Tapping Into The Flow With Beekeeper and Entrepreneur, Tara Chapman
By Mikaela Thomas
Photography by Leslie Hodge
The relationship between humans and bees is as old as it is strong. Beekeeping is thought to be the second oldest profession, developing hand-in-hand with agriculture at the end of the Ice Age, and through the ages humans have studied and admired the fascinating ways of bees. So it’s not surprising that Tara Chapman was inspired by the Intro to Beekeeping class she attended on a whim one weekend. What was surprising, however, was when she left her career as a government advisor and analyst and plunged feet first into a life of apiaries and entrepreneurship.
Tara is no stranger to big life changes. Growing up in rural west Texas, in the small town of Smyer, she never foresaw that some of her first travel outside of the US would be to Pakistan, much less as an employee of the CIA. “I had never really been out of the state. Going to Austin was a big deal.” Leaving home to attend Duke University, where she earned her B.A. in Political Science and Government, was a culture shock already. When she stopped at the back of a long line of students at the CIA’s career fair booth one day, landing a position with them felt like a pipedream. Having worked to get herself through school, she felt she had missed out on the internship experiences that would have given her a leg-up on the competition. But as she observed the booth, she noticed the attendants were putting resumes in one of two piles, and it was very easy to tell which pile was which. “I thought, ‘well I'll just get my resume in the good pile and then I'll skip the line’…so while their backs were turned I went over and just sort of slid my resume into the good pile.” She laughs and says she figures at that point one of two things happened - either her scheme worked, or the attendants saw her stunt and thought, "That's the kind of skill set that we need." Before she knew it, she had a job with the CIA and was headed off. “I went from having never really been anywhere…to all of a sudden working for the Central Intelligence Agency and going to war zones.”
She loved the work, but left the CIA after five years due to the cultural limitations for women working in the Southwest Asia and the Middle East. She continued to work closely with government agencies, as a government relationships advisor, research analyst, and program analyst. Eager to be closer to home, she angled to work part-time from Texas, dividing her year between Austin, DC, and Afghanistan. It was on one of those stints in Austin that she attended a beekeeping class that was to flip her career trajectory on its head. “I walked out of there and I was like, ‘that was the coolest thing that I've ever done in my life.’”
A year or two later, she set up a of couple hives in a friend’s backyard, and within six months her next career had taken shape in her mind. She was ready for a change from government work, but she also had an idea for a business angle that seemed untapped. Observing her two fledgling hives and other hives in neighboring areas, she was intrigued. She noted how varied honey harvests were in color and flavor profile, from season to season and between regions, depending on the flowers that were in bloom at that time in a given hive’s foraging range. Wouldn’t it be cool, she thought, if every neighborhood had its own honey? By placing hives in different spots around town, she could offer the Austin community something novel and personal – neighborhood-specific honey. Not only that, but she could share her joy of beekeeping and educate people all over the city about the essential role that bees play in our ecosystems and the need for sustainable agricultural practices to protect them.
From CIA in the Middle East to beekeeping in East Austin --- it’s not a common story. The hardest part of the transition, she says, was telling people her plan. She was concerned that people would think such a dramatic change was delusional. Coming from a blue-collar family, she had no roadmap for this kind of a career change. Even now, she says, she can’t help but marvel at what she has accomplished. “People like me don't own businesses, other people own businesses.” And she says she definitely did get some pushback from well-meaning friends and family who worried about this upheaval. But she didn’t let it slow her down. When asked about making such a huge life change, she said that making the decision was actually very easy. She’s not one to sit and hash out a decision for too long. Go forth, she believes, and pivot as needed. And that’s exactly what she has done.
What started as a simple honey company in 2015 soon expanded into much more, as she tuned in to what was resonating with her customers. She found that people were concerned about the wellbeing of bee populations, and eager to learn how they could help. She began teaching classes and giving hive tours. In 2016, she launched HoneyHomes a program, which offered a guided introduction to beekeeping for enthusiastic novices who to host a hive in their own backyard. For 18 months, Tara would oversee the hive’s development and teach the host beekeepers (which she calls “Beeks”, an abbreviation for ‘beekeepers’ or ‘bee geeks’) how to inspect and support their new hive, before handing it off completely. HoneyHomes paved the way for her Beek Apprenticeship program: a six-month hands-on apprenticeship that allows accelerated learning by giving students access to inspect hundreds of hives, and exposing them to a variety of situations and challenges that would take them years to learn about if they had only one hive to observe.
Along the way, she learned about solitary bees, the native non-honey producing bees which are often overlooked in favor of honey-yielding Italian bees, yet which are responsible for the lion’s share of local plant pollination. Soon her offerings included classes on the important role of native solitary bees and tailor-made bee homes suited to attract these native pollinators. At every turn, she pivots, she learns, and she grows.
In addition to an online store, she opened a shop at 720 Bastrop Hwy last year, giving Two Hives an official home. “We're in the back end of this little dodgy shopping center. But our shop is super cute, so come see us!”
The journey isn’t always smooth, and she acknowledges that the life of entrepreneurship is one of constant problem solving and struggling to find healthy work/life balance. Recognizing your limitations and making peace with them is essential to longevity. During peak seasons, dubbed “the flow” for the abundance of honey production, beekeeping is hard work with long hours. Sixteen-hour days are not uncommon, and 10 of those hours may be spent outside in the sun hauling heavy equipment. Rather than trying to do it all, Tara set out to develop specific strategies to preserve her health and create balance in her life.
Where she used to answer emails as they came in throughout the day, she now sets aside specific time once or twice a day to sit down and answer emails. She also blocks out two weekend days per month during which she’s not allowed to work. No emails, no calls, nothing; a chance to step away completely.
Her sleep improved exponentially when she began the practice of putting her phone on airplane mode an hour before she went to sleep. She doesn’t turn it on right away in the morning either, giving herself a chance to wake up and have a little peace before launching into the day’s work. “Like, good god, go to the bathroom before you start answering emails, you know?”
She has developed partnerships with other local business and organizations to magnify her impact, such as starting an apiary at the Sustainable Food Center’s where she teaches classes, and doing honey and cheese pairing classes with Texas Bee Tree Farm. She strongly encourages anyone starting their own business to cultivate partnerships. Find the companies that share your customers without being your competitors, she advises.
She’s excited to share her passion for entrepreneurship with women seeking to open their own businesses. She founded and runs a mastermind group for women in business, and encourages women entrepreneurs to connect with others who are at the same stage in their journey, even if not in the same industry. Starting a business is like no other endeavor and she believes that having people around you who understand the pitfalls and are overcoming similar hurdles is a huge asset.
Entrepreneurship wasn’t a lifestyle Tara saw coming, but it’s a challenge she’s proving to be up for. With each new opportunity she seizes and every practice she puts into place to create more balance and ease, she demonstrates what cultivating ‘flow’ can accomplish. Reflecting on her path, she says “I just sort of fell into it. Now I would say I'm very much an entrepreneur.”
To pick up some neighborhood honey, learn more about classes, or schedule a hive tour visit Two Hives Honey online at twohiveshoney.com or in person at 720 Bastrop HWY #307 Austin TX, 78741. You can also follow Two Hives handle on Instagram, @twohives, and Facebook, @twohiveshoney.