UNITED STATES: Coming Home to West Coast Bee Connections
APIS MELLIFERA IN THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST & NORTHERN CALIFORNIA
I left California’s Bay Area more than a decade ago, moving to the UK, then to India, then to East Africa. The food I am able to get around the world rises and falls in comparison to the options present in even a small roadside produce stand in Northern California. I love earthy spices in East Africa, tandoori breads and mangoes in India, and the UK still has the richest yellow egg yolks I’ve ever seen. But the California produce is hardest to beat or replicate - almonds and avocados, Napa wine and sweet Meyer lemons.
As a cook in California, planning meals is about creativity, freshness, and connection to all the food diversity this coastal, fog-locked land that offers. California is a show-off in her abundance of flavor, as much as she is her gorgeous coast lines and redwood forests.
I return back to the West Coast frequently – rarely to California, but often to Whidbey Island, WA, where I live a few months of the year in the midst of green ferns and cedar trees. It’s a beautiful home – walking the dog last week I saw a pod of Orca migrating north through Possession Sound, and lavender is starting to burst purple, and I picked nettles for earthy homemade pesto. For me, Washington’s flavors are summer blackberries and Dungeness crab, fragrant autumn quince and sugary pressed cider.
Staying on the West Coast for the past few weeks, I’ve retraced my steps from Washington, down to Oregon, continuing to California’s beautiful Highway-1 coastline of Monterey and San Mateo county. Each stop has been beautiful and filled with the particular flavors and bee practices that only that one patch of land could produce from its unique composition of soil and weather microclimates.
Every few hundred miles, the flavors of honey change. A farmers’ market honeycomb I bought one Saturday morning in Oakland tasted specifically like Northern California, because it is the thickened nectar of bird’s foot trefoil or blooming mustard. California orange blossom honey is bitter and bright, a contrast to the marshmallow bourbon flavor of Oregon’s meadowfoam honey, which feels almost refreshing next to the floral taste of Washington’s blackberry honey.
Like honey, the bee practices from drought-parched Northern California to the moss-laden rain forests of the Pacific Northwest are varied. All good beekeeping is local, responding to variation in sun, the blooms, the wind, and the water. This time of year – from mid-February until mid-July -- is non-stop activity for West Coast beekeepers who are expanding their hives, watching for swarms, breeding queens, monitoring weather for nectar flows, and hopefully seeing their hives stack up more and more surplus honey for collection, and for the bees themselves to last through the next winter.
After visiting beekeepers around the globe, coming home to meet the beekeepers, researchers, and neighbors along the West Coast of the US is connecting me more to this place than I have felt in a long time. Here’s what I’ve seen:
Carolyn Breece slides me a mason jar of her own honey when we meet for tea on a rainy April morning in Corvallis, Oregon. In addition to managing Oregon State University’s apiary of 60 hives, she has her own apiary for making her “Honey, I Love You” brand of wildflower honey. The jar is warm from a water bath on the stove to soften it, and I open the lid and immediately slide my finger across the top sheen of beautiful golden honey. It’s a warmth that counteracts the cold outside. This is bad weather for bees, but good for catching up in Carolyn’s office at the Oregon State University bee lab, where she’s supported bee research for nearly 13 years and runs the courses for the Master beekeeper certification program. Blueberry blossoms are happening across the state, and she’s just back from working with a grad student’s research on commercial beekeeping across the blueberry fields on yesterday’s sunny day. Today’s rainy one is better for meeting than for visiting hives.
Carolyn teaches the bee courses I took as a primer of my own beekeeping education. With Apis mellifera honeybees present in both the US and Rwanda, I assumed the lessons would transfer across geography, based solely on bee biology. Offering a stepped program to move from apprentice, to journey-er, to master beekeeper, I enrolled in pre-recorded on-line classes. I was learning from Carolyn at my own pace from my laptop in Rwanda.
The courses as OSU were structured to get me started with bees in the prevailing Pacific Northwest fashion – assembling Langstroth hives, selecting a package of bees to shake into the hive, feeding sugar syrup and pollen patties to get them going, and being ever-mindful of varroa destructor mites that kill hives all across the US. What these classes impressed upon me most was how mainstream beekeeping is done in the US and how much bees are struggling for health and survival. Between mite infestations, small hive beetle, wax moth, long winters without forage, and even a mouse that may stow-away in a hive for some winter warmth, the bees are on-guard for minute changes that can seriously affect the survival of the colony. The courses share treatment options and synthetic food options, and lots of practices that feel so medicalized and industrialized. Carolyn sympathizes with me I as express how awkward it feels to medicate the hives for varroa mites. “When I started beekeeping I didn’t want to do it either. You don’t want to put a block of acid on the top of your hive frames but then there’s really not much you can do.” As a researcher and a lover of bees, I believe that she’s looked for a dozen of other options to find the best ways to keep her hives healthy.
