Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Secret Lives of Beekeepers

Backyard apiarists tend to not want any buzz about their hobby.
Cindy McNatt - The Orange County Register

Who knew that the guy next door who wears a suit and designer loafers during the week, or the freshman at your neighborhood high school, or the little old lady who plants sunflowers on a Saturday could be saving the world from a fruitless future?

With news reports of bee colonies collapsing this year in the United States, Canada and Europe, with no sure cause, the small and secretive efforts of everyday backyard beekeepers could be setting the bloom that provides us a third of our food.

People don't look kindly upon backyard beekeepers, especially if they live next door. So a small and avid group of apiarists in Orange County keep their heads down and their hobby a secret. They meet at night, exchange ideas, and ask that they not be identified.

It is not that the group is not proud of their work, it is just that there is the hysteria. A single bee can cause panic for a person who is allergic to them. And who wouldn't run for the hills when a swarm of killer bees is headed your way?You wouldn't recognize a beekeeper though, if you sat next to one at Starbucks. They don't bore outsiders with talk about drones, they don't load up neighbors with honey, and they don't dash to Ralphs in their beekeeping suits. They prefer to fly, so to speak, under the radar.

There is Mr. Real Estate, who lives in a manicured community in Irvine, governed I should add, by a homeowners association. Six years ago, bees colonized a set of drawers that he put outside.

My neighbors complained for years that they had no fruit on their trees. But since I've been keeping bees, everybody has fruit. Our avocados are loaded. So are our citrus. But nobody realizes that the bees live at my house," he said.His bees are largely left to their own devices. Mr. Real Estate, who is not an expert, believes they are feral bees. Once a year they swarm as the hive grows too big for the drawers and the colony divides.

"Bees definitely need an enclosed space to set up a hive," he said, "and it's very hard for them to find a place to settle in. I am giving them somewhere to live."

Ms. Organic Gardener began keeping bees in a similar way, taking care of a swarm that settled in the roof of her Orange Park Acres home. They stayed there for six months.

"We tracked down someone who would rescue them," said Ms. Organic. "It was so funny. He had his 90-year-old mother waiting in the car and the bees were swarming her head and crawling on her hands. But it was all good. I learned how to handle bees and be around bees from him."

Her knight-in-a-beekeeping-suit removed the colony and re-established them in a proper hive box. After they were established, he brought them back. The first year Ms. Organic kept her bees she harvested 300 pounds of honey. A good return on little effort.

"I got some of my beekeeping items at a garage sale – which would never happen now. But if someone started from scratch, it would cost about $300 to get started," she said.

Mr. Old Country grew up keeping bees in Holland.

"I've been tending bees since I was 7 years old, in all, 71 years," he said. "When I came here, I found a swarm in an orange crate abandoned in a field. The field was about to be bulldozed for a shopping center. When you get beekeeping in your blood, it never goes away."

One beekeeper I call The Queen, who keeps her bees in a field in Brea and tends them full time, has been fascinated by insects for as long as she can remember. She bought her beekeeping supplies even before she had bees.

"I waited for bees to show up and when they didn't, I ended up ordering them by mail from Northern California," she said.

All in all, the secretive beekeeping community feels misunderstood. While we run for cover when we see these furry but potentially painful pollinators, beekeepers make up the group that "gets" bees.

Apiarists understand that bees are about more than honey, contributing to the critical food chain that brings us pollination-dependent carrots, cucumbers, broccoli, onions, squash, apples, cherries, peaches, blueberries, avocados, almonds, grapes, melons and alfalfa.

A big one, alfalfa could affect the food supply even further by disrupting the dairy industry if bee colonies collapse.

Backyard beekeepers rescue colonies when they hear about them and improve general bee behavior by introducing a European queen to each swarm. European queens keep Africanized bees out, and enhance the overall mood of the colony by making the bees more passive.

David Marder of BeeBusters in Laguna Beach says on his Web site that bees are dangerous only when they are defending a colony, nest, honey or brood. They are not aggressive when they are foraging for pollen, collecting water or when swarming.

Sometimes, though, even a docile bee can become a "hot" bee.

A hot bee is not a nice bee," The Queen said. "I've gotten bees in my boxes that are nice, and then the next day not so nice," she said. "Usually something has bothered them before I came along. It could be a hot day, or the end of a long day. Even nice bees get in a bad mood sometimes."