The bees drip from Erika Thompson’s bare hand, as if she’s holding a scoop of melting ice cream. But she’s not worried. Just a simple flick of the wrist, and the gentle insects rush into their new home.
This scene’s out of a recent TikTok from Thompson, an Austin-area beekeeper who has amassed an enormous social media following by documenting her work of ethical bee removal. In this particular video, she explains that she was asked to safely remove a colony of bees that have been living in a backyard shed for two years. At one point, she lifts up a section of wooden flooring to expose hundreds of bees crawling over one another. A delighted grin spreads across her face.
“I love seeing Beyoncé interact with her fans,” joked one user in the comments.
“How do you not get stung?” asked dozens more.
“You’re either really crazy or really brave!!!!” commented another.
She didn’t expect everyone else to love her clips. On TikTok, the land of puppy videos, viral dances and food hack tips, Thompson’s content has become incredibly popular. Viewers can’t look away, cringe from vicarious fear, or some combination of both — and are amazed that Thompson isn’t fazed at all.
Growing up, Thompson so admired Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey that she would pretend to be them, stringing binoculars around her neck and setting up her stuffed animals like creatures in the wild. Then, she’d head outside.
“I spent a lot of time in my backyard on nights and weekends, trying to collect bugs and put them in jars … to keep them and care for them,” she said. “It’s something I’ve been into my entire life.”
In reality, Thompson simply love bees. Really loves them. The 35-year-old’s backyard is filled with about 50 hives. She signs her emails “bee well.”
About a decade ago, she took a beekeeping class out of curiosity. The University of Texas graduate didn’t expect it to become a living. She worked as a communications director at a nonprofit and didn’t even know if she could keep bees in her central Austin home. But found herself learning more and more about bees and eventually keeping her own hive.
She soon launched Texas Beeworks, spending nights, weekends and even some lunch breaks helping others keep bees and driving around with hives in the back of her hatchback. Two years ago, she made it full-time, making her feel like “the luckiest person in the world.”
“Nothing compares to going into a wild hive of bees and not knowing what you’re going to find. You take off the cover, and you get to meet the bees,” she said. “It’s just extraordinary to get to see what the bees built without any human intervention or interference.”
Thompson began making the videos to document her process for clients who, unsurprisingly, usually choose to be absent during a removal. Last year, when the pandemic began, several speaking opportunities she had lined up went by the wayside. With a little more time on her hands, she started a TikTok account.
Even given her adoration of bees, she never expected to earn nearly 4 million followers on the app or to produce a series of viral videos. After all, beekeeping isn’t the most common profession.
“Most of the time when I tell people I’m a beekeeper, they say, ‘Oh, you’re a bookkeeper?'” Thompson said. “I don’t know what has really captivated people, because for me, it’s just so normal. Maybe it’s people seeing something that they’ve never seen before and maybe that they didn’t know was possible.”
Plus there’s an awful lot to admire about bees, she added, “from the way they work together as a superorganism and nobody thinks of herself as an individual but does everything for the good of the colony to the way they build the hive and forage and raise their young.”
The videos do tap into a fascination with bees that humans have had since ancient times, when honey was one of the few abundant, accessible forms of natural sweetness. As we began studying the social animals, whether correctly or incorrectly, “people saw their own societies mirrored in the life of bees,” said May Berenbaum, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s head of the entomology department. “There’s this allegorical perception of bees as being more like humans than most insects.” Just look to “Henry V,” in which Shakespeare compares a well-run kingdom to a beehive.
Of course, some bees sting, which naturally gave them a bad rap, even though it’s in self-defense. The term “killer bee” certainly didn’t help matters. It was used to describe a strain of particularly defensive bees that escaped quarantine in Brazil in the 1950s and spread around the world, even though they weren’t particularly more deadly. Hollywood latched onto the idea of evil bees in movies like “The Swarm” and “Candyman” — in part because “it’s easy to manipulate them,” Berenbaum said. “They respond to all kind of cues, to light cues, to chemical cues, so you can control them on set.”
Such cultural signals did to bees what “Jaws” did to sharks: created an outsized fear. But attitudes shifted around 2006, when reports of colony collapse disorder — when most worker bees disappear from a hive, leaving the queen behind — began circulating and lay folks started to understand the inherent importance of the insects.
That mixture of deep admiration, healthy fear and newfound sympathy might be one reason we can’t stop watching Thompson’s TikToks.
Though she didn’t expect her videos to become so popular, she hopes they can help continue changing our attitude by correcting misconception about bees, perhaps the largest one being that “all kinds want to sting you all the time.”
For one, there are more than 20,000 species of bees, all of which have different temperaments. Plus, Thompson said, “Most bees, and most honeybees, are docile and do not want to sting you.”
She also hopes her videos will inspire anyone wishing to remove a colony from their property to call a professional beekeeper instead of an exterminator. Simply killing them will not only damage a vital part of the ecosystem, but it will leave behind the hive and its honey — which can cause structural damage and may attract random critters, including another colony of bees.
“Bees need advocates,” she said. “And I’m so glad to do that for them.”