Yet, for beekeepers all around the US, the management practices that are being used aren’t keeping up with the environmental stresses on the hives – and perhaps are even contributing to the stresses. Spring survival rates numbers are reported from beekeepers across the US, pegging hive losses between 21-52% at various states across the US last year. Some beekeepers in Ontario, Canada report in that 2022 is the worst loss season on record with between 60-95% losses, likely due to weakened hives from varroa mites, poor diets with too little diversity of flower foods, pesticide exposure, and poor hive management from well-meaning beekeepers. The colony collapse disorder of the early 2000s has receded, but every year, we are reaching record numbers of bee losses as our practices of farming, development, and land use strip away resources for bees and native plants.
The OSU courses are geared to folks like me who are getting started with bees – hoping to take care of bees, make some honey for Christmas presents, know how to use an EpiPen for anaphylaxis allergic reactions, and generally do as best as possible to support hived colonies across cold wet winters and keep the bees alive. Carolyn’s enthusiasm for honey bees comes through on all 9 recorded lessons she teaches, reviewing buying nucs, or managing winter hive inspections, or treating for mites. While many approaches won’t transfer to my situation in Rwanda, Carolyn's teaching has been the base of my understanding, and and her incredible support in pairing me with bee researchers and beekeepers around the globe has been phenomenal in helping me explore other approaches.
Meeting for the first time in person feels like the start of a long sweet bee friendship. Having the chance to share my own excitement feels with her feels like I’m finally reciprocating in our relationship. I hand her a jar of smokey Rwandan honey, too.
Talking with Carolyn in her bright yellow rain coat, a thermos of hot water between us, and cold rain pooling into mud at the base of her lab stairs, it feels like the weather will never release us from its grip into spring. When temperatures are below 55 degrees, it’s too cold for the bees to leave their nests, as they need to maintain a 95-degree cluster in the hive center, around the queen and the other sisters. The bees have been clustered like this since winter, and have likely eaten through their honey storage. Beekeepers are pouring in sugar water to keep the energy up, and stacking on peanut-butter looking pollen patties in the hive as the wet blossoms outside blow away in the wind. The cold rain washes away the protein-rich pollen the bees rely on to grow the next generation. When will bees finally have the chance to forage and for new queens to mate?
We gather our courage and our layers to walk in the rain through a diversity of cool hives in the OSU apiary in coldest May on record for the Pacific Northwest. As we look at these constructed hives of various shapes and innovations to improve the management condition of hived bees, I wonder if honeybees were ever meant to even be here.
In 2014, researchers verified that “honey bees seem to be derived from an ancient lineage of cavity-nesting bees that arrived from Asia around 300,000 years ago and rapidly spread across Europe and Africa.” Honey bees adapted to these varied environments as they migrated, and the processes of adaption of bee biology might be a clue to how honey bees could adapt again to deal with the risks of climate change, pests, and disease. Beekeepers balance keeping their personal colonies alive through environmental stressors, but also allowing those stressors to trigger the right natural evolutions/adaptations required for bees’ longer term collective survival. The Apis mellifera honeybees of North America are not native to this land, and they were introduced by European colonists in the 1622s to Virginia, where I was raised. From Virginia, it took more than 200 years for honey bees to swarm and migrate as far West as modern-day Nevada. And in the 1850’s honeybees were transported by humans to California by botanist C. A. Shelton for use in farming and pollination. So all that California plenty – like almonds, avocados, artichokes – are resultant from the work of honey bee immigrants from Europe.
Prior, the Native peoples of Turtle Island recognized solitary bees, bumblebees, mason bees, as the native bees of North America. When food and resources are plentiful, native and imported bees can co-exist, but when pollen and nectar resources are scarce – like in this windy rainy season or in a drought - there’s a risk of imported bees edging out the native species to the detriment of all.
