An adventure in living
Tara Chapman left the CIA and became a beekeeper. For her, It’s just another fearsome step forward.
At first, the bees terrified Tara Chapman.
For an entire year, she wore a full bee suit, wrapping the cuffs of her sleeves and pants with duct tape before checking on two hives she had set up in her Austin backyard.
Later, turning a hobby into a do-or-die job as a seasonal bee worker, she got stung in the double-digits every day. For four, sweaty spring-to-summer months, as the Texas heat swelled into the nineties and the sky spewed rain, Chapman worked twelve-hour days amid 12 million aggressive bees. Added to the grueling physical labor was the mental defeat that came with not knowing what she was doing.
When on one especially punishing day a bee popped Chapman just above her left eyebrow, it might as well have been a heavyweight champ taking her down for the count. Her eye swelled like a chewing-gum bubble and shut. Her entire body hurt. “I don’t want to say she looked like a zombie,” says Laura Weaver, the co-owner of Bee Weaver apiary, which employed Chapman that season, “but she just needed to go fall in bed.”
And Chapman did. At night, she went home to a barebones farmhouse provided by Bee Weaver, the only place where she could let go, and cried at the walls.
“I felt stupid and un-useful for the first time in my life,” she says. Chapman wanted to quit, but something inside of her said, “No.” She stuck it out to the last day. “I came back to Austin a crumpled, little heap,” she says. “It is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Harder than leaving her tiny West Texas hometown to go to Duke. Harder than becoming the first in her family to earn a university degree. Harder than a decade spent working for the CIA in conflict-ridden areas across Afghanistan and Pakistan. Harder than quitting her dream job and coming back home because she was unhappy. Harder—but ultimately more rewarding, say those closest to her.
“It’s taken her to a good place, and it’s paying off,” says Chapman’s mother, Sherry Henson.
At the end of those four taxing months, Chapman returned to Austin ready to launch the comb-honey business she now calls Two Hives Honey. There could have been endless things to fear at the beginning—especially when building a business out of something as unpredictable as honey. Bees, however, were no longer one of them.
Getting to that point—where Chapman could leave the duct tape at home or open a hive without gear— can’t be attributed only to courage. It also isn’t just about experience. Chapman has a tenacity, and a sense of adventure, that has carried the thirty-something alumna around the world.
And into the bee yard.
Growing up, she didn’t have a lot of money around for adventure. Chapman lived in a small town called Smyer— population 480—located on the plains of the Llano Estacado in northwestern Texas. Her mother worked in sales at a funeral home. Her late stepfather worked for Greyhound as a mechanic and garage manager.
Before Duke, Chapman had been out of Texas twice—New Mexico and Walt Disney World in Florida. She traveled more often through books.
“She read,” Henson stresses. “She read a lot of adventurous books.”
Among them were the popular 1950s Western novels by Louis L’Amour. Through the books, Chapman crisscrossed the prairies of the West, scaled the Canadian Rockies, sailed the South China Sea, and trekked through the jungles of Borneo with the characters who often were in some perilous situation—left with a horse and a knife to fight the wild unknown, staring down the odds, risking everything to overcome.
Quiet as a child, she thought the best thing was to be sent to her room. “I’d get so excited because I would just go read,” she says.
Duke was the first real adventure of her life, Chapman says. A school counselor had recruited her for the university’s Talent Identification Program (TIP), which finds academically gifted students in under-resourced areas. Her family couldn’t afford Duke TIP, but Chapman’s grandfather paid for a similar program at nearby Texas Tech University.
By the time Chapman was a high-school senior, the only school she wanted to apply to was Duke.
But when she got to Durham, she was overwhelmed. Her classmates had applied to dozens of schools and gone through expensive SAT-prep courses. They had “safety schools,” a term they had to explain to her.
She would joke that she got in because admissions counselors were throwing darts at a map. “Today, we accept the girl from Smyer, Texas!” she says.
Four years later, with a bachelor of arts degree after having studied political science, Chapman became the first in her family to graduate from a university. She also had secured her first full-time job.
Months before graduation, Chapman had gone to a career fair and spotted a table for the Central Intelligence Agency. She stood back to observe them—something she does today with her bees, watching them come and go into their hives to better understand their patterns. She noticed that as the recruiters talked to students, they divided résumés into two piles.
The line was long, and Chapman didn’t have time to wait. So she slipped her résumé into the pile of “yeses” when the recruiters had their backs turned.
