Erika Thompson, Queen Bee of Social Media’s Beekeeping and Bee Removals

Erika Thompson, Queen Bee of Social Media’s Beekeeping and Bee Removals

Reading Time: 9 minutes

“The day that I brought home my first colony of bees and started my first hive in my backyard changed my life forever,” Erika Thompson founder and owner of Texas Beeworks tells me. “I think as soon as I picked up that box full of bees and held a frame in my hands for the first time I was in love with bees. From that point forward, I knew my life would never be the same and that bees were always going to be a part of it.”

Always Bee Yourself

In 2019 Thompson quit her 9 to 5 office job and become a full-time beekeeper. The Texas native, moved out of Central Austin – a place she had called home since college – and moved to 5 acres on the Colorado River. She got married, started living closer to bees and nature and went viral for doing something she loves. Her social media accounts, whose fans are measured by hundreds of thousands, rack up millions of views.

“I have one video that has over 127 million views – and that’s on TikTok alone! I think that video got over 50 million views in the first 24 hours on Tiktok, which is just mind blowing,” Thomposon recalls. “Someone once told me that a lot of my videos have more views than the Super Bowl. It’s difficult to comprehend sometimes. With so many people watching, I feel a huge sense of responsibility to serve bees and beekeepers as best as I can.”
Thompson learned most of her beekeeping skills through vocational training. Once she got her first colony through their first season, and moved them from her backyard to a larger area, all she wanted to do was keep more colonies.

“So I got a second colony,” Thompson says. “And soon after that I think I got eight more.”

Photographed by Mackenzie Smith Kelley.

She started to keep bees in different areas across Austin and then started doing live bee removals. This allowed her to learn more than she could of by just keeping colonies in one location. While she didn’t truly have a mentor, one of the people she has always admired is Marie-Aimee Lullin, the wife of Franscios Huber, the famous Swiss entomologist.

“Because of his blindness, he relied on his wife, Marie, as well as his assistant, to help him with his observations, research, and writing,” Thompson explains. “Their love story and life story is fascinating and if I could sit down and have a candid conversation with anyone about bees, it would probably be Marie Lullin. I’d love to see her get more recognition for her contributions to beekeeping, although there is a crater on Venus named after her.”

I asked Thomspon aside from hands on learning, what other resources did she utilize to learn the art of beekeeping and bee removal. 

“Thank you for calling it an art — it really is. There are some things you just have to learn by doing them, even perhaps before you really know how to do them, like driving a car.” Thompson explains that you wouldn’t read a book or watch a video of someone driving a car to learn how to drive. “You just have to do it for yourself and learn by doing it. Each bee removal is different and there’s a lot of problem-solving involved.”

She says that a big part of her journey to becoming a full-time beekeeper was realizing that the things that make people feel happy and excited are not random.

Thomposon explains, “These things are special, and they can help connect you to your purpose. If you’re reading this article there’s a good chance that learning about bees excites you or makes you happy in some way. And with that, there’s a good chance you have something unique and special to offer the beekeeping community and, more importantly, to the bees.”

She encourages everyone to spend more time learning about bees and observing bees.

“That’s great if you’re already a beekeeper with your own hive, but if not, all you need is a tree or a patch of flowers in bloom. There are bees living and working alongside us all of the time, and they need all the help they can get.” 

Erika Thompson prepares her bee smoker. Photographed by Mackenzie Smith Kelley.

Bee The Change You Want to See

In 2021 Thompson was invited to the French Observatory of Apidology in Provence, France for the graduation of the first group of beekeepers from the Women for Bees program.

“The Women for Bees program was started as a partnership between Guerlain and UNESCO, and Angelina Jolie is lovingly referred to as the ‘godmother’ of the program,” Thompson explains. “Women for Bees is a beekeeping entrepreneurship program for women around the world that promotes beekeeping, biodiversity, sustainability and women’s empowerment.”

She says that one of the most meaningful parts of the trip was being able to talk with female beekeepers from all around the world. For a long time, beekeeping has been a male-dominated field. Thompson recalls going to many beekeeping conventions and events and feeling like it was an old boys’ club where women and other minorities were not well represented.

“If you’ve ever been in a room full of people where you’re trying to learn something new and ask questions, but you didn’t really feel like you belonged, it can make you feel uncomfortable and limit how much you learn and perhaps even how positively you view that experience.”

Thompson hopes that the next generation of beekeepers has a more diverse group of people to follow and learn from. In addition to talking with fellow female beekeepers, Thomspon enjoyed meeting the people who made the program a reality including the owners of the French Observatory of Apidology, the leaders of Guerlain, representatives from UNESCO, and Angelina Jolie.

Thompson then learned that Angelina Jolie had seen her beekeeping videos.

“I was just shocked and couldn’t believe it. I think Angelina Jolie has done more good with the platform that her career built than perhaps anyone else I can think of. And the Women for Bees program was truly groundbreaking in so many ways and I was just so thankful to be a very small part of celebrating its success,” Thompson says.  

“I love seeing how people keep bees in places around the world. I love learning about all the different ways people keep bees, what challenges bees are facing around the world and what solutions people are coming up with to help them.”

