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The bee whisperer: A third-generation Pearland honey man lets you into his vanishing world

The bee whisperer: A third-generation Pearland honey man lets you into his vanishing world

It's the kind of place where much business is discussed over chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes, and the occasional Caesar salad for those watching their figure.

The newly reopened Crosswind Cafe, onsite at the Texas Gulf Coast Regional Airport in Angleton, was an eatery where you didn't just order from the menu. Rather, it's a restaurant where you know the wait staff even if you don't. Where everyone knows Maria the cook by name. And where the peach pie had a reputation.

Jerry Stroope, a third generation Pearland-based beekeeper, visits here often. He owns a 1964 Cessna 150 two-seat tricycle gear airplane, which he shares with his 21-year-old son O.T. Cole, who's trying to find his place in life, and 23-year-old-daughter Lauren Ray, a Texas A&M University at Galveston student and black belt in tae kwon do. Both of his children were homeschooled until the eighth grade. 

After a 30-minute flight from Pearland Regional Airport to visually inspect his 3,000 beehive colonies scattered throughout Brazoria, Galveston and Harris counties — we were looking for potential flood damage or theft, of which there was neither — as if drunk from unsweetened iced tea, the 64-year-old tells juicy story after story of his days as a powerhouse lobbyist for the honey industry in the '90s. Steak Dianne dinners with this one, rubbing elbows with that one — on and on he talks.

Then he remembered being up in the air when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded. That's going to be in the news, he thought. And coincidentally during my visit, BP was the one providing fuel to planes.

 "These are your honeybees. If you take care of them, they'll take care of you."

 

Stroope is no doubt a troublemaker by nature, one who fought in a public conference against economic dumping of honey from China (a practice that imported low-cost honey and devastated local producers) and won.

"I am trying to lose a couple of pounds," he says, talking about a beach party on his calendar the following week.

With his wife Mary Linda, Stroope opts for a much simpler life today. After a dispute with his brother Garland drove him out of the family business many moons ago, he had no choice but to start over. His father passed away last year from Alzheimer's. And despite the challenges keeping bees alive, his commitment to producing local honey hasn't dwindled. 

"I learned beekeeping at the age of 10. That's when I got my first hives of bees," he says. "And to tell you the truth, I didn't go out and buy them, my daddy gave them to me. He said, 'These are your honeybees. If you take care of them, they'll take care of you.'

"Now, I've said that and remembered that all my life. I've shared that with many people. And out of the many things and words of advice I've given to some beekeepers over the years, they seem to come back with that one most often. 'That was very good advice,' they say."

A local beekeeping operation: Stroope Honey Farms' Texas Brand Honey

The drive from Houston to Stroope Honey Farms in Pearland, often confused with Stroope Bee & Honey in Alvin, bespeaks what's comely about the area. Close to the Gulf Freeway, unappealing buildings in Friendswood dissipate upon entering Galveston County. Residences on the main drag have deep set backs; amid a hodgepodge of a streetscape with casual cottages, clay-tiled-roofs Mediterranean mansions and galvanized metal warehouses, a rural Buddhist temple hints at the diversity seeping deep in the heart of agrarian lifeways.

The processing and bottling facilities sit in a 5.5-acre pecan orchard in unincorporated Pearland, near Farm-to-Market Road 2351 and the airport. Stroope's home, a charming white siding country-style bungalow with a wrap-around front porch and a porte-cochère, is on the property, raised a few feet for protection against surges after heavy rains. He also grows corn, tomatoes and greens for personal consumption.

Stroope can take a leisurely stroll to work, but he often takes his golf cart. He prefers to keep mud off his running shoes.

 "If every beekeeper in every area took their very special honey and presented it, there would be as many different flavors and types of honey as there are different types of coffee out there."

The hives are housed away from the plant to keep workers safe, and placed strategically where the bees have access to plenty of nectar. At times, landowners benefit from the presence of the bees; farmers depend on them for pollination.

Sometimes old-fashioned bartering — some land for some honey — helps Stroope secure terrain for his colonies.

