Beekeeper says insects have provided a sweet life
Jerry Stroope knows about bees. So did his late dad, and through the years, his wife, son and daughter have also become experts on the buzzy, hard-working insects.
Bees and honey have been a part of the family business in Pearland for decades. Now, despite threats like hive death and middle-of-the-night bee rustlers, Stroope intends to stick with caring for the tiny creatures that have provided a livelihood.
“I started keeping bees in 1958,” said Stroope, 70. “My dad was a honeybee keeper and he wanted to get me into it. So, he gave me a few hives and said, ‘If you take care of those bees, they’ll take care of you.’”
Stroope took those words to heart.
“I’ve kept those bees all my life,” he said. “I still have the bees — or really the descendants of those bees — and the frames for the hives my dad gave me.”
Stroope owns Stroope Honey Farms, 1915 County Road 252, which produces honey as well as satsumas, a sweet, loose-skinned variety of mandarin oranges that are commonly grown on the Texas Gulf Coast. Chances are, you’ve seen Stroope’s honey at your local grocery store.
“We’re in a lot of local stores,” he said, “For example, we’re in Whole Foods, H-E-B and Central Market.”
“We’re fond of our local grocery stores, and we’re thankful for the relationship we have with them,” he said. “We have the highest-quality honey. We’re proud of it because it’s just the way the bees made it; so we don’t discount it. We also wouldn’t want it to go to a larger discount store who would sell it at a lower price than our loyal grocery stores — we don’t want to create that kind of competition for the stores that have been behind us for so long.”
‘Special reserve’ honey
A 2018 netflix documentary series called “Rotten,” which addressed negative issues within the food industry, touched on a problem Stroope has seen up close — honey producers using additives such as high fructose corn syrup to pad production and keep their costs lower.
“Our honey comes straight out of the hive and goes right into a jar,” he said.
The honey from his bees reflects the diversity of the plants in the area.
While people may be familiar with clover honey, Stroope’s bees produce what’s known as wildflower honey, which can vary in taste depending on the types of plants surrounding the bees. Thus, honey taken from Stroope’s land in Pearland would taste different from that taken from a farm in Lubbock, Dallas or even north Houston, he said.
“There was a push years and years ago by a company to market clover honey as the best honey on the market, and that wasn’t necessarily true,” he said. “It just meant that the main source of pollen the bees were getting was clover; so it has a distinct taste, just like Texas wildflower honey has a distinct taste.”
Some of the honey produced by Stroope’s bees tastes so distinct, he says, that each year he chooses a selection of honey, dubs it the “special reserve” for that year and sells it to local stores. Stroope chooses that honey by sampling batches from all of his hives to taste the nuances of each batch.
“So every year by about July 1, we have our special reserve on the shelves of local grocery stores. By Aug. 1, it’s typically gone. Once it’s gone, it’s gone for the rest of the year.”
Richard Nixon’s impact
Like any industry, bee keeping has seen its share of ups and downs, Stroope said. Statewide conventions which used to attract hundreds of commercial beekeepers have seen a steady decline in attendance.
“Maybe you get a couple dozen people now,” Stroope said. “There’s just been a steady drop in beekeepers over the years.”
Part of the downfall, he said, began with a move made by President Nixon.
“Richard Nixon opened up relations with China, and when that happened, some of the big honey processors figured out that they could import so-called honey from China for a fraction of the cost,” Stroope said.
This wasn’t natural, raw honey, he said, but rather corn syrup or honey that had been filtered or contained additives. But the price was right, processors were able to sell it cheaply and bee keepers in the US weren’t able to compete.
Then there’s the decline in bees themselves, a worldwide issue in which bee colonies die and take with them their pollination — an essential component to the success of crops. Researchers blame pesticides and parasitic mites.
“Starting out, I’d lose maybe 5 percent of my bees just from natural causes,” Stroope said. “Today, it’s common for me to lose somewhere around 40 percent, which is tremendous number of dead hives — it’s expensive to deal with that. Used to, you could just build your next year’s hives on what you have. Now, enough might not survive for you to even start with the same number of hives the following year.”
Then there’s bee rustlers.
Stroope said that keepers who keep commercial hives almost always suffer at the hands of people stealing a percentage of those hives. Stroope himself had about 409 hives stolen, driven away on an 18-wheeler.
Because most beekeepers keep their hives on not only their land, but other people’s as well, it forces the keepers to scramble to visit all their hives when they hear that bee thieves are about.
“You used to be able to keep your hives almost anywhere out in the open, but now you have to make sure they’re set back from the road, hidden or behind a locked gate,” Stroope said. “When you hear about bee thieves, you have to go check on all of your hives to make sure yours are safe, and that’s not always easy.”
“It’s a beneficial relationship, when someone lets us keep bees on their land,” Stroope said. “First of all, they find that their gardens, whether they’ve flower or vegetable, take off. The bees really help with that. But second, the government recognizes how important farmland is, and it can reduce someone’s property taxes to almost nothing.”
Stroope and his family manage all of the upkeep of the hives people keep on their property.
“We’re always looking for places,” he said. “All we need is about an acre, and we’d prefer it if there’s some space between their house and the hive - it’s just easier that way.”
Stroope has no plans to slow down any time soon.
“I’m just getting my second wind,” he said.
And it all started with those few hives of honeybees gifted to Stroope by his dad in 1958.
“I didn’t understand it at the time, about the bees taking care of me if I took care of them. I didn’t understand the full value of what he was saying, but now I understand it. And he was right. They have taken care of me and my family for my whole life. So, I’m going to do my best to keep taking care of them.”
For more information, visit http://www.stroopefarms.com/.