Erika Thompson inspects a frame of one of her many managed hives. Photographed by Mackenzie Smith Kelley.

Creating a Buzz on Social Media

For those who don’t get to attend international bee conventions Thompson says social media can be a source of knowledge.

“I’ve actually learned quite a lot from TikTok,” Thompson exclaims. “The app is great at learning your interests and I think the short-time format is perfect for getting straight to the information or being a gateway for a Google search to learn more. Right now I’m drinking pine needle tea that I made from the trees outside my house (with honey, of course) — all because I learned it on Tiktok.” 

Erika’s bee removal videos have been enjoyed by millions on social media. Photo provided by Erika Thompson.

If you search for beekeeping videos on social media, you’ll certainly come across Thompsons. I asked her if she had a secrete to what makes her videos so mesmerizing.

“I’ve been asking myself questions like this for the past year and a half. What I think is that when people watch my videos maybe they’re seeing something they never have before … and maybe they’re seeing something they didn’t even know was possible. I also spend a lot of time trying to tell the story of the bees as best as I can in 60 seconds. And I put a lot time into making these videos, so I hope my hard work is part of it too. At the end of the day, I’m really glad so many people like my videos and so many people are spending time watching bees. Afterall, watching bees is my favorite thing to do too.”

While searching for bee removals, you may come across an onslaught of imitators that parody Thompson’s videos. These range from children to adults miming the bee removal process with items that range from orange cheese to crocheted bees.

“I think I’ve seen them all,” Thompson laughs. “I certainly hope I’ve seen them all! It’s really hard to choose a favorite. I absolutely love all of the parody videos, but I always look forward to the ones by Drewbie’s Zoo with the bees he crochets himself. He’s just so creative!” 

Drewbie’s Zoo’s artistic interpretation of what Erika does on a typical day. Photo provided by Drew Hill.
Photo provided by Drew Hill.
Photo provided by Drew Hill.

Managing Bee-utiful Bees

“As a new beekeeper, things got easier the more time I spent just watching bees,” Thompson says. “When I first started beekeeping, I would go into my hives with a mental checklist of things I needed to do, and at the top of that list was always to find the queen.”

She has now stopped doing that and started going into my hives just to be a silent observer. Instead of finding and removing the queen and immediately putting her back in her hive, she now finds the frame and only watches her and how the bees move around her. She added, “Once I started just watching my bees more, that changed everything for me.”

Erika Thompson loves silently observing her bees. Photographed by Amanda Jewell Saunders.

Thompson sees the ubiquitous Varroa mite and the spread of deformed wing virus as common and frustrating problems in managed hives. She also sees a lot of malnutrition in managed hives.

“Like most beekeepers who have been keeping bees for a while, I feel like I’ve tried nearly all of the major treatments and control methods out there for Varroa. I’m always searching for something better for my bees, which I feel like is how you do so many things in beekeeping.”

Thompson recommends managing Varroa in a colony before the mites become a serious problem. This can be done by buying queens from breeders who are actively working to improve genetics and testing for mite resistance in their bees. She reminds keepers that, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

“I think that not doing anything is perhaps the most hurtful thing when it comes to these problems. A lot of people don’t realize that it’s not just the presence of the mites themselves, but that these mites carry a lot of viruses with them that can easily spread to other colonies,” Thompson says. “Ultimately though beekeeping is one of those things you learn through experience and with a lot of trial and error, and I think most beekeepers really are doing the best they can with the information, experience, and resources they have.”

I asked Erika if she believes solitary native bees get too much, too little, or just the right amount of attention.

“Well, first of all, I’d like to see us stop comparing them to each other and making it a ‘battle of the bees’ if you will,” she said. “I think most folks who don’t keep bees don’t even realize that there are two types of bees, solitary and social. By their nature, and by human nature to focus more on things that provide economic value and benefit to us, we just don’t have as close of a relationship with solitary bees as we do with honeybees. It’s really sad, especially since there are so many fascinating species of solitary bees that are around us every day that most people don’t ever notice, but I think any attention we can get for the hard work that bees do is a step in the right direction for protecting all pollinators.” 

Thompson has always been a big supporter of the Pollinator Partnership a non-profit organization that promote the health of pollinators, whose role is critical to food and ecosystems. She adds that supporting the research efforts and programs at your state university is very important. While she graduated from the University of Texas in Austin, she is a big fan of the team and work at the Texas A&M Honey Bee Lab in College Station, Texas. 

While Thompson has performed countless bee removals in Texas, the last few years have been a whirlwind. Going viral and entraining and educating people from Ellen DeGeneres to Jason Derulo takes some time away from the bees. “If I could spend all my time doing bee removals — I would.”

Pre-pandemic she was going to schools and teaching kids about bees, which she hopes she can return to in the immediate future. Thompson is also focused on local legislative advocacy for protecting pollinators and their native habitats.

Thompson concludes with, “There are a lot of principles and skills we can learn from bees. Living a life alongside bees has taught me about the values of sustainability, thrift, efficiency, organization, community and so much more.”

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