Every corner of the internet has its own drama. And while the beekeepers of TikTok (yes, it's a thing) aren't exactly facing the kind of controversy that comes out of the Hype House, for example, the community is seeing possibly its biggest bee scandal yet. And it all comes back to Erika Thompson, the Austin-based "bee lady" whose bee removal videos regularly get millions of views.
If you've ever opened your For You page to find a woman gracefully handling, rescuing, or relocating a swarm of bees, it's very likely you're familiar with Thompson. Her videos are educational, oddly comforting, and seriously impressive: Many of her followers leave comments asking how she rescues and removes bees without any kind of protection, often in a casual tank top and leggings. More than once, she's replied that the bees are very gentle and docile.
But now, some bee specialists (yes, also a thing) are coming forward with claims that Richardson's techniques are staged, fake, or even dangerous. In a series of TikToks published May 22, a beekeeper from L.A. Honeybee Rescue slammed Richardson for "opening up hives with her hair down, wearing dark clothes with exposed skin" and accused her of "setting a dangerous precedent." The beekeeper continued, "I don't see her using power tools. I don't see her using ladders. Her husband goes in, cuts everything up for her, she lifts it up."
Richardson hasn't directly addressed the allegations. But she's responded to swarms (pun intended) of questions about her technique. In the comment section of one video from July, a follower asked why she doesn't feel the need to wear a full bee suit. "Just experience," she responded. "After 10 years, you learn to read the bees' behaviour just like any other animal. And bees that just swarmed tend to be docile."
But the beekeeper behind @lahoneybeerescue disagrees. Although she praised Richardson for educating followers on how unthreatening bees can be, she said that you can't discern from a distance how dangerous a swarm will be. "You can only tell by actually antagonizing the bees," said @lahoneybeerescue. "And she doesn't show herself wearing protective gear when she goes up and analyzes the hives."
The controversy gained some traction when user @diligenda shared news of the allegations on Twitter. New York Times reporter Taylor Lorenz also posted L.A. Honeybee Rescue's video, although Lorenz has since deleted the clip from her Twitter feed and added that it's important to note all marketing experts and influencers stage or exaggerate their videos.
"I hope all the beekeepers stay safe and I'm glad they're saving the bees and raising awareness in the public about the importance of treating all living creatures with love and care," wrote Lorenz on Thursday. "And just remember most of what u see on social media is staged!"
But the drama has the internet divided. Some people defended Richardson and pointed out that her videos are meant to be entertainment. "Why does she need to show power tool use? She's cutting out the boring parts and getting straight to the action," one Twitter user wrote. Another pointed out that helping bees is still helping bees, even if Richardson's husband does some of the off-screen heavy lifting.
Other people have acknowledged that, yes, Richardson's videos might set a dangerous example, but her viewers are unlikely to try to replicate them at home. "Her general point is that the way she handles and dresses is not the way a real beekeeper does it and is dangerous," one person replied. "This presumes you watch her videos and suddenly want to go handle a bunch of bees?"
But beekeepers also take issue with Richardson's content — just check out the responses from Reddit's beekeeping community: "OMG thank you for saying what I have been thinking for months!" one person wrote in response to the L.A. Honeybee Rescue video. "That Texas woman's videos are so scripted and edited. And some [new beekeeper] is gonna get badly hurt or die from watching that nonsense and thinking it's real life and they can do it too."
If someone does try Richardson's bee removal method at home, they could get badly hurt, according to other bee experts. And, just weeks ago, a swarm of bees left someone dead in Stephens County, TX. According to NBC News, killer bees are not uncommon in Richardson's home state, and their venom can cause kidney failure.
L.A. Honeybee Rescue's TikTok account was reported and suspended for bullying (presumably, by Richardson's avid fanbase), but it has since been reactivated. Refinery29 has reached out to both beekeepers involved for comment.
"It's fake. She's faking the job. That's not what it looks like. She may be a wonderful beekeeper," wrote @lahoneybeerescue in a follow-up video. "My point is that she's got this schtick that she's doing… And boom, 5.5 million followers and a lot of people in danger."