Resting against white bookshelves in his office are plaques, photos and books that nod to his days as the president of the American Honey Producers Association and the Texas Beekeepers Association. A Library of Congress transcript tome documents when Stroope testified before the senate in 1997. He has marketing and business degrees from the University of Houston.

He admires John Wayne. Yet as a child of the '60s, his social views are much more liberal than the otherwise conservative facade and genteel Southern patois may infer.

"There are honeys out there just to die for," he says. "There's actually gourmet quality, and we want people to discovery those qualities of honey. If every beekeeper in every area took their very special honey and presented it, there would be as many different flavors and types of honey as there are different types of coffee out there."

Stroope's philosophy hasn't changed, but his approach has adapted. It used to be that beekeepers wouldn't market and sell their own honey. A real beekeeper wouldn't be caught bottling their own honey; their sole purpose was to produce honey and lots of it.

This generation of consumers are more conscious of supporting local, he says.

What was an acceptable 10 to 20 percent colony attrition averages 30 percent today, sometimes as high as 70 percent. Those numbers are devastating not just for beekeepers, but for other farmers whose crops depend on bee pollination.

 

"That's not the way to do it," he explains. "I believe the best way to do it is to control the quality from the hive to the bottle. That's what I try to do at Stroope Honey Farms."

A regional flavor 

A good year for Stroope means a yield of 180,000 pounds of honey. The region hasn't always been fertile for honeybees, something that he noticed changed after a Texas Highway Department beautification initiative had an unexpected outcome.

The U.S Department of Agriculture introduced the Chinese tallow tree into Texas in the early 1900s. It spread rapidly down the coastal grasslands of the Gulf Coast, from Galveston to Houston, in empty lots and in deserted farmland. Though the species is now categorized as noxious and invasive, displacing nearly 25 percent of native flora, the nectar boosts honey production and taste.

"They have determined that the tallow tree is a pest," he says. "They are recommending that the tallow tree be exterminated everywhere you find it. The beekeepers don't like this because it's the best thing that has happened to us. We can produce a very nice crop from the tallow tree."

Other plants and wildflowers native to the Gulf Coast give bees a head start in the spring — they build up honeybees strong, Stroope continues. Among them are spring clovers, orange blossoms, bluebonnets and lantana. When that honey mixes with the tallow honey, a gourmet regional flavor develops.

A taste? Stroope demonstrates how gentle pressure with a finger against a honey comb in an antique frame, which he's owned for more than 50 years, draws out the sweet, unfiltered, unprocessed, pure, raw, straight-from-the-hive liquid. Without hesitation, I followed suit. I resisted inclinations to describe the nectar's notes as if it was some rare vintage wine. Rather, a smile and nod sufficed. 

 "I am not exactly sure who said it, but they say that mankind wouldn't exist very long if all the honeybees in the world disappeared, and I believe that."

All of the extracting of spring honey will conclude in just a few days.

The mystery of the disappearing bees: Colony collapse disorder

Even with all those favorable conditions, the number of beekeepers is in decline. Moreover, what was an acceptable 10 to 20 percent bee colony attrition averages 30 percent today, sometimes as high as 70 percent. Those numbers are devastating not just for beekeepers, but for other farmers whose crops depend on bee pollination for fertilization.

The beekeeping business is a small, yet valuable industry.

"I am not exactly sure who said it, but they say that mankind wouldn't exist very long if all the honeybees in the world disappeared, and I believe that," Stroope says. "It's an important link in the chain of what happens out here."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that one third of food production, including almonds, peaches, soybeans, apples, pears, cherries, raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, watermelons, cantaloupes, cucumbers and strawberries, benefits from bee pollination.

"Most beekeepers believe the problem is going to be pesticide related," Stroope explains. "There are just too many designer drugs, chemicals, that can do so many things, and there's so much money involved that they are going to be the last ones to say, 'OK, our product is hurting those honeybees and we are not going to do that anymore.'

"That's just not going to happen."

 "When you work with honeybees, you work alone and with your helpers. Not many people want to come and visit. They seem to find somewhere they have to be."