“Then, that was it,” Chapman says. “They called me.”
Finally, she was about to travel beyond the pages of the frontier stories of her youth. And, she had something she hadn’t had ever—money to spare via a starting salary of $43,500. “That was more money than I thought was possible to make,” she says.
On an April morning this past spring, Chapman is standing in the kitchen of her no-frills apartment in pinstripe overalls, Chuck Taylors, and a Durham Bulls baseball cap. She’s checking off her mental to-do list for the day, while her mom waits nearby.
Henson is in town for a few days to tag along for some bee work. Her husband passed away unexpectedly a few weeks earlier. Chapman thought the bees would make her feel better—and, Henson says, she always enjoys the opportunity to see her daughter in action. The day’s schedule calls for a private lesson with a lawyer-turned-beekeeper about twenty-five miles away in Dripping Springs, Texas—and the delivery of 100,000 bees to neighborhood hives across Austin.
Early on in the development of Two Hives Honey, Chapman says, diversifying her company was a priority. “I swore that when I started this company I was never going to put myself in a position where I have to choose between the health and well-being of the animal and my ability to make a living. It’s why we don’t just sell honey.”
To maximize honey harvests, some beekeepers take too much from the hives—leaving the bees without enough food in the winter season. So to make up for harvesting less, Chapman added private lessons for budding beekeepers and a beekeeping apprenticeship program that takes her all over central Texas.
She created a neighborhood bee homeowner program, which invites Austin residents to host hives in their backyards and learn about beekeeping with the promise of turning over their honey to Chapman for eighteen months.
Last summer, she harvested 400 pounds of all-natural comb honey—roughly the equivalent of 500 grocery store honey-bear bottles—from thirty-five hives across Austin.
She sold out of it on her website and at an Austin cheese shop, branding the batches by neighborhood—with an “East Side” or a “North Loop” version reflecting the flavor profile of the flowers native to the neighborhood from which they came.
Chapman sold the hyper-local honey to an Austin restaurant owned by a James Beard award-nominated chef. He topped his signature butternut cake with a slice of comb, telling his customers that bees literally in their backyard had made it. Those successes, however, don’t come easy or without risk. Honey, like most agriculture, is seasonal and vulnerable. Hives must be installed in the spring. Honey—if there is any (because it can take two years for a new hive to produce)—is harvested in the summer. You let the bees be in the winter. And then it starts again. If you don’t act at the right time, you miss out—and you have to wait until next year. And that means there’s always a lot of work to do.
Hopping into her sticky, beat-up, white Toyota Tacoma—lovingly called the “bee truck”—that April morning, Chapman is on a mission to deliver bees to new hives.
Inside, there’s a mountain of protective bee clothing stuffed behind the seats. The gearshift is sticky. Honey pools on the shift’s console, having leaked from a small container that rests on top.
“I always like to have some in here just in case someone says, ‘I’ve never had comb honey.’ ” Chapman says. “I like to give them a little.”
That’s the rewarding part of being a professional beekeeper—when she can introduce people who have never interacted with bees, or are scared of them, to the magic bees produce. As the day goes on, she’ll throw out cool bee facts to get that point across:
“Don’t get alarmed if you see yellow or purple or gray or pink in your hive. Pollen can come in all sorts of crazy colors.”
“One bee makes 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey its whole life.”
“All of the worker bees are female. The males don’t work. Their only function is to mate, and once they mate, they die.”
“It’s so important to me that people understand that we should pay more attention to where our food comes from— and the wonders around us,” she says. “The bees have been so amazing for me because they make me stop and appreciate these wonderful things we have around us all the time. I just try to share that with people.”
That difference Chapman feels like she is making now has become motivation for continuing to keep at bee work. Inspiration had waned over a decade of working overseas—first as a contracting officer at Langley, writing contracts for weapons and vehicles, then as a desk officer in Pakistan, and later as a program analyst for the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
The promise of adventure—and a stable salary—had attracted Chapman as a new graduate at first. And for a while, it didn’t disappoint.
She traveled the world (even convincing Henson to get her first passport at forty-two). She was doing the work that Duke had prepared her to do—studying how policy affects the way contractors operated in war zones, discovering that nearly $13 million in Department of Defense equipment wasn’t being used, finding out that USAID was paying contractors for work that was never done. Her salary hit six figures.
