Food & Drink

Backyards buzz as beehives catch on in Sacramento, but don’t expect easy honey

Drought threatens livelihood of California beekeepers

Second­generation beekeeper Mike Brandi expects to bring in less than half of his usual honey yield this year in California's Central Valley. The varroa mite, pesticides, and Colony Collapse Disorder have been threatening beehives across the count
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Second­generation beekeeper Mike Brandi expects to bring in less than half of his usual honey yield this year in California's Central Valley. The varroa mite, pesticides, and Colony Collapse Disorder have been threatening beehives across the count

When a honeybee tickles his arm, Roland Espinosa reacts not with fear, but with wonder.

For his mother, Kari, and his father, Russ, the most rewarding part of their lives as backyard beekeepers has been the joy it has brought Roland and his little sister, Estelle.

If someone asks Roland about bees, he’ll set them straight. “I just wanna tell you that bees have one queen,” he chimed in during a recent interview with his parents. “Sometimes bees get fed and sometimes they don’t get fed. And I get them out, and Daddy, too.”

It certainly hasn’t been an easy road since the Espinosas began managing their first hive in the backyard of their Sacramento County home last April, but it also has been fascinating and fruitful. Kari was thrilled they were able snag three cups of honey their first year.

“We have chickens, we have a garden, now we have bees,” Russ said. “I’ve kind of joked we have a little homestead. … It seems like it all works in harmony.”

The Espinosas are part a growing local community of noncommercial urban beekeepers.

Bernardo Niño, UC Davis California Master Beekeeper Program educational supervisor, said he has seen a tremendous amount of interest in Northern California. Coupled with a desire to live sustainably and utilize locally-sourced produce, people have been propelled to do their part to help the honey bee population, he said.

Honey bees have a relatively high mortality rate, around 40 percent, according to the Bee Informed Partnership’s latest colony loss survey. Studies indicate a variety contributors, including pesticides, disease, and food shortage due to climate change.

Whatever spurs the interest in becoming a beekeeper, it isn’t something to do on a whim. People often aren’t prepared for the investment involved in maintaining healthy colonies, Niño said, which have to be monitored to ensure they have enough food. If keepers take too much honey, they have to be sure to make up for that with supplemental feeding, for example. And uncontrolled varroa mite populations can spread disease that can decimate a colony.

The signs of poor management often don’t show up later, Niño added, leaving naive beekeepers bewildered when a colony fails after seeming to perform so well.

“It is something that is frustrating to beekeepers, both commercial and backyard, when you see the box at Costco that says, ‘Bees know what to do and it’s very easy,’” Niño said. “It’s definitely animal husbandry. There is active management. It’s not like having a bird feeder out there and you watch them come and go.”

The Espinosas know it all too well. They have experienced a steep learning curve, but in a different way. Their colony performed so well, it became too large for its hive, splitting and swarming.

“The swarm was by far the most educational thing that happened to us,” Russ said. “It’s scary because you see this watermelon-sized ball of bees, up 30 feet in the air [in our tree].”

Kari said they thought the bees were swarming in anger. They found out later, when a fellow beekeeper arrived to assist them, that bees are generally very docile and not aggressive when they swarm. They gather in such a manner to protect their queen while scouting out a more suitable location.

Still new to beekeeping, the Espinosas have been relieved to be able to rely upon a large community of local beekeepers. The Sacramento Area Beekeepers Association has been their go-to for resources and advice as they have embarked upon this new venture.

Association President Rachel Morrison said she has seen more and more young people at the group’s monthly meetings, and has a lot of clients like the Espinosas, who raise their own animals and grow their own food.

Through her business, The Beecharmers, Morrison provides honey, apiary tours, educational workshops, swarm removal and consultations. She has helped manage hives across the region, from the backyard colonies in Midtown and Land Park to those on farms in Davis and Woodland.

While managing bees is a challenging task, getting started is rather simple: noncommercial beekeepers have to pay a $10 annual fee and register with the Agricultural Commissioner’s Office. Municipalities have different rules in place regarding the maximum number of hives, maintenance and nuisance.

That’s where Morrison urges caution. “I think that people get Pinterest-excited, looking at the hives and decorating the hives and that kind of thing, and they forget bees need care.”

When bees are properly managed, backyard beekeepers can not only contribute to the overall health of the local bee population but can help their neighborhood and community gardens flourish. Poorly managed bees can spread disease.

She encourages people to do some research ahead of time, take a class or attend an association meeting. If it seems too demanding of a task, there always are other options people can explore to help bees, Morrison added, including planting foliage for bees to forage and refraining from using harmful pesticides.

For those up to the challenge, they may be surprised to find working with their bees to be cathartic. Morrison said the careful attention required is medititative for her.

“It’s kind of my mindfulness exercise,” she said. “They really are very important to our environment, and they’re really joyful to be around. The sound of the hive working together, looking at each individual bee to [see] what they’re doing.”

It is impossible to beekeep when feeling angry or rushed, Niño added.

“There’s a calming presence [that comes with] working the colonies,” he said. “You just have to respect the work ethic of these creatures. They work hard. They just do what they have to do, and they can be very successful if properly managed.”

Tips on starting a hive

Thinking about becoming a beekeeper? Here are some tips from Bernardo Niño, UC Davis California Master Beekeeper Program educational supervisor, and Rachel Morrison, of The Beecharmers.

  1. Do your research. Take classes, join a group of beekeepers and find mentors to work with. Make sure you understand your local laws on beekeeping, and, if applicable, check in with your homeowners association. For more information, go to sacbeekeepers.org.

  2. Location and hive design are important when it comes to colony safety and health (and the receptiveness of your neighbors!). The bees need to be able to use the space and also have protection from predators.

  3. Prevention is key. Develop a solid varroa mite and pest management strategy.

  4. Monitor how your colony population is growing with the cycles of the season. Make sure your queen is still laying eggs and the population continues to replenish itself, but be wary of when it may be time to artificially split the hive in half, to avoid a swarm in the spring.

  5. Don’t let them starve. If you want to take honey from your bees during the winter, make sure you don’t take too much, or be prepared to provide supplemental food.

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