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April 4-10, 2007

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Bee here now

Photograph by Rob Keller
Bee here now: A significant and abrupt drop in the bee population should have everyone worried.

What's the Buzz?

The honeybee population has almost disappeared in the last two years. Think that causes no sting? Think again

By Alastair Bland

'Look at this!" exclaims Rob Keller one afternoon in February as he checks on his cluster of beehives in an organic Asian pear orchard southwest of Napa. "Larvae!"

I look at the piece of beeswax he has just removed from the humming hive. Curled up at the bottom of several of the hexagonal cells are maggots. Bee maggots.

"Have one. They're good." He hands me the chunk of wax.

A photographer and a teacher of beekeeping at the Nimbus Art School in St. Helena and the Napa Valley Adult School, Keller seems like a trustworthy enough man. The repulsive worm pulsates with growing insect life, and even if it isn't quite delicious, I know it won't kill me, so I suck the white, shiny worm out of its comfortable beeswax cell and pop it between my incisors. A rush of flavor like milk and honey flows over my tongue.

Keller and I enjoyed several more bee larvae, but we couldn't eat all of them. Keller keeps just a dozen of his own bee boxes active throughout the year, and this small semicircle was the lot of them. Last year, he collected 300 pounds of "multifloral" honey from this little collection of hives, and these squirming, succulent larvae represent this season's harvest, which he plans on marketing, raw and unprocessed.

But elsewhere--beneath the buzzing drone of the endless activity of bees--things aren't quite right in the apian world. Bees everywhere are dying, and while Apis mellifera, the European honeybee, is not native to the Americas, in the past 400 years the species has largely displaced and replaced native pollinating insects. In fact, thousands of wild plants and commercial fruits and vegetables now depend on this insect for their own procreation, and if European honeybee populations continue to falter, many farmers may have to find new work and wild ecosystems could wither.

How bad is it? Pretty bad, say beekeepers and biologists from around the world. Whereas keepers in the United States managed 5 million hives two decades ago, today they tend to half that many in spite of a rising demand for honey. The decline has been attributed largely to the spread of such parasites as the varroa mite, which first appeared in North America in 1987. Many authorities believe that commercial beekeepers' chronic overdosing of their hives with antibiotics and pesticides has created, in the style of Darwinian selection, super-parasites that drop dead at nothing. Simultaneously, such overmedicating encourages the proliferation of genetically deficient bee colonies.

In a paper arguing for the merits of biodynamic, organic, medicine-free beekeeping, Santa Rosa Junior College beekeeping instructor Serge Labesque writes, "It is this approach to pest and disease control that is inherently wrong, because it seeks to protect all colonies, weak and strong, those that do not have natural defenses against pathogens and those that do. It is a strategy that deeply interferes with nature's selection process."

Mites and parasites aside, a more vague yet more ominous threat materialized six months ago when East Coast beekeepers began to see tremendous and rapid declines in their colonies' populations. The symptoms have since come thundering across the continent. Everyone concerned is baffled, and they've named the dramatic phenomenon colony collapse disorder, or CCD.

"This is something new," says Labesque. "Not even scientists know what it is, so no one knows how to handle it. People's colonies have just started dying, and there is no one disease that explains it all."

Keller and Labesque are among a rising tide of beekeepers who strongly believe that chemicals, pesticides and antibiotics are to blame, and that the proper way to raise bees is to let them raise themselves.

"We've just been overmedicating these animals," Keller says. "Their immune systems have been compromised, and it's my mission as a teacher to work with the common people and promote this new school of sustainable beekeepers and to basically fortify the Napa bee population."

The media have lately zoomed in on the California almond industry, a $2.2 billion annual business. Bees pollinate the blossoms of almond trees and ultimately produce the nuts. So vast are the state's orchards that each February, almond farmers recruit insects from beekeepers across the United States and the world for use in their orchards. The hives arrive in semis, each carrying 400 boxes or more, totaling somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 million bees. In 2006, well over 1 million bee boxes entered the state for the almond harvest.

Labesque believes that this annual conglomeration of so many different bees from so many different regions is unnecessary and has encouraged the spread of troublesome mites and diseases. He urges California almond growers to raise their own bees onsite or to utilize only local keepers' hives, and is currently seeking legislation to alter the laws and conventions that currently allow for so many colonies--a great many of them infected--to be brought together each year.

We'd all be hypocrites, however, if we were to speak too harshly of hive transportation. That is, after all, how honeybees made it to this continent to begin with. Indigenous to Eurasia and represented by 26 subspecies, Apis mellifera came westward to the New World with the Spaniards in the 15th and 16th centuries. Until then, honey was an unknown miracle on this side of the Atlantic. Today, it's big business.

