Urban Bees Keep Dallas in Zip Code Honey

From rooftops to abandoned football fields, Brandon and Susan Pollard make sure their city of Dallas, Texas, remains a vibrant metropolis by keeping the cities bees buzzing.

Brandon Pollard Checking Hives

Brandon Pollard using his fogger to safely sedate the bees while he checks the hive.

Photo by Molly Peterson

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When Forrest Pritchard went looking for the unsung heroes of local, sustainable food, he found them at 18 exceptional farms all over the country. With more than 50 mouthwatering recipes and over 250 photographs, Growing Tomorrow (The Experiment, 2015) is a unique cookbook that captures the struggles and triumphs of these visionary farmers. 

You can purchase this book in the Capper’s Farmer store: Growing Tomorrow.

Zip Code Honey

It’s afternoon rush hour in downtown Dallas, Texas, and several stories below me, traffic is buzzing. Climbing up the fire escape, I swing my leg over the final rung and step onto the roof. Even from a distance, the brilliant reflection from the glass skyscrapers is momentarily blinding, and I cling to my handhold for fear of vertigo. When my vision finally clears, black dots dancing in the foreground, I slowly realize I’m not seeing sunspots. Directly in front of me is a friendly swarm of bees, with Brandon Pollard standing calmly in the middle.

“Run your finger through this honeycomb,” he says, holding forth a frame of amber beeswax. The wooden rectangle is elegantly thin, and as he turns it he reveals a thousand tiny hexagons of honey, each capped with a translucent dollop of wax. Sensing my reluctance to damage such beauty, he proffers the comb a second time. “You can’t hurt it,” he insists, leveling the frame like a golden platter. “Every bee has seventeen different jobs, from gathering pollen to serving the queen. Honeycomb repair is one of them. Trust me, they won’t hold it against you.”

I’ve never been one to pink-slip a honeybee, and I’m not about to start today. Following his orders, I slide my finger into the delicate comb, the sensation akin to a spoon cracking through crème brûlée. The honey is surprisingly dark, the color of molasses poured over cornbread. Dolloped onto my tongue, there’s no mistaking the taste of marigolds and dandelions, the floral bouquet balancing the heavy notes of dark sugar. The aftertaste brings to mind red clover — clean and mellow with the lightest hints of thyme and cardamom. It’s a treat, quite frankly, and unlike anything I’ve ever had the pleasure of sampling.

“That’s Zip Code Honey,” Brandon says proudly, smiling through the shadows of his keeper’s mask. “Bees can only travel three to five miles, and this hive is in the heart of Dallas. So we know that this honey came from 75270, from the flower beds and weeds that grow right here.”

He returns the frame to the hive, sliding it between identical racks. Honeybees circle his head like a corona, dipping and weaving through the summer air. “Isn’t that amazing?” he marvels, talking as he works. “A little dandelion growing in the sidewalk, it’s something we take for granted. But for the bees, that’s food. Keeping those little flowers alive is so crucial.”

It’s more than a bit surreal, standing on a rooftop in downtown Dallas, eating honey straight from the hive. But this is a normal day for Susan and Brandon Pollard, urban beekeepers and educators who spend their time wrangling honeybees all across the Dallas metro area. The couple maintains one hundred fifty hives in more than fifty different locations, selling the honey at Dallas farmers’ markets, food co-ops, and online to earn a living. Like the bees themselves, gamboling through their orbits, Brandon and Susan are constantly on the move, traveling from one end of the sprawling city to the other.

“It’s a seven-days-a-week job,” Susan explains, when I ask her about her schedule. “With this many hives, someone always has to be on call. The phone rings off the hook after a big thunderstorm. ‘Hello? Lightning split the tree in my yard, and it’s full of honeybees. Will you guys come get them?’” Her voice is languid, tranquil, much like Brandon’s movements around the bees. “Most of the time, these callers are frightened, scared they’re going to get stung. But there’s really nothing to worry about. With honeybees, it’s like meeting an unfamiliar dog: No sudden moves, and remain calm. If everything goes right, pretty soon you’ve made a new friend. No bites, and no stings. Come on,” she adds gently. “Let’s go visit some hives.”

Bee-vangelists

Today, I get to be a bee. We crowd into Brandon’s black Chevy pickup, a battered five-speed with empty frames rattling in the bed. He pops the clutch and the truck lurches forward, puttering exhaust as he gears up to overdrive and accelerates onto I-35.

Most plants depend on pollinators to reproduce, ferrying living pollen from flower to flower, and honeybees are among the best in the business. Each spring, thousands of hives are loaded onto tractor trailers and trucked all over the country, hustled to almond blooms in California, or peach blossoms in Georgia. Once there, the bees are released to feed on flower nectar and pollinate the trees, which satisfies them for a month or two. But as soon as the blossoms fade, back onto the truck they go, whisked down the interstate to another location.

Brandon grimaces. “You’ve got to feel bad for them. When I was first learning how to keep bees, I rode on a few of those trucks, helped with hive deliveries. The mortality is just tremendous. Huge numbers die during transport. When you think about it, shipping bees coast-to-coast to propagate thousand-acre monocultures, crops that need sprays and chemicals in the first place ... ” He trails off, momentarily at a loss for words. “It’s just bizarre, you know? There’s nothing sustainable about any of it.”

These days, honeybee advocacy is always in the front of Brandon’s mind. Back in college, however, bee farming in Texas couldn’t have been farther from his radar. An all-American soccer player at the University of Virginia, as well as a US Olympian, he was drafted with the third pick of the Major League Soccer draft to the Dallas Burn in 1995. Then, in 1999, a devastating tackle from behind shattered his leg. Everyone thought his career was over.

