I love honey. I love honey! Like the bears. All day long my coffee has honey instead of sugar. My cereal has honey. My toast, honey on it. Always honey." David Rojas of San Marcos has a thing for honey. It may explain why he works all day managing the beekeeping supplies at Knorr Candle Shop. And why he has kept his own bees over the years. It might also explain why from time to time he finds himself in one honey of a mess.
"I have been stung a lot of times. The worst that ever happened to me was one time when I went down to Chula Vista. Somebody asked me to move his bees from the old boxes to the new boxes that I had sold him. When I left my home, I was on my way to T.J., and I thought, 'Well, on my way back I will move the bees. Piece of cake.' Oh, big mistake. First of all, in San Marcos it was sunny, warm. I thought, 'It's going to be a very good day to move those bees.' When I got there, the weather was completely different than in San Marcos. It was breezy and cold. It was a very bad time to work with the bees. In that weather, they are all inside. I took my smoker, my bee suit, my veil, everything, but I forgot my gloves, and the kind of gloves the other beekeeper had were not appropriate. I knew they would sting and sting a lot. You are working in the nest, where the queen is, and they protect their mother.
"I decided, 'Well, I'm here, and I have to do this because I'm not going to drive again to come and do this. What I'm going to do is do it as quick as I can.' I did it. I did it as quick as I could, but it wasn't quick enough. I got, like, 60 stings in my hands. It was a lot. When I was driving back home, my hands were big, like Popeye. I couldn't hold the wheel right, but I had to drive. It was a very bad decision."
Rojas is one of an estimated 500 beekeepers in San Diego County. He considers himself a hobbyist, in it for the pleasure of working the bees, eating the honey, and sharing the honey with friends and family. Others are sideliners who keep bees to supplement their income. They run small operations and sell honey to regular local customers or at farmer's markets. A small portion of beekeepers are professionals who rely on the business of pollination and honey production for their livelihood.
Thirty years ago, Bob Madsen, who is now 64, began keeping bees for his health. "I first became interested in bees because I was very, very sick with allergies," Madsen said. "I was working for the utility company and for the sheriff's Search and Rescue at that time. I got real bad bronchitis and asthma, and I was going into emphysema. One morning I stopped and saw my doctor, and he checked me out and said, 'How much work do you have to do?' and I said I had about 12 hours' worth of work to do. He said, 'Well, take the work and give it back to whoever gave it to you. Go home and go to bed.' I said, 'I can't do that.' He said, 'Well, if you don't do that, you'll probably die today.'
"I took the work back, and the doctor came over and he took some tests. He took some blood. They found out after extensive testing that I had an allergy to rye grass. This was shortly after we had that firestorm in the county. It burned from Kitchen Creek all the way into the Bonita area. That, I believe, was '71, the early '70s.
"They came in and bombarded the backcountry with a hybrid rye grass from Australia, which grew, like, 36 inches tall. And here I'm out there looking for people -- doing search-and-rescue work in all the brush. I got weaker and weaker. My eyes were red, and my nose was running all the time.
"Anyway, I started giving myself injections in my legs every other day. I did that for about a year, and then shortly thereafter I went to once a week. It was a serum for allergies, to build up my immune system. It was household dusts and molds in one injection, and the other one was selected mixed pollens. I did that, and I was doing my job.
"One day I was working pulling electric meters and checking electric meters in a building. A fellow came out -- he wanted to know what all the noise was about. He ran a bio lab there. I asked him if he did serum analysis, and he said, 'Yeah, that's primarily what I do.' He asked if I had all my boxes of hypodermic needles, and I said, 'Yeah,' and he said, 'And you have all your serum and you keep that in your butter keeper in your refrigerator?' and I said, 'That's correct.' He said, 'What I suggest you do is you throw that all away and get yourself some honeycomb. Eat the honeycomb from your neighborhood. Get some from some of these old folks who keep bees in the neighborhood in their back yards. Just get some raw honey and honeycomb and chew that every day, and that'll immunize you. It's a natural immunization process.'
