Erika Thompson is dressed in an open denim button-down, with her hair hanging loose around her face, as she reaches with her bare hands into a swarm of bees. She scoops handfuls of the bees—who have made their home on an umbrella—casually moving them into a new hive. At one point, she mentions that she happens to have a queen bee on her person—she pulls it out of her pocket, presenting the bees in their new home with their new ruler.
It’s a typical viral TikTok video for Thompson, Texas beekeeper, who has amassed 6 million followers on her account, @texasbeeworks, by posting videos of herself moving entire hives for people who have discovered bees taking up residence in an unlikely spot. She does it while wearing absolutely no protective equipment—a method that has created some buzzing criticism from at least one other TikTok beekeeper, who accused Thompson of “setting a dangerous precedent.”
Slate spoke to two beekeepers, Michael Bush, who has been beekeeping for 47 years and runs his own annual bee camp (which Thompson once attended), and Michelle Boerst, who became a master beekeeper through Texas A&M five years ago, about their own experiences beekeeping and the reaction to Thompson’s videos. Their responses to our questions have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Sofia Andrade: Is it OK to handle bees and hives without protective equipment, like Thompson does?
Michael Bush: People have been doing it from the beginning of time until now. People have been doing it in videos since videos existed. You know, there’s a naked beekeeper out there on YouTube that does all his beekeeping stark naked. [Even the naked beekeeper, though, recommends a hat and veil.] Now personally, I would rather wear equipment, and I’d recommend people wear equipment, because you can certainly have an accident and suddenly things change very quickly.
Michelle Boerst: To me, it would be like approaching a strange dog. I do not know that animal’s behavior. I would not approach it, dog, cat, any animal that I did not have experience with without taking some sort of precaution. I would take precautionary care no matter what animal I was approaching.
Now, my own bees are the same as my own pets. I know in my 60 hives which ones are sweet. I know which ones I could bring someone over, and with maybe a veil and some gloves, I can open that hive and share my bees with that person. Bee colonies have a personality just like any other animal.
Thompson claims she can “read the bees’ behavior.” Can you really do that?
Bush: You figure that out pretty quickly. If you’ve got really ferocious bees, you won’t be in the middle of it when you figure that out. It will be pretty much that way from the beginning. Maybe I can’t tell by looking at them, but I can sure tell by how they respond.
Boerst: I’ll give you an example: Today, a lady had a compost bin and she had a beehive that had moved in. They’ve been there about a week. I’m getting ready to post the video about it on TikTok. [Here’s Boerst’s own TikTok page.] They stayed calm. I lifted up the compost. I approached it, they did come at me. I could read their behavior. I lifted up the compost bin, they didn’t fly at me, they didn’t look at me, they didn’t notice me. I lifted the lid, they didn’t come at me. I put my hand in there and they didn’t touch me. It was the nicest, sweetest, little, gentlest hive I’d ever seen.
I still put on my gear because I’m using tools. I’m using a knife. I want to wear gloves because I don’t want to accidentally put my hand out and squish a bee and it stings me. You can read their behavior and you can kind of figure it out as you go. But there’s steps and precautions. Plus, bees can have changes in behavior, just like a surly teenager.
I’ve heard you shouldn’t handle beehives while you have dark clothes on, because it can make them aggressive. Is that true?
Bush: Bees tend to dislike dark colors more than light colors. But I wear blue jeans most of the time. That’s a dark color. They’re usually not stinging me. Sometimes I wear white pants because it seems like a better plan. But generally, I just don’t get around to it.
Boerst: Beekeeper suits are white for a reason. I mean, we’re filthy. They’re not doing it because it’s smart in any other way, but because it’s calmer for the bees. I’m filthy from head to toe in my bee suit because it’s white. They don’t like wool socks either, for some reason. So just certain things they’re not a fan of.
There’s a video where Thompson keeps a queen in her pocket when moving a swarm. That seems a little dangerous.
Bush: I have a queen in my pocket almost every day so I wouldn’t say so. Pretty often, I have a whole pocket full of queens. Does it have its risks? Sure. Bees start discovering that and I can end up with a pocket full of bees, as well as a pocket full of queens. But that’s not so much a risk as it is when I go to take the bees out. If I take my gloves off, I’m liable to pinch a bee in there and get stung.
Boerst: We all have queens all over us in our pockets. When I do a swarm, the first thing I try to do is find the queen and put her in a little clip so that all the bees will follow her right in the box.
I imagine you get stung a lot as a beekeeper?
Bush: My standard answer is, You mean today? Because most days I get stung. I mean I’m gonna be going to bee colonies from sunup to sundown most days. Is that the end of the world? No, not at all. In fact, I really miss it in the winter, because I’m not getting in the beehives and my knees actually feel a lot better if I get stung on them.
Boerst: Oh sure, even with a suit and all kinds of stuff. I don’t get a reaction anymore. Now it’s just like mosquito bites and they fade in a couple of hours and it’s no issue.
Thompson said that she couldn’t eat bananas before going out to the bees because it smells like a pheromone they release. Do you avoid them, too?
Bush: It occurred to me one day that I never eat bananas anymore. I didn’t know why. And then after I thought about it, I realized that’s probably why, because it smells like the alarm pheromone. It really does. It’s the exact same.
Boerst: So, the smell of the alarm pheromone that bees release when they want to let the colony know that there is a danger, to the human nose, smells like bananas. There’s a myth that if you eat bananas you’re going out there and you’re putting off the pheromone that smells like bananas to the bees that are already on alert. I don’t think there’s are any scientific experiments around that. I think it’s OK to eat bananas. Some people even feed bananas to their bees! So I would stand in my bee yard and eat a banana, no problem.
Do you think it’s dangerous to model that you can beekeep without protective gear, as Thompson does in her videos?
Bush: I think it serves a purpose: Most people think that bees are just cruising around looking for someone to sting. And the fact that she’s doing this with no equipment at all totally changes their perspective. So from an educational point of view, I think it’s important that people see that bees are not trying to kill.
Boerst: I do [think it’s a little dangerous]. I think that you can do simple removals in videos, and it looks very easy. It looks very doable by the average person. And I don’t think that all honeybee colonies are that easily extracted, with such nice bees
What do you think people need to know about beekeeping?
Bush: It’s addicting. Don’t start! They’ll take over your life. I’ve been addicted for 47 years. I can list a lot of people whose bees took over their life. And that definitely wasn’t their plan.
Boerst: Beekeeping is awesome. Everybody should try it. I absolutely think if you want to do it, you should go for it, and you should never be afraid. I think that you should begin and get a relationship with your bees. I think you should start with protective gear. If you want a garden hive in your backyard, get one. Have beautiful gentle bees. Whatever your goal is, whatever your experience level is, there’s a bee for every person.