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To Bee

Sweeter than honey: getting a buzz from bees

By David Templeton

FROM ACROSS this west Petaluma field, I can see the hives, sticking up from the ground like weird, squat totem poles: short, white, bare, and square--almost glowing in the bright morning sun. We are still too far away to see any of the bees, but I can hear them, buzzing mellifluently as the day grows steadily warmer.

"You ready?" grins Jonathan Taylor, master beekeeper, tucking an odd-shaped bundle--containing coveralls, gloves, and a veiled hat--under one T-shirted arm. Tossing me another bundle, he picks up a pale gray smoke can and strides away toward the hives. "Time to get up-close and personal!" he shouts as I tag tentatively along.

Now I can see them. Like wisps of cloud puffing up from the base of each of the five hives, hundreds of bees sail out and up from narrow spaces at the bottom of the columns, as others, returning from nectar-gathering at the tall eucalyptus trees across the lane, wing past them on their way back to the colony. The effervescent hum of the honey-making critters is louder now, though not nearly the volume it will rise to when Taylor peels the lid from the top of the hive--and I push my face forward to peer inside.

Known as "Bee Man" to a wide number of Sonoma County farmers, businesspeople, and schoolkids--he's even got the nickname inscribed on the back of his coveralls--Taylor became involved with bees eight years ago when he was hired to help dislodge an enormous colony that had taken residence in the wall of a just-restored old building. After removing the bees to a new home, Taylor realized he was hooked. Or bitten. Or stung.

At any rate, he was ready for more. Now Taylor operates a year-round, full-service bee, wasp, and yellowjacket service, performing 30 to 50 hive removals a year. He's established and tended numerous beehives of his own across Sonoma County and sells honey to various commercial enterprises.

Ever see those multiflavored honey sticks? Taylor supplies the honey and consults with hobbyists and farmers who are attempting to establish their own beekeeping expertise. In the off-seasons of fall and winter, he takes to the stage, sort of: Within a safety-netted, tentlike cage, the ruggedly handsome, pony-tailed Bee Man performs his educational, bee-taming act at area schools and fairs.

Working with a swirling hive of bees, Taylor demonstrates the workings of a colony, dispensing facts--"One third of all the food we eat had the involvement of bees; it only takes five pounds of beeswax to hold a hundred pounds of honey; drone bees have penises disproportionately large when compared to those of any other creature"--while wowing spectators by having the bees land on his arms and face. As a grand finale, he takes a live drone in his mouth and spits it into the air.

"OK. Let's suit up," he now directs, as we come to a stop directly behind the first of the stacks. Owned by two-year beekeeper Dan Tennyson of Petaluma, these particular hives have given him some concern of late, appearing underpopulated and quiet, even for the typically cool fall season; he's asked Taylor to come out and have a look. "Bees are usually in a foul mood this time of year," Taylor grins. "Be prepared for a face full of bees."

With our coveralls on, our gloves and masks in place, and duct tape sealing up all potential entry points, we step up to the hive, consisting of stacked wooden boxes known as "supers." He lifts off the lid, exposing a series of vertically lined-up racks.

After sifting a thin layer of acrid smoke from his can across the open box--this disorients the bees and interrupts their ability to communicate or to jointly identify us as the enemy--he pulls one up and hands it to me. It is intricately webbed with waxy yellow combwork, packed with sweet-smelling honey, and covered in bees.

Dozens of them fly up as if to stare in through the veil. Some cling to the netting. Several land on my arms, shoulders, neck. After an initial burst of adrenaline, it becomes rather pleasant having so many of these fragile aviators use me as a landing pad.

"Wow, look at all that honey!" Taylor exclaims. "These bees are making honey in October! That's pretty unusual. This time of year the bees are usually prepared to shut down for the winter. I'd say this a real healthy hive. Let's check another!"

THOUGH NOVICE beekeepers often start out with visions of a honey-selling retail empire buzzing in their heads, Taylor--and the majority of his fellow apiarists--will readily admit that it's difficult to make a living by raising bees. The large commercial honey producers use mainly product from overseas, leaving the smaller producers to squabble over the relatively limited market for high-grade, "boutique" honey products.

"I can count on one hand the number of beekeepers in this county who make a living exclusively from bees," insists Taylor, who admits to doing carpentry and woodcarving to make ends meet. "If you aren't thinking of this as a hobby, you're going to be disappointed. It's too much work to do if you're in it for the cash."

For the serious hobbyist, though, there is plenty more to beekeeping than honey. Farmers need bees to pollinate their crops, and energetic hive owners can be kept busy transporting bees from one field to another, assisting the nectar-loving insects in that odd pastoral sex act. Certain industrious types are willing to do the excruciating work of collecting the hives' bee pollen, a popular additive to smoothies and other health-food store concoctions, believed to give a special boost of energy to those who consume it.

Whether for income or for pleasure, though, it seems that good old-fashioned hard work is an integral part of the game.

Taylor doesn't disagree.

Pointing out that "all beekeepers have bad backs," Taylor hoists one of the supers and sets it down beside the rest of the hive. When I attempt to lift it myself, I see what he means. "That one probably weighs 70 pounds," he smiles. "In the spring, in a good location, during a good honey flow, a strong hive can fill up one of those boxes a day. If it fills up and you don't extract, the bees will run out of room and they'll swarm. Then you could lose them. You can't be a procrastinator if you have bees. The bees will get ahead of you."

After Taylor has ascertained that Tennyson's bees are thriving--he locates the queen in one of the hives; she's fat and fine--we put the columns back together. As I walk away from the hives, those few bees still clinging to us lift off and return home.

As the buzz fades, I ask Taylor if he ever notices, after so many years among the bees, how gorgeous they can be.

"Oh yeah," he nods. "I'm still blown away sometimes when I open up a colony and look inside. Sometimes I'll stand there and say out loud, 'That's just amazing!' I'm not a religious person, but I've heard everyone extol the beauty of God's invention and all that. Fine. That's one way of putting it. It's just another way of saying, 'That's so amazing.'"

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From the Oct. 30-Nov. 5, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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