In 2005, American beehives produced 175 million pounds of honey, most of which was pasteurized, filtered and blended into an unidentifiable and generic golden blend. But raw, natural honey is a marvelous phenomenon, as diverse and wonderful as artisan wine and cheese. Locally, hobbyist beekeepers market scores and scores of varietal honeys, and many can be tasted at Beekind, a bee-oriented curiosity shop in Sonoma County. Several dozen honeys from around the globe adorn the shelves in the store's front window, beautifully filtering the sunlight in different shades of gold as it passes through the jars.

Tasting the lineup, one finds a slight commonality of flavor threading through them all: that well-known, musty, honeybee essence. Otherwise, the spectrum is vast. Eucalyptus honey, a light amber in color, tastes like caramel. Rusty-brown buckwheat honey has notes of tree sap and coffee. Dark redwood forest honey, which technically is not honey (it's a long story), tastes of beer, chocolate and pine resin.

To make honey, bees ingest flower nectar and accumulate it in a stomachlike chamber. Here, the nectar becomes infiltrated by enzymes which serve to convert the nectar into fructose and glucose while also reducing the pH levels to those inhospitable to fungi and microbes. Returning to the hive with the cargo, the bees regurgitate the nectar into the hexagonal beeswax cells of the honeycomb. The sweet floral liquid is subjected to the wing-fanning of thousands of stationary bees, and this relentless activity creates heat and the evaporation of water from the nectar. When the sticky deposits have been reduced to a moisture level of approximately 17 percent (bees have instruments to make such measurements), the thick fluid is officially designated "honey," and the bees seal it over with wax to protect against marauding bears and beekeepers.

Bees gravitate toward pollen, too. Each insect finds a virgin flower, grips it belly-side up and shakes the blossom like a furious chimp at the bars of a cage. The pollen falls and dusts the bee, at which point it flies home and stashes the floral powder separately from the honey. These two ingredients compose the nutritional needs of bees.

The queen bee is a very special member of the colony. She is the only fertile female, lives 50 times longer than the other bees and grows to be twice as large. But at birth, she is no different than her siblings. In fact, a new queen comes along only when the citizens of the colony decide that the current one must be replaced. Once they have come to this agreement, proceedings advance rapidly. The nurse bees furtively select a larval female, and they pamper her, guard her and feed her a diet--not of honey and pollen--but of "royal jelly," a secretion from the hypopharyngeal glands of the nurses. This milky fluid is extremely nutritious, and while her siblings mature to inferior dimensions, the chosen infant grows big and strong and becomes sexually viable.

By the time she is 16 days old, she has attained full size, and the time soon comes when she ascends to the throne and takes command of the hive. Her life consists primarily of eating royal jelly from the hands of her servants and laying millions of eggs. Dozens of generations of lesser bees will meanwhile come to pass, dying within five weeks of birth. The queen may live for seven years.

Despite its agrarian aspect, beekeeping today is a volatile business. According to Doug Vincent, who owns Beekind with his wife, Katia, American commercial beekeepers are disappearing at a rate of 10 percent per year, in spite of rising domestic demand for honey.

"But hobbyist beekeepers are increasing at the rate of 10 percent per year," he says. "With the organic movement, there's a demand for the raw product, and every small beekeeper I know sells every drop they produce."

Beekind itself has jumpstarted and now caters to over 300 local beekeepers with beekeeping equipment and a retail outlet for their honey and beeswax products, and the interest in both making pure, unadulterated honey and in eating it is growing. The Sonoma County Beekeepers' Association currently consists of over a hundred members, according to Labesque, and only a handful of them participate in commercial scale productions. Meanwhile, uncounted hundreds of beekeepers in the North Bay reside off the grid.

The world's beekeepers are currently divided by very different philosophies on appropriate bee husbandry. Yet the same people are inextricably linked through the intermingling of their insects, and Labesque, Keller and many others firmly believe that cooperation and solidarity in the worldwide beekeeping community are key in preserving the health of bees everywhere. Albert Einstein once predicted that life on earth would cease with the disappearance of bees. If so, this designates beekeepers as the stewards of much more than our honey supply, and whatever they decide to do in the coming months and years to alleviate the issues that currently face our bees, let's hope they do it right.

Find honey, bee products and beekeeping equipment at Beekind, 921 Gravenstein Hwy. S., Sebastopol. 707.824.2905. Also visit Marshall's Farms Honey, 159 Lombard Road, American Canyon. 707.556.8088. For additional information, contact the Sonoma County Beekeepers' Association.

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