Are you on BeeTok? Last summer you might have encountered one of the viral videos made by Erika Thompson, aka @Texasbeeworks.
One particularly compelling video starts with a zoom in on a cluster of buzzing bees crawling all over each other on the underside of a large patio umbrella. There’s got to be a few hundred bees in the pile. Creepy crawly feelings abound, but the ick factor is dampened by the soothing sounds of Thompson’s gentle voice saying, “A swarm of bees settled under this umbrella and I was called to remove them. So I started scooping bees off the umbrella and putting them into a hive.” The next shot in the video is of Thompson casually scooping up the bees with her bare hands and putting them into a wooden box.
With her bare hands.
This woman just scoops up dozens of bees at a time and places them into her little mobile hive. It’s shocking, imagining all those little legs, all those little stingers ready to pop, and this person is just so nonchalant about her handfuls of bees. Thompson goes on to explain that when bees swarm in weird places like the underside of a patio umbrella it means they are in the process of looking for a new home, and “They tend to be very docile since they don’t have resources to defend.” No food, no hive, no baby bees.
Her videos are all amazing, she wears very little (if any) protective gear and is always super chill in the face of literal swarms of bees. After watching Tik after Tok of her scooping bees and relocating swarms from all sorts of inconvenient places to her professional apiary, it starts to feel a little unbee-lievable. Are these videos real?
After going viral last year, @Texasbeeworks attracted quite a bit of buzz, including from other beekeepers active on social media like TikTok. One user, @lahoneybeerescue, posted some scathing critiques of Thompson’s videos, accusing her of setting a dangerous example by wearing dark colors, which can aggravate bees, and not using proper protective gear. They also claimed that Thompson was staging fake removals by sedating bees and having her husband do most of the work before getting on camera herself, going on to say, “Even if she’s going in with the suit and doing the entire removal herself, she then takes off the suit and poses as bee removal Barbie, holding little bits of comb, wearing inappropriate clothes with her hair down, and it’s fake.” These accusations ignited quite the controversy on social media, leading to some users on Twitter to accuse Thompson of being a Trump supporter in an apparent effort to discredit her further. Are these criticisms legit?
There’s no evidence to be found that Thompson voted for Trump, and even if there was, one’s political views have nothing to do with one’s beekeeping ability. There’s also no evidence that her husband is doing any of the beekeeping work off-screen. Thompson started her Texas Beeworks company in 2014, and to assume that a man must be doing the work for her carries more than a tinge of sexism. The lack of protective gear seems to be the only legitimate criticism of the bunch, but it’s not entirely out of the ordinary. In an interview with Slate magazine, professional beekeeper Michael Bush had this to say about it:
“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. 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.”
Thompson herself responded to some of these critiques in an interview with Vice:
“The removals that went viral, those are some cases where I’m not wearing gear. But, you know, there are other cases where I am wearing gear. One of the things you don’t see, maybe, in the one-minute TikTok videos—I’m in Texas, and it’s incredibly hot. Sometimes these removals take 30 minutes; sometimes they take three hours or more. Beekeeping gear in general, it’s big and it’s bulky… It makes it a little bit more difficult to work with these tiny creatures who are very delicate.”
It’s also important to keep in mind the purpose of the @texasbeeworks videos. It is clearly not Thompson’s intention for these clips to be seen as how to’s. Bees have a fierce reputation, and while they can be dangerous, these videos demonstrate that they can also be gentle and fun to work with. She isn’t trying to get her viewers to emulate her behavior exactly, she’s trying to share her work with people and raise awareness of something she cares a lot about. Thompson signs off on all her videos by saying “It was another great day of saving the bees!” and that’s a laudable mission, right?
The fact is that bee populations around the world are in decline due to pesticides, disease, habitat loss, and climate change. Bees are essential pollinators, and if they die off, the entire world’s ecosystem will be thrown out of whack. But there are also more than 20,000 distinct species of bee found around the world, 4,000 or so native to North America. The honeybee, which is the most iconic bee species, the type of bee you tend to picture in your head when you think of the word “bee” and the species that @texasbeeworks is concerned with, is not native to North America. Research has shown that introducing honeybees to new ecosystems can actually be disruptive to the native pollinators of an area. While 1 in 4 wild bee species in the US is in danger of extinction, there are currently more honeybees on Earth than ever before. In fact, according to Dr. Alison McAfee, who specializes in honeybee social immune defense strategies, “Colony densities in some locations have become too high, facilitating the spread of disease and exacerbating problems with poor nutrition.” There might actually be too many honeybees!
This can get pretty confusing, when there are experts giving out seemingly contradictory information. Is @texasbeeworks actually spreading harmful messages about beekeeping? Maybee, but also maybee not. It’s why librarians and researchers recommend lateral reading strategies, checking facts and perspectives while combing through multiple sources in order to get as full a picture as possible. There’s a lot of nuance to nature and science, and while short videos on social media can be fun introductions to a subject, it shouldn’t be your last stop. Check out the sources listed below and ask a librarian if you’d like help researching more about bees or other environmental issues, we love to "bee" helpful and keep you informed.
References and Further Readings:
Andrade, S. (2021, June 4). What beekeepers really think of the viral TikTok bee lady. Slate. Retrieved March 7, 2022, from, https://slate.com/technology/2021/06/beekeeper-lady-tiktok-sting-gear.html
Gooljar, J. (2018, May 23). Fact sheet: bees. EarthDay.org. Retrieved March 7, 2022, from, https://www.earthday.org/fact-sheet-bees/
Haylock, Z. (2021, June 7). TikTok is buzzzzing with sweet, sweet bee drama. Vulture. Retrieved March 7, 2022, from, https://www.vulture.com/2021/06/the-bee-lady-tiktok-fraud-controversy-explained.html
Larson, L. (2020, September 18). How Texas Beeworks’s Erika Thompson became the queen bee of pastoral TikTok. Texas Monthly. Retrieved March 7, 2022, from, https://www.texasmonthly.com/being-texan/erika-thompson-beekeeper-tiktok/
McAfee, A. (2020, November 4). The problem with honey bees. Scientific American. Retrieved March 7, 2022, from, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-problem-with-honey-bees/
Save the bees. (2022). Environment America. Retrieved March 7, 2022, from, https://environmentamerica.org/topics/save-the-bees/
Schwartz, D. (2021, June 4). Shocker: the TikTok beekeeper drama is totally bogus. Vice. Retrieved March 7, 2022, from, https://www.vice.com/en/article/m7ebnn/tiktok-beekeeper-drama-explained-erika-thompson-texas-bee-works
Tangley, L. (2021, June 1). The truth about honey bees. National Wildlife Federation. Retrieved March 7, 2022, from, https://www.nwf.org/Home/Magazines/National-Wildlife/2021/June-July/Gardening/Honey-Bees