Food Science

Beekeeping a calling and profession for young Sacramento farmer

UC Davis graduate Viridiana Acosta-Ramirez, who also graduated from the California Farm Academy, tend to bees on a farm in Capay Valley in Esparto, Calif., on Oct. Acosta-Ramirez's goal is to become a beekeeper at a time when bees are environmentally in trouble.
UC Davis graduate Viridiana Acosta-Ramirez, who also graduated from the California Farm Academy, tend to bees on a farm in Capay Valley in Esparto, Calif., on Oct. Acosta-Ramirez's goal is to become a beekeeper at a time when bees are environmentally in trouble.

For Viridiana Acosta-Ramirez, beekeeping is a philosophy as much as a chosen profession.

In her mind, safeguarding her bees – and their future – is just as important as making a profit from them.

A recent graduate from the California Farm Academy (a training program and farm-business incubator that’s part of the Center for Land-Based Learning in Winters), Acosta-Ramirez, 24, said beekeeping appealed to her because of its get-outside, hands-on work.

“Beekeeping is the kind of lifestyle I always wanted to live but was not able to do, (one with) a lot of physical work,” she said. “I find that really rewarding. I was very detached from that before. Being out in the fields and watching things grow and dealing with crop failure and water issues? I find that really challenging.”

Beekeeping is a niche world in agriculture, but an important one.

Bees pollinate 80 percent of flowering crops, and the crops they pollinate provide a third of what we eat, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The number of U.S. beekeepers has declined steadily since World War II, with land development cited as the cause, as it has eliminated the habitat for many flowering plants from which bees collect nectar to make honey.

However, with the help of institutions such as the Center for Land-Based Learning, which works to bring new and young farmers into the industry (the average age of farmers is 58), this vital profession will continue.

While Acosta-Ramirez is the only person in her graduating class of 20 who plans to pursue beekeeping, there seems to be a growing interest in bees with the up-and-coming generation.

“Young people are keeping more bees,” said Amina Harris, director of the Honey and Pollination Center at the Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science at UC Davis. “You’re starting to see this trend of people keeping one or two hives – because they think it will make a difference.”

Eased into nature

Acosta-Ramirez grew up in a small apartment in Palo Alto. Her most direct connection to nature was taking care of a goldfish.

“That was my exposure,” she said.

After attending UC Davis and earning a degree in environmental studies, she later moved to Sacramento and acted upon her interest in beekeeping. She started out with one hive – in her backyard near midtown.

Her focus has been on developing a healthy beekeeping operation.

Keeping hives healthy is no small matter given the appearance of bee colony collapse disorder. The disorder was first identified in 2006, when beekeepers reported losses of 30 to 90 percent of their hives, according to the USDA.

The causes for colony collapse are not fully understood. Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency and the USDA identified myriad factors that could be contributing to the collapses. Those include genetics, nutrition, parasites, droughts and pesticides.

In talking with people who have large beekeeping operations, typically 1,000 hives or more, Ramirez-Acosta said she has noticed that a lot of attention is placed on revenue, less so on beehive health.

In the beekeeping realm, the biggest profit is usually made by renting out bees as pollinators.

The money that can be made from using bees as pollinators drives a great migration to California every January, when millions of hives are brought into the state from other parts of the country to pollinate almond trees.

Many almond farmers use pesticides, and there’s a lack of research on how those pesticides affect certain stages of a bee’s life cycle, experts say.

“Research on the effects of any pesticide has not been done on newly emerged bees or larva,” Harris said. “Pesticide labels refer to adult bees.”

Started with Italian bees

When Acosta-Ramirez thinks about her business plan as a beekeeper, the scope is small.

Her eventual goal is establishing and maintaining 150 hives – a number that will allow her and her husband to adequately tend to the hives for the production of honey and beeswax.

“Having a smaller operation will keep me mindful that there are bigger issues than just keeping bees to take out the honey,” she said.

Earlier this spring, after taking classes on beekeeping offered by Sacramento County and the Sacramento Area Beekeeping Association, Acosta-Ramirez bought her first hive.

She chose Italian bees to populate her first colony. That kind of bee is well-suited to the Sacramento Valley because it does not mind the heat. The cost for the “nucleus beehive,” which includes a queen: $160.

She keeps the hive on a coffee table in her backyard, away from the afternoon sun. In Sacramento, it is legal to keep up to two hives in a backyard.

Before buying the hive, Acosta-Ramirez polled her neighbors about the idea of keeping a hive in her backyard.

“Everyone was great about it,” she said. “Most of them have gardens, and they saw the benefit right away.”

It has proved a fruitful endeavor. Acosta-Ramirez said she has harvested 20 pounds of honey from the hive. Typically, such a hive will produce 5 to 10 pounds of honey.

“Everyone says it’s very rare to have that much honey for a first-year hive,” she said.

Acosta-Ramirez said her success has been part of a less-is-more strategy.

“I’m trying to do everything as natural as I can,” she said. “I did not harvest as much as I could. I did not want to rob them entirely of their honey so they could survive during the winter.”

Renting her bees is tempting

In addition to her home hive, Acosta-Ramirez also tends to hives at the 20-acre Say Hay organic farm in Woodland, where both she and her husband work.

She said she has also reached an agreement with Bay Area chef and restaurateur Dennis Leary in which she will bring three hives and tend to them in Leary’s recently established 40-acre farm in the Capay Valley.

She has given some thought to eventually renting her bees for pollinating. Her proximity to where most of the country’s almonds are grown makes it a tempting prospect.

A pollinator typically charges from $150 to $225 per hive. The almond industry average has traditionally been two hives per acre.

Taking bees out of the vicinity where they live brings risks, said Harris, adding that bees have been stressed since the 1950s with the rise of migratory beekeeping.

“We’re seeing, perhaps, some stronger damage to the bees as result,” Harris said.

Typically, reports of bee losses are higher for such migratory beekeepers than they are for those that who do not move their bees, said Harris.

Nearly 20 percent of the beekeepers who took their insects to California to pollinate almonds lost 50 percent or more of their colonies in the winter of 2012-13, according to the USDA.

For Acosta-Ramirez, a stay-at-home approach is part her beekeeping philosophy.

“I would never want to operate on a commercial scale” with a thousand hives, she said. When it comes to migratory beekeeping, “I don’t think it’s very good for the bees to be moved around so often.”

Bees can get lost very easily, she said.

“If they cannot find their main beehive – they will die,” Acosta-Ramirez said.

Call The Bee’s Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz.