to honey tasting, tour map distribution, and complimentary beekeeping workshops at 9 a.m., 12 p.m., and 3 p.m., before branching out across the city. Many of the bee yards on the tour agenda are located near private homes, so it’s also important to sign a waiver at Bee Friendly headquarters before embarking on your adventure.

“People will get to see a variety of different bee yards and how ‘the neighbors next door’ keep their bees,” Phillips said. “We will have tour t-shirts, raw honey, beehives, and other bee products for sale. There will also be apiary tours and [people] can purchase raffle tickets to win some amazing bee-related items, including a full beesuit, hive tools, a beehive, and a package of bees for spring 2015!”

Many of us are afraid of honeybees, having been stung in the past, but Phillips is hoping to change all of that through education. For example: How do you feel about honeybees after learning that they pollinate 25-30 percent of the foods that you eat on the daily? Or that honey bees are expertly capable of setting aside their differences and working together toward the greater good? In many ways, they run the perfect society. When a honeybee identifies a great food source, like a huge meadow of flowers, it even does a happy little jig to tell its colony about the grub.

“All the bees will share their various locations and the bees will decide which one will be the most beneficial to the colony as a whole and then they will all head to that food source to collect it. They run a very nice and orderly democracy based on what best increases their chances for survival,” said Phillips. “There is no ‘me first’ when it comes to the honey bee… I think humans could learn a little something from bee behavior!”

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The view from inside one of Phillips’ “top bar” hives. Photo: Courtesy, Tanya Phillips.

However, while life is all unicorns and rainbows on the comb, these friendly utopists are dying out in huge numbers every year—and no one knows exactly why. Whether this pandemic, which researchers have taken to calling Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), is the work of viral or bacterial pathogens, parasites, pollution, or a combination of factors, one thing has become very clear to bee enthusiasts: We need to start living bee friendly!

The good news is that you don’t need to become a full-fledged beekeeper to live a bee friendly lifestyle. In fact, there are at least seven easy ways that you can make Austin a better place for bees to live:

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Danny Weaver (left), Tanya Phillips, and Chuck Reburn inspect a hive. Photo: Laura Weaver, used with permission.

  • Garden, and keep it native. Local bees love local pollen the best, so try to fill your garden with plenty of native flowers and go easy on the non-native plants. Click here for a list of native plants that bees love.
  • Build a bee bath. Bees drink from small, still pools, so setting up a small watering hole and stocking it with fresh water can help bees to stay hydrated. Be sure to add floating wood platforms or rock islands so that the bees aren’t at risk of falling in as they drink.
  • Avoid using pesticides, weed killers, and other products that contain neonicotinoids. These chemicals can have harmful effects on bees and are speculated to be a cause of CCD.
  • Buy organic produce and raw local honey at farmers markets. Supporting farmers and honey vendors who use sustainable practices to grow and harvest their goods means that you’re supporting bees too! 
  • Donate to bee research at UT or Texas A&M. (Donate to UT by contacting Professor Nancy Moran at nancy.moran@austin.utexas.edu. Donate to A&M here, or by contacting Professor Juliana Rangel at jrangel@tamu.edu.)
  • Vote for initiatives that limit overuse of pesticides. Bonus points for supporting stricter regulations and long-term testing on neonictotinoids!
  • If bees invade your yard or home, call a local beekeeper to do a live removal. Try your best to avoid spraying or killing bees.

If you are interested in becoming a beekeeper, Phillips advises that the best way to start is to join a local beekeeping club and get connected with other beekeepers through club activities and courses.

“It will help you to have some mentors to call when you have questions later, plus a lot of clubs have free books to borrow, free classes, a loaner honey extractor, and more available to their members,” Phillips said. “Start reading a few basic beginner books, watching YouTube videos on beekeeping, and researching other info online to start your learning adventure. Bees are extremely interesting creatures. You won’t be bored!”

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For more information about the Tour De Hives, visit the event webpage or Bee Friendly Austin’s site. Travis County Beekeepers Association meetings are held on the last Tuesday of each month at the Twin Oaks Branch Library from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. You can find a complete list of Bee Friendly’s classes here

Featured photo: Flickr user Rakib Hasan Sumon, creative commons licensed.

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