A month later, and six hundred miles south of Corvallis, I’m sitting at the grassy edge of Jacobs Farm in Pescadero, California, watching irrigation systems darken the exposed top soil. Jacobs Farm is the embodiment of the back-to-the-land passion of co-founders Sandra Belin and Larry Jacobs, who started planting this eight-acre plot more than 30 years before the drought that has typified agriculture in California over the past decade. As one of the first certified organic farms in the US, they now have seven sites along California’s Central Coast and are a leading producer of organic herbs in the country, benefitting from the cool air from the ocean, some moisture from the fog, and the warm sunshine above.
Commercial beekeeper Aidan Wing and I are hanging our legs over the edge of the flat-bed trailer parked at the edge of the Jacobs’ farm, talking with coffee and really good chorizo breakfast burritos from the corner taqueria. On this May morning the sun is warm on my back, and is simultaneously cascading a half-moon shadow across under Aidan’s gray felt brim. His golden-green eyes, long golden-ginger hair, and even his golden-red dog Cedar, are all some shade of warm honey.
The California land we are on has been in a drought from 2011 to 2019, with just one wet winter to break the dry streak in 2020. As the irrigation continues in front of us, this year is the driest year on record, and all counties of California are restricting water usages at home and in business.
Yet Aidan is looking at the land, and talking about hope. Our conversation accordions between hope and despair all morning, with hope getting the upper edge:
“Living in this community and just seeing the resilience of farmers and ranchers makes me hopeful. Seeing people really have good farming practices that produce amazing nutrition and food security and in doing that, care for the earth. They give back to the earth, and really provide healthy nutrition cycles for people and the earth, and not resource-grabbing types of agriculture. That makes me hopeful for the future.”
As the founder and owner of Wings of Nature Bees, a commercial operation of 200 hives of honey bees, Aidan is looking for a different way to do commercial beekeeping, away from some of the challenges of mainstream agriculture and beekeeping practices that weaken bees. Aidan places his hives in several farm locations around San Mateo county, including on this farm where Aidan and his bees are in symbiosis with the Jacobs and their organic produce. The land provides a place for Aidan to rear bees and make honey, and the bees contribute pollination to improve the yields of the farm. He purposely chooses farms that have organic practices that are safer for his bees.
But it’s not just along the coastal ridge of San Mateo farms that Aidan places his hives. As a beekeeper offering commercial pollination services, one of the biggest pay jobs each year in California is the pollination of central California’s inland almond crops. The California counties of Kern, Fresno, Stanislaus, Merced and Madera produce most of the world’s commercial almond supplies, although the green fuzzy fruit of the almond tree is not native to California. And as a major water consumer, using 1-3 gallons of water to produce a single almond, this crop is no doubt contributing to the water challenges across the state, shrinking the groundwater reserves every year. In comparing the amount of water needed to produce other protein-rich nutritious foods, almonds aren’t the only culprit in California, as nearly all of the produce grown there requires inputs of water that out-pace the natural water table. Whether agriculture or cooling Silicon Valley’s tech servers, California has a water problem that needs multiple solutions, and almond farmers can be a major contributor to regenerative growing practices.
As California's most lucrative agricultural export of nearly $5B USD in foreign sales each year the economic value of almonds is a draw for farmers, who also need billions of bees to pollinate the white almond blooms that burst open every February. A 2021 calculation from UC Davis estimates that nearly 48 billion bees pollinate California almonds each year, with almond growers typically using two hives per acre of orchard – that’s 90% of all the honey bees in the US coming to California almond farms. “I bring about two-thirds of my hives to pollinate almonds, and the rest stay behind for queen mating. With my kids, you can see a truck from New Mexico next to one from Florida and like another one from New York,” said Aidan.
For beekeepers, almond pollination is also one of the most lucrative options for maintaining their livelihoods, combined with other income streams like queen mating, selling bees, and honey production. At $150 per hive deposited to an almond field, a semi-truck of 400 hives could gross about $60,000 for four weeks of renting out their hives.
The costs of delivering bees for pollination however are huge – both on an economic and bee stress scale. With fuel costs (over $6 per gallon at this writing), apiary inspection to certify that the colonies are disease-free before they enter California, and driver/beekeeper’s time to sit with the bees to prevent them from being stolen, a beekeeper nets about 10% of the gross payment for almond pollination. It’s a reliable option out there for predictable, annual income for beekeepers, as long as the bees can bounce back after the stress of the monoculture pollination. The hives are present at the almond orchards for about a month, which potentially exposes the bees to disease from other beekeepers’ stock or pesticides from neighboring growers and limits their diet to the singular crop of almonds. So while profitable, there’s a risk that exposing the hives could lead to other challenges down the road.
