Four years ago, there was a rash of news stories about the shocking decline of honeybee populations here and abroad. Causes ranged from viruses and pesticides to climate change and urbanization. Colonies were down 40 percent. The stakes are high: Bees pollinate about 80 of our food crops, and without them, there will be no fruit. Bees are so valuable that “rustlers” routinely steal commercial hives from California almond orchards.
One day, I noticed hundreds of honeybees hovering around my backyard fence. I soon discovered thousands of bees were inside this double-sided structure with seven large honeycombs in place.
A pest-removal service said local beekeepers would remove a swarm for free. I posted a message with a local bee group and was swarmed myself with over 20 phone calls. I picked a beekeeper who said he’d collect the bees while showing me how to set up a hive on my own. The bees in the fence turned me into an “accidental beekeeper.”
I now have 30,000 backyard bees. I also have beginner’s luck: My hive has split five times, and I’ve given over 100,000 bees to area keepers while also giving away more honey than I’ll ever eat. The singular goal is to maintain a healthy bee colony.
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The journey of beekeeping has led me to discoveries that go well beyond the taste of honey. This amazing creature works with little rest and undertakes a wide range of jobs aside from collecting nectar. “Guards” can smell raccoons and will sting them if they get too close. My favorite is the “water forager.” In a heat wave, some bees find water, drink it and bring it back to the hive, where they will spit it up while other bees flap their wings around 200 times per second to produce evaporation, i.e., “air conditioning.”
Bees, save for the queen, live less than a month. Typically, 1,000 bees in a colony die each day. The visible leading cause of death at my hive is drowning – I find up to 10 bees per day floating in birdbaths. Don’t ask me about the 990 other bees.
The point here is that I’ve been walking past buzzing bees for half a century without giving them much thought. Their survival, as well as ours, depends on how we treat them.
For me, witnessing how honeybees work bolsters news reports on the importance of their existence.
We need more backyard beekeepers.
Richard Steffen was a longtime aide in the Legislature and most recently worked for Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.