ST. PETERSBURG — First things first: If the bees get angry, is it a stand-still situation, as when one meets a wild bear? Or is it a run situation?
“It’s run,” said Elisha Bixler, slipping into a beekeeping jacket and veil. “Just run.”
She has, occasionally, had to run.
Bee colonies can kill, and some are so aggressive they can’t be saved during removals from homes. But many bees have no interest in us. Having settled in walls and ducts and compost bins, they can be moved to an apiary, where they’ll make honey and pollinate local flora.
That’s where Bixler comes in, sprightly and intrepid, recording videos on a cell phone clogged with so much honey, it only works on speaker.
On a recent bee removal job, she climbed a ladder outside a vacant St. Pete Beach restaurant and wedged a crowbar into the soffit. Bees trickled out.
“So far they seem good,” said Bixler. “They’re not in my face. Oh, I have a few coming at me.”
Bixler, 38, is a St. Petersburg mom of three who turned a fledgling interest into a bee removal and honey business called How’s Your Day Honey. She relocates unwanted bees to her eight apiaries around Florida.
She is TikTok famous. A video of Bixler holding a ball of bees attacking their queen went viral with 5.6 million views. Another of her confronting a 7-foot hive in a St. Petersburg shower had 3.5 million views and landed her in The New York Times by way of Fox 13. She’s had interest, she said, from producers at Magnolia Network and National Geographic.
For people conditioned to fear bees and women, it’s all shocking. Bixler, 5-foot-2, dulcet-voiced and willowy, is not who they expect to arrive with saws. They ask, where is her husband? She is routinely sexually harassed while swarmed by bees (guys, really?).
Some people even bristle at her removal fees. Her world looks dreamy online, so aesthetic, so farmy. Why pay for her to play with bees?
“They just think I’m packing up hundreds of pounds of honey, not even considering all the layers,” she said. “I don’t know very many rich beekeepers.”
Six years ago, Bixler saw nucleus colonies for sale on Facebook — small hives with bees in different developmental stages — and bought them to make honey for her family. As she dug a pond for her new bee friends, five stung her in the face. Her eyes swelled shut. It took her a year to get over her fear.
Planning your weekend?
Subscribe to our free Top 5 things to do newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
She found a mentor to teach her about removals, got proper equipment and a beekeeping license. She paid farmers with honey to set up boxes on their property. She limits size and location of her apiaries so as not to overtake local bees with interlopers.
She’d realized honeybee colonies are nature’s magical superorganism, maestros of the ecosystem, overlords of the food chain. Bees live for only six weeks, and they’re up against a lot — mites, colony collapse disorder, chemicals. She wanted to help.
She sells honey online, at festivals and in St. Pete shops, including Old Southeast Market, The Hive and Pineapple Espresso. But she doesn’t simply scoop it from walls. Most honey from removal jobs goes in the trash, unless homeowners want it. Sometimes they do.
Bixler always starts her jobs in a bee veil. Most beekeepers develop a bee-whisperer ability for temperament. The insects, Bixler said, are angrier in the brutal days of summer, and when it’s cold and rainy.
If the bees are chill, she’ll take off layers. Internet commenters are often horrified by this. Search for bee drama on #beetok and you’ll find Texas Beeworks keeper Erika Thompson, who has 10.5 million TikTok followers. She has been accused of faking videos, a notion she denounces, and promoting unsafe practices.
Bixler is aware of the bee backlash. She tries to post disclaimers and showcase aggressive bees along with docile ones. And, she says unequivocally, do not try this at home.
Bixler invited me and two colleagues to the removal job inside the restaurant under construction. The property manager paid her $700 to relocate about 35,000 bees in the wall. Well, $700, plus bees.
She deduced there were two hives, maybe 12 feet apart. She fired up a smoker to calm the bees. She pulled out chunk after chunk of hive and pressed a new honeycomb into the soffit, trying to familiarize them with the scent of the box they’d travel in.
Finding the queen is essential. Without her, the hive dies. The queen looks larger, more sluggish. The other bees encircle her, fanning her pheromones around.
Bixler found the first queen quickly and moved her into a tiny cage. She added nurse bees to keep her fed.
“We got the queen so easy!” she said. “What an easy job!”
Onto the second hive. Honey poured out of the soffit, soaking Bixler, swallowing her fingers. Soon, though, she noticed something strange. There weren’t a lot of, well… bees. Where were they?
She sprayed sweet almond oil, which bees hate, driving some out of the wall. But they were retreating.
She retrieved a power tool from her truck. And this is the part the people don’t see on the pleasant videos. They don’t see Bixler, covered in honey, sweat and mud, changing saw blades, ripping walls apart. A crowd formed at the back door of the neighboring Sherwin-Williams store.
She hurried into the restaurant in case the queen had fled inward. We found swarms of bees in a closet.
“The queen!” she said.
Bixler lost the queen in the chaos. She had been stung dozens of times by now, plucking stingers out like stray hairs. When a bee got trapped in my shirt and stung my shoulder, Bixler leapt to me and pulled the stinger from my flesh, then turned back to the search.
Back outside, Bixler climbed the ladder to look again. She hopped down. I was at the truck examining my souvenir sting when I noticed her crumple over. She didn’t make a sound.
She’d stepped on a board with a nail sticking out. It went right through her boot.
“Can you pull it out?” she said. So, reader, I pulled a rusty nail out of her foot. Blood dripped everywhere, bees buzzing around the scene. She rinsed her foot, wrapped it in paper towels and put the boot back on.
“Should I call someone?” I said.
“I’m going back in to look for the queen.”
As her foot swelled and her adrenaline faded, she held up her sticky phone to post Instagram stories of the hunt, now on hold.
Bixler got a tetanus shot, though ironically feared the needle. She went back the next day. The queen was still missing, possibly dead with her colony in disarray. Bixler found more honeycomb and noticed something.
They’re called supersedure cells. Little pockets bees create to feed a baby royal jelly. They would make a new queen. The hive would survive in one of Bixler’s sunny fields, continuing this marvelous, baffling, critical will to get the job done.
Get Stephanie’s newsletter
For weekly bonus content and a look inside columns by Stephanie Hayes, sign up for the free Stephinitely newsletter.