Bee Industry

By: Thelma Burleson and Diana J. Kleiner

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: November 1, 1994

Although the honeybee is not native to North America, European settlers brought bees with them into every colonial area. Most authorities agree that Spanish missionaries brought in the original Texas stock, for bees were already numerous in Texas at the beginning of Anglo-American colonization. Wilhelm Brukish, who moved to Texas in 1842 as a member of the German colony of Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels, was probably the first person in Texas to become interested in the commercial possibilities of bees. He wrote a book on beekeeping and introduced the box hive with removable frames that replaced the pioneer log gum hive. Beekeeping was further facilitated by the invention of foundation comb in 1857, the extractor in 1865, and the bee smoker in 1870. Beginning in the early 1860s stock was gradually improved by importing gentler Italian queen bees; by 1945 that effort had been so successful that 97 percent of the bees in Texas were of that strain.

In pioneer days bees were kept only for home honey consumption and the use of beeswax for church and household candles. Beekeeping as an industry developed in the later part of the nineteenth century, was greatly stimulated by World War I, and has shown continuing progress since that time. Commercial beekeeping is a migratory operation, in which beekeepers move hives of bees from one source of honey to another. Colonies moved both into and out of Texas produce honey from wildflowers and cultivated crops. Much of the honey produced in Texas has come from one or more of the 5,000 nectar-bearing wild plants native to various areas of the state, including horsemint, mesquite, huajilla, guayacan, white brush, gaillardia, sumac, and ratan. The leading cultivated honey-producing plants include cotton, white and yellow sweet clover, and fruit trees, especially the citrus fruits in the lower Rio Grande valley.

Although honey is still used chiefly as a food, it is also employed in making cosmetics, toothpaste, shoe polish, and vinegar, and in treating tobacco and tobacco pipes. Beeswax is used to waterproof fabrics and to make candles, foundation comb, small castings for foundries, dental impressions, and floor and furniture polish. The raising of queen and worker bees for national and foreign markets is also an important branch of the Texas bee industry. Between 1930 and 1948 the estimated number of colonies of bees in Texas rose from 200,000 to 300,000. During the same period the return to producers from the sale of honey increased from $20,000 to $1 million. The return from the sale of queen and worker bees averaged one-third the amount received from the sale of honey. By 1954 honey production had decreased two million pounds from its 1953 total. The value of the 7,560,000 pounds produced by the state's 280,000 bee colonies was estimated at $1.1 million. By 1964, although the number of colonies had declined to 252,000, production had risen to 12,096,000 pounds valued at $1,887,000. Texas ranked eighth in the United States in honey production in 1963. In 1966 a total of 12,189,000 pounds of honey produced by 239,000 colonies was valued at $1,914,000.

Texas ranked among the ten leading states in honey production in 1970 and produced a decade high of 236,000 pounds of beeswax, valued at $185,000, in that year. In the early 1970s queen bee production was valued annually at one million dollars, and queen bees were shipped to England, France, Sweden, Finland, Australia, New Zealand, and Iran. A high for the decade of 13,000,000 pounds of honey valued at $6 million was produced in 1975 by 208,000 colonies of bees. By 1978 Texas ranked fourth nationally in colonies of bees behind California, Florida, and North Carolina. Bees added to the state's agricultural production by cross-pollinating vegetable, fruit, nut and legume crops, particularly, cucumbers, cantaloupes, and alfalfa. From 1970 to 1990 honey production fluctuated from a low of 7,000,000 pounds in the mid-1980s to a high of 11,400,000 pounds, valued at $6,657,600, in 1981, when 239,000 pounds of beeswax valued at $442,400 was also produced from only 190,000 colonies. Between 1980 and 1986 Texas produced packaged bees worth over $3 million and queen bees valued at over $1 million. Colonies of bees declined to a low of 110,000 by 1988 and rose to only 140,000 by 1990.

In the 1990s Africanized honeybees arrived from Mexico. Known as "killer bees," the invading honeybees were the offspring of Africanized bees that had escaped from a research project in Brazil in 1956 and mated with domesticated European honeybees. Though their sting was no more potent than that of other honeybees, killer bees more vigorously and aggressively defended their colonies. The first killer bees arrived in Hidalgo County in 1990, and the community of Hidalgo subsequently came to be known as the "Killer Bee Capital of Texas." By 1991 a total of twenty-five colonies were reported in Texas, and by 1992 killer bees had arrived in Travis County. In that year eighteen counties in South Texas were placed under quarantine to prevent further spread of the bees. By 1994 one death had been attributed to killer bees, and over 190 stinging accidents had been reported.

Thelma Burleson, The Origin and Development of the Bee Industry in Texas (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1938).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Thelma Burleson and Diana J. Kleiner, “Bee Industry,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 25, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

November 1, 1994