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Beekeeping 101

Un”bee”knownst to some people, and much to their surprise, queen bees are a hot commodity for those of us who want to start a honeybee colony and become a backyard beekeeper. That’s what a friend of mine did! Living on the west coast in San Francisco, Torbie, a college professor, makes use of every square foot of land she owns, which includes beehives. That peaked my interest, so I asked her a few questions.

LH: First and foremost, when did you start keeping honeybees?
TP: I’ve had beehives continuously for about five years now. I had started raising bees a few years before that, but when the colony died the first winter, I was convinced that the west-of-Twin-Peaks area I lived in was just too foggy for honeybees—Fortunately, I was later encouraged to start again, as fellow “beeks” reassured me that my area offered a fine environment. In fact, there are quite a few flowering plants and trees here that my “girls” love!

LH: How do honeybees contribute to our environment and agriculture?
TP: First off, bees help pollinate flowering plants, so that’s a big plus. My Gravenstein apple tree (a much-loved Northern California variety) has been significantly more prolific since I’ve had bees and chickens distributing pollen and nutrients. I’m also a fan of the humble bumblebee, without whose special “buzz pollination,” our production of tomatoes, for example, would be significantly curtailed.

LH: We hear the word [sustainable] quite a bit in the farming world of today, does beekeeping apply to that?
TP: The honeybee population has shown noticeable patterns of decline during the past few decades, largely attributed to the still-mysterious “colony collapse disorder.” Among the most likely contributors to this significant risk are habitat loss, pesticide use, and the proliferation of viral pathogens and parasitic mites in beehives. But much of our domestic and global food crops depend on insect pollination. Small-scale beekeeping, such as my own, is my way of fostering the local bee population and also educating people about the importance of bees. I encourage others to consider responsible beekeeping and advocate policy change that will address regulation, for example, of systemic neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides particularly implicated in the declining health of bees and on which the European Union has placed a moratorium.

LH: In a Facebook post you mentioned you identified two queen bees, for those of us wondering the significance, why is that important?
TP: I used to have a single hive, with one bee colony, but now I have two adjacent hives. This is working well because the health of the hive (primarily dependent on the health, survival, and prolific nature of the queen) fluctuates, and with two hives with similar strains of honeybees, I can switch out brood frames to stimulate growth, for example, if I have to replace a queen.

LH: What types of flowers do you grow for the honeybees and what other plants are in your area to sustain them?
TP: Most of the plants in my garden are native to my area, and the “girls” are not very picky! They seem particularly attracted to the ceanothus, hellebore, sunflower, single-petal roses, and sage. They also forage in the nearby grove of eucalyptus, which flowers much of the year.

LH: What have you harvested from your bees and are there other benefits?
TP: I do occasionally harvest honey, of course, and also keep some of the wax, which I melt down with olive oil that has been steeped with a sachet of dried calendula and comfrey blossoms. The honey is indisputably “perfect,” and the bee balm very soothing for the skin!

Reflecting upon what Torbie has said, I consider myself a “naturalized” beekeeper (with the amount of flowers I grow), so I guess I can say I “keep” bees! Though I don’t reap the benefits of my own honey, I hope to be in some way helping the bee population in my area. When surrounding our homes with flowering plants, one tends to forget that flowers are not only for our pleasure, but to nourish and sustain a very important part of our being. The saying “busy as a bee” has logic, considering the many facets of a bee. Let’s pray they never tire, for our sake!