"Last year was a total disaster," Walker said. "We left what little honey we had on the bees so they would have something to eat. There was no surplus honey to sell. We had a carryover from the 2010 crop, and we bought some honey from other honey makers, but there just wasn't a lot of honey to be had in the state last year."
The Walker family has been in the honey business since 1930, when the family grocery store in Gause, in Milam County, failed and Clint's grandfather settled the note to the building's owner -- Drayton McLane, Sr. -- by selling him his grocery inventory and buying 150 bee hives. The Walkers have been in the honey business ever since. Clint's father moved the operation to Rogers, in Bell County, and sold it to Clint in 1994, who operates it now under the name Walker Honey Farm. Clint has kept it going through the vagaries of weather, disappearing bees and a bottomline that keeps changing with the times.
Most recently, he has added a winery -- Dancing Bee Winery -- to his operation. The winery produces mead, a type of honey wine and the oldest alcoholic beverage in the world; archaeologists have found traces of mead in northern China pottery that dates back to 7,000 B.C. For Walker, mead has turned out to be the next newm old thing.
"The customer for local and sustainable foods is a natural fit because our mead is both of those things, plus it's a new product for a lot of people. It's been wildly successful, way beyond what we imagined it would be. Ninety-nine percent of what we sell goes out the front door, but one winery (Red Caboose Winery in Clifton) sells it."
Walked added that the Specs chain of liquor stores is going to add the Dancing Bee mead to its inventory soon.
On Memorial Day, Walker hosted a farmers market at the Walker Honey Farm. Like the mead, it turned out the much more successful than he expected. He expected about 500 people, but drew almost three times that number. He's planning a similar event this fall with a few improvements.
For most of the last 18 years, Walker has stuck to beekeeping basics. He has tended hives, gathered honey, extracted it and sold it. He reared and sold queen bees and starter hives. The retail part of the business, almost an afterthought when he moved to his current location in 2001, has grown by at least 10 percent every year and its range of products has been expanded.
Walker grandfather used to rent bees as pollinators in the Rio Grande Valley, but stopped the practice in the 1960s, when cotton farmers began using arsenic. The bees got into it and died. Walker rented out his bees for a while, but he became much more selective about it when Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) caused thousands of hives to disappear. Unlike past pestilences like the varroa mite, the bees aren't dying in the hives; they are disappearing. They leave and never come back.
The problem affects not only beekeepers, but all of agriculture. Bees pollinate one third of the world's food supply directly and are indirectly responsible for the hay, clover and alfalfa that is fed to cattle. Berries that wildlife depends on are also pollinated by bees. A Cornell University study in 2000 found that honeybees deliver a direct benefit of $14.6 billion a year to the U.S. economy. Now they are disappearing.
Walker has long suspected that a new class of insecticides called neonicotinoids is a big part of the problem, along with the fact that a lot of beekeepers ship their bees all over the country to pollinate everything from almonds in California, to blueberries in Maine. Recent studies from Harvard, Purdue and Penn State support the claim, but Bayer Crop Science disputes the findings, saying the doses used in the study were too high to reliable.
"Beekeepers have known about this for a long time," Walker said. "I've been keeping my bees away from corn because of the way the seed is treated. Corn is wind pollinated. It's a grass. The bees don't pollinate it, but corn pollen is high in protein and the bees will get into it if they can. We've known around here for quite a while that if our bees are exposed to corn, they don't do well the next year. It's becoming more obvious every year, and the recent studies just confirm what a lot of us already knew."
Beekeepers who managed to take care of their bees last year are reaping the benefits of a mild, wet winter and some decent spring rains. On that Saturday, Walker and the others extracted enough delicious clover honey from his hives in Milam County to fill about 70 barrels. The season will wind down soon, but he has fresh honey this year, enough to carry him over if the drought tightens its grip again this year.
"I've never seen a year like last year," Walker said. "I don't care to see anything like it again, either. Nobody does."