Become a California ‘honeybee ambassador’: UC Davis offers beginner beekeeping classes

Last winter, American beekeepers lost the highest number of honeybee colonies ever recorded, according to a national database. The California Master Beekeeper Program says you can help.

You can become a beekeeping ambassador this August by taking a two-day immersive class at the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven in Davis. Whether you’re in it for the honey, a fresh-air hobby or to #savethebees, UC Davis specialist Elina Lastro Niño said this class will give you the hands-on skills and resources to get started.

Over the weekend of Aug. 3-4, lead instructor Elina Niño and her colleague Bernardo Niño will teach you everything from bee biology to colony monitoring to honey extraction. Registration is limited to 25 participants and will close Thursday, Aug. 1.

This two-day experience will begin at 9 a.m. Saturday. Day 1 will start slow with snacks and an indoor lecture at the Harry Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility. But no later than 10.15 a.m. that day you’ll be inspecting a buzzing frame of honeybees in an overall beekeeper suit, gloves, helmet and mask.

The bees at the Häagen-Dazs Haven are genetically docile, and will not sting participants, Bernardo Niño said. To ensure the bees are on their best behavior, the instructors will also teach you how to start a bee smoker – a pitcher-size metal container that releases smoke to gently calm the bees and interrupt defensive responses.

By the end of Day 2, you will have learned to recognize the larger angular abdomen of queens and the wide speculative eyes of male drones. You will be able to tell the laid-back blond “italian girls” from the defensive and darker carniolans. Bernardo Niño said you might even experience the epiphany of discovering the pearl white eggs that hide below the surface of queenright colonies – the ones with a reigning queen bee.

Of course, the class will also explore the business side of beekeeping. How do you produce honey? Can you sell your bees? What equipment will you need? Those and many other questions will be addressed on Sunday, Elina Niño said.

This is the fourth year the Häagen-Dazs Haven hosts beekeeping classes for beginners, and the instructors said participant groups are always very diverse. They come from Nevada, Oregon, even Virginia. Many are in their 40s or 50s, but teenagers and senior aficionados occasionally show as well.

Some already have colonies and want to learn more about how to manage them. Others take the class in hopes of becoming beekeepers, and either get started on the right path or take the time to decide whether it’s the right choice for them.

Beekeeping does not require a significant financial commitment, Niño said. However, time and practical knowledge are a must. “Bees really do need a lot of attention. They’re not just a set it and forget it type of commodity.”

The program also teaches about a wide range of lower-commitment activities that can help bees thrive.

For example, Niño said local homeowners could provide supplemental forage for bees by growing plants and seeds that are pollinator supportive. The Häagen-Dazs garden – just feet away from the haven’s beehives – exemplifies just how lively and colorful pollinator-friendly flowers, plants and seeds can be, and offers tips and resources on its website.

All participants who take the class and pass the final exam become ambassadors, and can help educate the general public on honeybees, pollination and pollinators, and beekeeping. The program has about 200 ambassadors, according to Niño, and is always seeking new supporters.

The Häagen-Dazs Haven also hosts bee-friendly gardening, bee observation and bee photography classes throughout the year. Courses and events are listed on the E. L. Niño Bee Lab website at

To read more about beekeeping basics and how to get started, visit the local beekeeper’s online guide at

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Caroline Ghisolfi, from Stanford University, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee, focusing on breaking news and health care. She grew up in Milan, Italy.