But at some point, working in a red zone began to feel confusing. “After ten years, it started to feel like—‘What are we doing? What is happening here?’ ” she says. Giving up the security of her salary was difficult she says, because “I know what it’s like to have so very little.” But she also was unhappy. She knew she could do better. She decided to go back to Texas for good.
On a whim, Chapman bought a beekeeping-class voucher on Groupon. She began reading books about bees. Bees were all she talked about to her then-boyfriend, whom she convinced to loan his minivan to cart around her bees. A pair of hives appeared in her backyard, inspiration for the naming of her honey business a year later.
“I looked around and thought, Well, I love the bees more than anything else,” she says. “Why don’t I just do something with that?”
Chapman heard about Bee Weaver, the apiary owned by Laura Weaver and her husband, Danny. The business had been sustained by generations of beekeepers in Danny’s family since 1888. Chapman wondered if they might be hiring.
When she couldn’t find their contact information online, Chapman put her CIA skills to work. “I thought, well surely I can figure out their e-mail. I know their names,” she says.
She pounded out an introductory e-mail and asked about openings. Then, in the BCC field, she typed a dozen e-mail aliases for Laura Weaver.
The Weavers hadn’t always had luck with seasonal bee workers. Sometimes they quit before the season was up, and that put them in a bind. But there was something interesting about Chapman, Laura Weaver says. “She didn’t have to do this,” Weaver says. “But she was really badly wanting to do it.”
Chapman answered any doubts and convinced the Weavers she could do the job.
Boxes full of honey can weigh eighty pounds. “I told them I can squat 225,” Chapman says.
There would be long days in the bee fields. She had worked in war zones. She was no shrinking violet. “Not at all,” says Weaver.
“We have had men—a little bit younger and a little bit older than she is—try to do the same job that she did, and they weren’t able to do it. They weren’t able to finish the season.”
Chapman launched Two Hives Honey from the savings she had accrued while working for the government.
She puts in sixteen-hour days because she knows how much is at risk. She hustles when things don’t go her way. When she sold bees to a local flower farm recently, its owners threatened to burn the hives because their calendula blooms began falling off en masse during the natural bee pollinating process. Chapman drove two hours to pick up the hives and promptly sold them to someone else.
This bee season Chapman has added more hives, bringing the total to ninety—and she’s hoping to triple her honey supply in the 2017 season. She’s developing related products—lip balm, lotion bars, and beeswax candles.
Last September, Two Hives Honey began to pay her bills for the first time since she opened in 2015. She had enough money to expand the business and began looking to hire. Two of the finalists for her bee-assistant positions didn’t have a ton of experience, but they were eager to learn. Chapman knew that feeling, and she hired them both.
Back on that April day, Chapman and her mother are visiting bee homeowners throughout Austin to transfer bees into their new hives. Henson starts the day armored in a bee jacket-veil combo, standing ten feet back from the hives as she watches her daughter inspect buzzing frames of bees. But as the day goes on, Henson gets bolder. Eventually she sheds all her bee gear and volunteers to install a hive on her own.
As Henson shakes 10,000 bees barehanded from a metal can into the hive, Chapman broadcasts the scene on Facebook Live. “What badass-ery!” Chapman says, cheering on her mom.
Minutes later, as Henson prepares to put the top on the hive, Chapman comes close to help. Chapman sweeps a crowd of stragglers resting on the frame into the hive. Henson follows her daughter’s lead. If Chapman can do it, so can she.
“Look at you, Mom, putting your hands in those bees!” Chapman shouts. “Mom, I’m so impressed! You’re so fearless.”
Henson gently places the top on the hive—a metal lid that doubles as a makeshift mirror. As she bends low to the hive, a thousand bees hovering like tiny helicopters all around her, the lid reflects her smiling face.
“Thank you,” Henson says to the Facebook audience with a curtsy. “I’ll be here all day.”
The best workdays, Chapman says, are the days when she sees people turn the corner with the bees. They overcome their fears. They realize they like the bees—and that most of the time, the bees don’t mind them either.
Where the bees will take Chapman—or she them—she’s not sure. She does know that she’ll always have a pair of hives in her backyard. She’ll always be able to tell you one cool bee fact too many. She’ll always be “that girl at the bar that’s saving the bees from the margaritas.”
And she’ll probably always be that woman egging on the people around her to take that next fearsome step into a new experience.
Yet, being a professional beekeeper may not be her last job. She’s always thought of beekeeping as an adventure. “I’m not quite done having adventures. I definitely have one more in me,” she says. “But I might have even maybe two—or three.”