Bees disappear without a trace. The victims bodies aren't found. Stroope used to have 140 bees per colony, this year that's down to 100.

A recent opinion blog post in Reuters brings to light three new studies that assign fault to neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides produced mainly by Bayer. A survey in Science says that the chemical acts as a nerve poison that disorients the insect, which never returns to the hive. The Harvard School of Public Health observed that by administering small doses of neonic dust, colony collapse disorder could be re-created.

The bees are doing the best they can, he says.

On solid ground

Inclement weather didn't make the flight back to Pearland particularly smooth. After circling around for 45 minutes to avoid heavy rains, though we struggled somewhat with a temperamental GPS unit, making for some tense moments, a clearing opened up for a clean landing.

They say that in situations like these you get to know someone's character. Stroope commended me for not losing my composure in the big Texas sky, and I learned that he spends a lot of his time on his own, silent when he's in his own element.

But away from the hives, Stroope is a chatty Kathy whose stories flow like honey.

"You can't be a real people person and be happy as a beekeeper," he says. "When you work with honeybees, you work alone and with your helpers. Not many people want to come and visit. They seem to find somewhere they have to be

In the field, when he's working the bees, Stroope has a chance to be close to nature, be close to God and be close to the bees. He lets his thoughts go and works out anything that may be troubling him. Stroope isn't ready to retire, yet. But he doesn't know what he will do with the business once he's ready to call it quits.

"My son is a fourth generation beekeeper, but I am not sure he will become one. I try to keep his foot in the fire around here, and try to keep him involved.

"He may end up discovering what I love about beekeeping."

_____

Whole Foods Market Bellaire will be screening Vanishing Of The Bees on Saturday, 2 p.m., as part of the Do Something Reel Film Festival. Learn more about bees here, including six ways to help "bee" the solution.

Stroope Honey Farms
Stroope Honey Farms, often confused with Stroope Bee & Honey in Alvin, sit in a 5.5-acre pecan orchard in unincorporated Pearland near Farm-to-Market Road 2351 and Pearland Regional airport. Photo by Joel Luks
Stroope Honey Farms
Stroope demonstrates how gentle pressure with a finger against a honey comb, which he's owned for more than 50 years, draws out the sweet, unfiltered, unprocessed, pure, raw, straight-from-the-hive liquid. Without hesitation, I followed suit. Photo by Joel Luks
Stroope Honey Farms
The hives are housed away from the plant to keep workers safe, and placed strategically where the bees have access to plenty of nectar. Photo by Joel Luks
Stroope Honey Farms
At times, landowners benefit from the presence of the bees; farmers depend on them for pollination. Sometimes old-fashioned bartering — some land for some honey — helps Stroope secure terrain for his colonies. Photo by Joel Luks
Stroope Honey Farms
The Chinese tallow tree and wildflowers native to the Gulf Coast give bees head start in the spring. Among them are spring clovers, orange blossoms, bluebonnets and lantana. Photo by Joel Luks
Stroope Honey Farms
A good year for Stroope means a yield of 180,000 pounds of honey. Photo by Joel Luks
Stroope Honey Farms
Jerry Stroope owns a 1964 Cessna 150 two-seat tricycle gear airplane. Photo by Joel Luks
Stroope Honey Farms
A 30-minute flight from Pearland Regional Airport to visually inspect his 3,000 beehive colonies scattered throughout Brazoria, Galveston and Harris counties, showed no signs of flood damage or theft. Photo by Joel Luks
Stroope Honey Farms
All of the extracting of spring honey will conclude in just a few days. Photo by Joel Luks
Stroope Honey Farms
He remembered being up in the air when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded. And coincidentally during my visit, BP was the company providing fuel to planes. Photo by Joel Luks
Stroope Honey Farms
Stroope Honey Farms
Stroope Honey Farms
Stroope Honey Farms
Stroope Honey Farms
Stroope Honey Farms
Stroope Honey Farms
Stroope Honey Farms
Stroope Honey Farms
Stroope Honey Farms
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