Bee-blogger Sarah Red-Laird recently profiled Burroughs Family Orchards in Central California, with their 1200 acres of almonds. Along with the Paicines Ranch Learning Center and the Ecdysis Foundation, the Burroughs host a “Regenerative Almond Field Day” for farmers and researchers that are looking for more earth-friendly ways of growing almonds. By layering regenerative practices – compost, mixed-use orchards with goats and chickens, crop cover plants growing between trees to root water deeper into the soil – there’s a strong possibility for lessening the impact of almond trees on both the land and the bees.
Farmers who use these kind of practices are who Aidan chooses to work with for almond pollination and for year-round bee placement. In this context, Aidan maintains a hopefulness about what’s possible for his bees and the persistence of smaller farmers and beekeepers who are incorporating regenerative practices.
“I only work with farmers that have good practices. People are becoming more and more aware of these practices, and we’re definitely seeing more large-scale farmers start to adapt some of these practices as well and have more concern for sustainability and the ecological health and human health. And as big as commercial beekeeping has gotten, even the biggest beekeeping operations in the US are run by families, not by corporations, not by investors. When that’s been tried, like when large agriculture conglomerates have bought beekeeping outfits and hired managers, it’s failed. It never works because I think it’s like a love affair -- every beekeeper loves their bees. So even the biggest commercial guys running bees all around the country, it has to be more than just an economic interest. A dedication, a commitment to the bees only comes from people and families.”
As a first-generation family business, Aidan’s Wings of Nature hopes to pass on this dedication to the bees. “My children work with me all the time. My son Jalani is 13, and my daughter Kiara is 11, and they are incredibly knowledge for their own ages. Really they are learning a lot just by growing up with this as part of their reality.”
How knowledge is passed from family members and across communities has been one of the themes that’s emerged when I talk with beekeepers around the globe. Often it’s passed from family lineages, with third, fourth, fifth generations continuing the traditions of their parents and grandparents, contextualizing the practices with their own observations and adjustments to the external environment. When it’s not a direct line descendant that’s carrying the tradition, beekeepers are learning from mentors who are willing to open the door to this knowledge to the chosen next gen.
Some of “the last generation were like old fisherman. They have their secrets, you know, about their management practices, keeping secrets for themselves and their family,” but it’s clear that the older generation also see the opportunity to pass on knowledge to the younger beekeepers, like Aidan for whom they’ve accepted.
Starting off in beekeeping with another commercial keeper, Aidan “met some amazing mentors, really, who to this day I call and say what do you do about that, what do you think about that. You talk to some of these old timers, and the knowledge base that they can pass down is mind-boggling. The old guy who has been making honey for 50 years and knows all the little microclimates in California and when things bloom and how different moisture affects different things, it’s so mysterious. Of course I’ve read a lot of books, too, but observation and talking with the old timers has been the best.”
With the changing landscape of California agriculture, inviting more responsible farmers and beekeepers into the scene feels like a way of maintaining a way of life that might be at risk.
“Beekeeping is a really really hard…a really hard avocation. It’s a high investment and high risk and a shit-ton of labor," he laughs. "So like youths coming out of school aren’t like ‘you know what I wanna do, I wanna work 7 days a week between February and June and lift lots of heavy stuff and spend several hundred thousand dollars on the basic set up and maybe I’ll make a living and maybe not.’ Maybe there’ll be drought and the bees won’t make any honey this year. It’s a hard industry. So this generation of beekeepers, we all talk a lot and share our secrets. We share how we manage our hives, and we share what worked for us, and what hasn’t worked for us. Honestly, our attitude in general is like, you wanna like break into this industry? Good luck! You’re gonna need all the help you can get and you still might fail, so there’s no problem with us helping another guy out and telling newer beekeepers how the things that work for us and the things we do to make good queens and make honey.”
In addition to pollination, queen-breeding and honey sales are the other two core elements of Wings of Nature’s operations.
With the drought limiting the nectar from flowers, beekeepers across California are worried if there will be enough surplus honey for a good yield. There’s “not enough surplus honey on the bees right now” and the window of opportunity for nectar flow is closing in. With a month to go, “we’ve got our fingers crossed that the bees will make some honey. We really depend on that honey to make it through the fall. Right now we’re selling lots of bees, but later on in the year, we depend on honey to pay the rent, and keep fuel in the trucks, and feed the children. So with less nectar and less pollen, it greatly affects the bees, and affects their health. People are starting to see honey more for what it is, this amazing living food, this medicine, as opposed to a sweetened flavor for tea.”
