Beekeeper basks in the simple life and cares for her bees

By Dianna Wray - DWRAY@VICAD.COM
Nov. 9, 2011 at 5:09 a.m.

A group of bees busily works around the top layers of honeycomb cells. Daylight and warm temperatures get the bees active as they search for any sign of blooming plants that may contain pollen.

A group of bees busily works around the top layers of honeycomb cells. Daylight and warm temperatures get the bees active as they search for any sign of blooming plants that may contain pollen.

HALLETTSVILLE - Kelly Ross bent over the painted white box. Inside, the steady thrum of the beehive got louder and higher as she leaned closer.

"Do you hear that?" Ross asked, grinning down at the hive. "They know we're here."

Ross has been a beekeeper since she and her husband, Jack Ross, moved to Hallettsville in 2007. Her husband, who was born in Victoria, helped tend beehives on his family's farm as a child.

His stories about getting fresh honey from the hives piqued Ross's interest. They were living in Colorado at the time and there wasn't any place to keep hives, but she started poring over books on the insects, fascinated by them.

When the family moved to a blue-and-white house nestled on 21 acres at the end of a winding road just outside Hallettsville, Ross saw her chance. She and her husband bought the gear to start a few beehives, and soon she was collecting amber-colored honey from her own hives.

"It was exciting. It was an adventure," she said.

It was also a part of her quest to find a simpler kind of life. The year her eldest daughter was born was the year of the Columbine High School shooting. The helicopters flew over her house on the way to the school.

As a child, Ross adored the "Little House on the Prairie" books about a family that lived a rustic life as pioneers of the West.

She and her husband started looking for a way to give their two daughters that kind of life.

"When I was a little kid, I wanted to be Laura Ingalls Wilder when I grew up, so this has worked out well for me," Ross said.

Beekeeping is a skill that was traditionally handed down from generation to generation in a time when most people lived off the land. As people began making their livings in other ways, the tradition of tending beehives and collecting honey faltered. The "killer" bee problem that made headlines across the country turned the insects into creatures that were feared and often misunderstood, Ross said. Beekeeping has become a dying trade, she said.

When she started keeping her own bees, Ross sought out a 90-year-old beekeeper to teach her the tricks of the trade.

The bees thrived, flying out of the hives in all directions and bringing back bright yellow clumps of pollen on their back legs.

In 2009, Ross collected more than 200 pounds of honey, and started to sell bottles labeled from the Hallettsville Honey Company at area farmers markets.

The first time she set up her stand, her heart was thumping and she was jittery with nerves. What if no one came to the stand? What if she couldn't sell a single bottle? She sold out before the morning was over.

As her business grew, Ross bought more of the white painted pine boxes to house the hives. Soon, she had more than 24 hives, each one containing hundreds of bees working to make baby bees and honey.

But now, in the face of one of the worst droughts in Texas history, Ross is watching her hives disappear. A few months ago, Ross noticed there wasn't any sound coming from one of the boxes. The box was empty and the bees had flown away. The drought had killed the wildflowers and plants the bees depended on, so they left in search of food, Ross said.

"Once that hive is gone, it's gone forever," she said.

As the drought wore on, more hives fled. Now there are only 12 left, Ross said, and there's less honey to sell. If the drought doesn't end, she may find herself a beekeeper without any bees.

Still, she is trying to stay positive. She enjoys running a business, but it's the bees themselves that fascinate her, she said.

Black and yellow bees flew out of the hive, hovering near Ross and landing on the net mask of her white beekeeper's suit. Ross pried the lid off of one of the boxes, gently wafting puffs of smoke at the bees to calm them. Inside the box, the hive was buzzing with activity as the bees worked storing honey to get ready for winter. Ross gently brushed bees aside with her white gloved hand, pointing out the differences between the worker bees and their queen, a large slick-bodied creature crawling amongst the minions of her kingdom.

"Isn't she beautiful," Ross breathed, leaning over to get a closer look and breathing in the smell of wax and honey. She closed the box and the high-pitched buzz settled down to a low-toned thrum while birds chirped in the nearby oak trees.

"Sometimes I come out here just to listen to them. It's the most soothing sound in the world."



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