Defying the odds, he spent an entire year rehabbing and eventually worked his way back onto the field. But on the second go-round, something felt lacking. “All of a sudden, I just didn’t see the purpose in kicking a ball for entertainment. I wanted to accomplish more, do something really meaningful with my life.” Bucking all convention, he retired from professional soccer and went to work at a bakery.

“Yeah.” He nods, as if it was the most logical decision in the world. “When I was playing, I met a baker who made this incredible, healthy bread. But the guy was just killing himself, working way too hard. So it made sense to me to help him, you know? That’s how I got this truck,” he says, patting the steering wheel. “And how I met Fluffy, too.”

“Fluffy?” I repeat.

“Yeah, Susan,” Brandon affirms. “Fluffy, Queen Bee, I’ve got a lot of nicknames for her. Meeting her changed my life. Got me healthy, made me whole. When I retired from soccer, people say I traded money for honey.” He grins, showing off an even row of beautiful teeth. “Sounds good to me.”

There’s no denying that Brandon, forty-one, and Susan, sixty-two, make an unconventional pairing. Susan’s background is in holistic healing, and when the couple met, she was running a center focused on natural, restorative health. She laughs at the memory.

“Of course, after his injury it was no surprise that he came to see me,” Susan recalls. “We had already been introduced by mutual acquaintances long before that. Eventually, a close friend told us, ‘You know, you guys make such a beautiful couple.’ We didn’t realize it at first, but over time we’d totally fallen for each other. It took someone else to see it for us.”

It’s a mystery, how certain people notice things that others never see at all. That’s precisely what Susan and Brandon now do for a living, speaking up for an insect that can’t speak for itself. Dubbing themselves “beevangelists,” they’re ambassadors for honeybees in a landscape populated with skyscrapers, subdivisions, and SUVs.

West Nile and Bees

“It’s just crazy,” Susan says, “the amount of spraying that’s gone on here the past few years. Due to the West Nile virus, they send out airplanes to fog the city with insecticide. It’s supposed to kill mosquitos, but of course it’s devastating to the bees as well. So when the alert goes off — usually late at night — that’s when we jump in the truck, and rush into action.”

The alert, given in advance of spraying to encourage people to stay indoors, is Brandon and Susan’s cue. Into the battered pickup they go, sprinting across the city to cover their beehives with tarps. It’s all a fervent effort to keep the defenseless honeybees from being asphyxiated by the poison. According to Texas A&M’s website, their concerns are not unmerited: “It is likely that at least some insect species ... may be harmed, at least temporarily, by mosquito spraying.”

Susan sighs. “Look, it’s impossible to measure the damage done by this spraying. But we do know one thing. Across the country, colony collapse disorder — that’s what it’s called when a hive inexplicably dies — is at thirty-three percent. In Dallas? It’s at sixty percent. Is there a connection?” She spreads her palms. “All I can say is, we’re going to keep protecting our bees the best way we know how.”

Brandon parks near a backyard garden in the suburbs, where nights before the couple had tarped the hives against insecticide at two in the morning. He lights the smoker, producing ethereal white plumes. The billowing smoke keeps the bees sedate by masking their alarm pheromones. “I usually use sage and rosewood, because it smells so nice,” he says. “But sometimes I’ll shred my credit card bills, and put them in there, too. That’s especially therapeutic.”

On this morning, all seems well. The bees have survived the West Nile spraying and are busy at work gathering pollen. All at once, however, Brandon pauses.

“Uh-oh, Fluff. Looks like we’ve got a false queen trying to take the throne.” He lifts a frame from the box. Typically, the honeycomb is a uniform prairie of repeating identical hexagons. On this comb, however, there’s a noticeable aberration, a turgid nodule rising conspicuously above the golden plain.

“Can’t have that,” Brandon says matter-of-factly, not hesitating as he scoops it away with an index finger. “The hive got confused,” he explains, “because we introduced a new queen this spring. But if there’s no queen for a month or so — as was the case here — the colony will raise one themselves. It’s a mixture of pheromonal signals, and the special way they’re fed.”

He raises his finger, where thick, yellowy-white honey glistens in the morning light. “This is called royal jelly, the food of the queens, a real delicacy. Here,” he says, holding it out.

“Try it.”

How can I say no? I swipe the gooey glob from his finger and pop it into my mouth. Sweet, certainly, but intensely tangy, akin to the taste of fresh Greek yogurt. Chewing, I also detect something altogether different, an earthy bitterness that I can’t quite identify. I swallow and find Brandon staring at me admiringly.

“You’re so brave to eat the larva! Most people pick it out.”

The queen maggot. An earthy — and chewy — bitterness. Yes, I tell myself, that was the taste. That was it exactly.

Moments later, we’re off yet again. Dallas is a city where fútbol is respected, but football is king. As such, it’s startling to see goalposts rising from rows of collard greens, a one-hundred-yard garden in what was clearly once a football field. But that’s the scene at Paul Quinn College, one of dozens of community gardens Brandon and Susan service with their hives.

“When we first started,” Susan recounts, “we were these odd little beekeepers making cold calls. We’d visit restaurants, hotels, anywhere we could get high visibility to stress the importance of pollination. ‘Would you like some bees on your rooftop?’ we’d ask. At first, chefs and CEOs thought we were crazy. Bees on the rooftop, in the middle of the city?” She smiles. “Now, we can’t keep up with the requests. Once the Omni found out the Fairmont had bees, well guess what? Now they’re ready to play catch-up.”

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Excerpt from Growing Tomorrow: A Farm-to-Table Journey in Photos and Recipes, copyright © Forrest Pritchard, 2015. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Experiment. Available wherever books are sold. Buy this book from our store: Growing Tomorrow.