For both Aidan and his kids, queen rearing is the most rewarding part of beekeeping, and perhaps the one least susceptible to weather and external elements. “Their favorite part is catching queens when we go through mating nucs. And you open the nuc and you have to find the queen. And when I work with them, I don’t even have to go through the nuc, they just open it up and find the queen, they are so fast they just go through and they’re like ‘here’s one, poppa!’ and I’ll cage it and by the time I put the nuc back together, they’re at the next one like ‘here’s the queen, Poppa’ and I just handle the queens.”
At this point in the morning, we’ve driven to an ancillary field a few miles further inland from the shoreline, deeper into rural Pescadero, to see Aidan’s queen breeding operations. With a grant from Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, Aidan has been able to further refine his breeding operations to select for mite-resistance, gentleness, productivity and general resilience. The grant findings are then shared further with other breeders and researchers.
“Some years ago I was at a Western Apiculture Society conference, and talking with some gals from Hawaii, and they were like we’ve really reached a high threshold of mite resistance in just a few years, and why can’t everybody attain the same outcome in the same amount of time. A friend of mine says ‘you have pollen available like 11 and a half months of the year! The natural base diet contributing to the health of the bees is gonna make them far superior to fight any pests, diseases, pesticides, and have general health.” So part of the value of queen rearing is to hasten a colony’s adaptation and resilience to external stressors when the richness of a diet isn’t as accessible.
“Taking part in the breeding and selection is definitely labor intensive and grafting takes a long time. You choose the breeders and the right size larva, and have a human eye on it, look for signs of disease. Watching your stock continually get better over the years in a slow and changing way is powerful.”
Aidan packs and lights dry eucalyptus bark and leaves in the bottom of the smoker. The white leather bellows is marked with wax and propolis, and the nozzle of the smoker looks a bit like the rusty Tin Man’s aluminum funnel cap. Aidan is wearing two button-down shirts, hunter green close to his skin, and lighter-colored tan over that, which might be more pleasing to his bees. He hands me a veil, as we kneel down in a circle among four small hives. Pointing in the four directions, each mating nuc has two new queens per box, separated by a thin divider. I immediately discard the veil when he opens the first breeding nuc. Even as the smoker dies out, I have never seen such gentle bees. When frames are pulled from the nuc, they don’t even seem to notice us.
It’s being with the bees that make all of the other things fall away for me – the drought, and the almond truckers, and the mites, and the rain, and the economics. Those things are all incredibly important, and these bees exist only in the context of their environment, including all those dynamics. When you’re with bees, you’re both incredibly and indelibly connected to all those things, but the bees ask you to just be present with them -- to smell the wax, to feel the collective vibration of the colony, to look at each new egg as small as a grain of California coastal sand. As each hive opens, I am in awe.
Aidan finds a young queen, and safely pulls her up for me to see. She holds on safely between to his fingers, with crescents of soil under each nail. It’s too early in the day for the dirt to be from this morning’s work. He woke up this way, fingers permanently connected to the black earth.
“The reason that I was drawn to this trade, as well as most people who were drawn to this trade or farming or ranching, is because of the connection. My take is that this is a way of life. And it’s very old. We work hard, work long hours, but I’ll stop and have tea with my rancher buddy who comes by and bullshit with the farmer about the spider in his crop. I want to be outside where a bald eagle flies over or I see a bobcat running down the road near the apiary. We choose this way of life because it makes us feel connected. My work is beautiful.”
 https://entomologytoday.org/2014/08/25/study-finds-honey-bees-originated-from-asia-not-africa/  https://blog.education.nationalgeographic.org/2018/01/29/honeybees-help-farmers-but-they-dont-help-the-environment/  https://medium.com/@BountifulAg/almond-water-footprint-a-new-perspective-7e401851d344#:~:text=We%20should%20all%20agree%20that,hull%2C%20to%20be%20exact).  https://www.cdfa.ca.gov/Statistics/PDFs/2020_Exports_Publication.pdf  https://asmith.ucdavis.edu/news/bees-per-almond#:~:text=Almond%20growers%20typically%20use%20two,increased%20ten%20fold%20since%201986.  https://www.sare.org/publications/managing-alternative-pollinators/chapter-one-the-business-of-pollination/pollination-costs-and-benefits-almonds/#:~:text=Currently%2C%20a%20beekeeper%20receives%20up,per%20colony%20to%20pollinate%20almonds.  A small hive of just 5 frames is called a nucleus, or ‘nuc’.