The Guilded Life of Beekeeping
Silicon Valley residents, living on the leading edge of change, are stepping back into their gardens to relearn the ancient art of beekeeping. This hands-on husbandry connects science and agriculture with ecosystems and the foods we eat. Beekeepers’ guilds provide helpful guidance and community on the journey into the world of backyard beekeeping.
Have Bees. Will Travel.
Just how popular is backyard beekeeping? It is so popular that early on a spring Saturday morning, a group of 40 locals gather in Burlingame for the two-hour seminar “All About Beekeeping.” Presented by volunteers Tori Muir, Kendal Sager, Brigitte Roay and David Clark, it is sponsored by the Beekeepers’ Guild of San Mateo County, a group that has seen a tenfold increase in its membership in the past decade.
Kendal Sager, vice president of the Guild and former Dream-Works staffer, is a backyard beekeeper from Los Altos. Though she has her own small startup called Kendal’s Bees, for this 30-year-old the bees represent passion, not profit. Today, the animated apiarist has lugged along a teaching hive for the 50-mile round trip.
“This is a really calm colony,” she explains. “They don’t mind traveling.” The mini-hive, with its plexiglass sides, has the beginners enraptured. How much work can they expect? More than caring for a cat, says Kendal, but less than caring for a dog.
There is Silicon Valley synergy, too. Surf over to Amazon.com, where the fourth edition of Beekeeping for Dummies is Amazon’s number one new release for spring. Check out Costco, which had a local hit with its “Little Giant Beehive Kit.” Google the Flow Hive, created by two inventors who began a crowdfunding campaign hoping to raise $70,000 and found themselves with $12.2 million. Shop the app store on your phone and find dozens of apps on honey and beekeeping.
Tiny Bees. But a Great Guerrilla.
Humans have had a relationship with bees for thousands of years—long enough that it isn’t unusual for archaeologists in Egypt to find viable honey in excavated tombs. “The ancients,” says beekeeper and writer E. Readicker-Henderson, “considered honey a kind of magic.”
The California Department of Food and Agriculture takes a more practical view. It categorizes bees as livestock and ranks their value at just a fraction of the state’s $47 billion agricultural income, with most of that coming from pollination fees. California’s commercial honey is a fraction of that.
Backyard beekeeping, then, is a fraction of a fraction and thus flies well under the radar of California’s giant agencies. That is where the bee guilds come in. They serve as advocates and educators as well as cooperatives for members, saving them money on supplies and services. They lobby city governments—failing, so far, only in Foster City where ordinance 6.04.320 of the municipal code still outlaws keeping bees. The guilds can also aid in perilous tasks—such as shipping live bees through the US mail. (Yes, you can. But don’t try shipping a whole hive.)
“Beekeepers don’t want you to measure how popular it is!” laughs Saratoga resident Ken McKenzie, president of the Santa Clara Valley Beekeepers Guild. “We don’t want to bother our neighbors. We’re a guerrilla industry. I mean, look at us: We wear funny suits that make us look like we have paint strainers on our heads!”
A graduate of Humboldt State, McKenzie came to beekeeping by accident. One day, during his work for the Santa Clara Valley Water District, a swarm of bees interfered with his work and he couldn’t find an expert to help. Determined not to destroy the bees, he figured out how to move them himself. That night he went home with a box of bees in the back of his car.
Now, he tends more than 20 hives stashed in backyards throughout the county, producing 900 pounds of honey each year. His wife, he admits, tolerates his interest with some dismay, due to the honey-on-the-doorknobs and honey-on-the-shoes that inevitably go along with it.
Not a Grumpy Old Man.
Neighbors across the valley are joining in. The Rolling Hills 4-H keeps bees in Cupertino. An administrator at Stanford tends her hives in Emerald Hills. Beginning in 2010, Google Inc. began keeping bees on its Mountain View campus.
San Jose resident Art Hall, 68, vice president of the Santa Clara Valley Beekeepers Guild, spent most of his career in tech. A health scare 12 years ago gave him a chance for a change. He now works full time as a bee rescuer—moving swarms that city folks find a nuisance. He also keeps hives in San Jose and at the O’Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm in Palo Alto, where he is the advisor to the Beekeeping Club.
Hall is not ashamed to be caught talking to his bees. “Hello, girls,” he says softly as he approaches the hives, which are indeed filled mostly with female worker bees. “I’m here to see you today and I have a nice guest with me.” He turns and smiles at me.
“I always tell everyone I’m just a grumpy old man beekeeper, because so many of those taking this up these days are much younger and cooler than I am.”
Cooler? Well, that’s a judgment call. Grumpy? Not exactly. Most of his honey goes to local food banks. Most of his beeswax goes to friends who make crafts to gain needed income. “Truly,” he says, “I try to do as much good with this as I can.”
He checks his hives at Stanford with care. Then, in his soft beekeeper voice, he says goodbye to the bees before he packs up his gear and heads home through the traffic to San Jose.
Doing Well by Doing Good.
There is no denying honey production is one of the key attractions for the backyard beekeeper. It is a product that never spoils. It can be spun like strands of gold in one’s own backyard, each comb infused with a unique terroir which, says one writer, is “as specific to a place as the way light hits flowers in the morning.”
But there is more to it than that. The guilds and their members work together in a way not unlike a hive. Perhaps, together, they share a desire to recapture a glimpse of the world naturalist John Muir once walked. “When California was wild,” Muir wrote more than a century ago, “it was one sweet bee-garden throughout its entire length, north and south, and all the way across from the snowy Sierra to the ocean. The air was sweet with fragrance, the larks sang their blessed songs, rising on the wing as I advanced, then sinking out of sight in the polleny sod; while myriads of wild bees stirred the lower air with their monotonous hum—monotonous, yet forever fresh and sweet as everyday sunshine.”
This “bee hotel” is a non-honey producing living space for native bees. These structures serve a vital purpose in supporting other bee species, which, along with the honey bee, help pollinate more than 85% of the vegetation in a given area. Many bee species live in small holes in decaying wood, or in the ground. To help counteract diminishing habitats, people (and the guilds) build these little “hotels” out of hollowed bamboo or sticks. There is one on the rooftop of the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose as part of the Pollinator Partnership.
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