"I got to thinking about it, and I thought, there's plenty of guys that keep bees around here. You just have to find them. But you know, I couldn't really find any. I went up to Knorr Candle Shop and got a book on bees and all the paraphernalia and built myself some bee boxes. I read a book about bees, how to keep them and how to get bees. The book said to call the fire department and tell them you'll take swarms. That's what I did. I got the swarms. Within a month I had honeycomb, so I was eating it. I stopped taking my shots, and I stopped taking all the medications. I started just eating the honeycomb, but I was apprehensive about it. I kept all my shots and all the apparatus. After about six months I felt real good, so I just threw it all away. That was the end of that. That's how I got into bees."
David Rojas was originally hired to work in the garden at Knorr Candle Shop, which is located near Fairbanks Ranch. This was 14 years ago, when he was 30 years old and a recent arrival from Mexico City. Eventually, the man who then managed the beekeeping supplies invited him to help extract honey. Rojas remembered, "The next day was Saturday, and he came by my home and picked me up, and we went to the special place to extract. I never imagined he had, like, 80 boxes. The boxes hold between 90 and 100 pounds of honey. Each box, so very heavy. It was the first time I saw the industrial part of the bee-and-honey business. I was so surprised when we took the honey from the first frames. I never saw that much honey in my life. Then I started asking all kinds of questions about bees. I was so interested in it.
"Soon after, that guy quit to raise bees, and then I started working in the bee supplies. I am a very curious guy. I asked all the old people about bees. I read a lot on bees. Then I got my own bees. Somebody sold me ten hives. I had those ten hives, and I talked to my boss about it. He said, 'Everything you need, just let me know. You can have all the material you need, and you can pay me as much as you can out of every paycheck.' I put my hives up in Pala. Of course, all the beekeepers say they have the best bees in the world. Their bees produce more than anybody else's. Always they have caught the biggest swarm in all the county. It was the same with me.
"The next year in the spring I was ready to get the honey," Rojas continued. "I got a lot of honey. My wife said, 'What are you going to do with all that honey?' I said, 'You know what, if I don't sell it, I'm going to eat it.' I love honey. I started working, and I remember it very well -- six o'clock in the morning on the Fourth of July, extracting on a hand-crank extractor. My brother came and helped me out a little bit. My wife. My brother-in-law. Everybody was helping me out, but they quit. It was very hot. The honey was coming out very easily because it was hot. I finished around nine or ten o'clock that night. All day long. I had about 900 pounds of honey that first year."
The European honeybee, Apis mellifera, has provided people with honey for millennia. Cave paintings in Spain dating back to 6000 B.C.E. depict people gathering honey from hives. Honey was used to embalm Egyptian pharaohs. Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans made honey wine called mead. Even beer was made from honey.
Aristotle studied bees, theorizing correctly and incorrectly about their behavior. He accurately reported on the social caste system and that bees live in large colonies. He also recognized the queen bees, but he mistakenly called them king bees.
A colony -- a hive -- in California can have from 8000 bees, at the end of winter, to 45,000. The queen leaves the hive for only two reasons, to mate and to accompany a swarm to a new hive. Mating occurs when the queen is seven to ten days old and takes place in the air. The 12 to 20 drones she mates with die during the process. She begins to lay eggs two or three days later and can lay as many as 2000 in one day. During mating, she receives millions of sperm. They will last her her lifetime, which is usually two years but may be as long as six. She stores the sperm in a receptacle called a spermatheca.
The queen is cared for by worker bees, who lick her, groom her, and feed her. Worker bees do all the work of the colony; the drones, the males, exist only to inseminate the queen. The workers gather nectar, pollen, and propolis, a plant resin used to seal cracks in the hive. They build and repair the honeycomb, clean and defend the hive, make the honey, and raise the young bees. There is never a time when the entire colony sleeps.
Sue Hubbell, in A Book of Bees: And How to Keep Them, gives an example of the workers' determination as foragers. "One bee would have to fly the equivalent of three orbits around the earth in her foraging flights (using one ounce of honey as fuel for each orbit) in order to produce a single pound of honey."
"The bees have to fly 10,000 times to the same spot to collect a little tiny drop of honey," Rojas said. "One bee is going to be able to produce one teaspoon and a half of honey in all its life. Bees are very, very intelligent. They go and look for the source of the food. They have very good communication. When they come back with a new nectar, they share it with the other bees. Then they start a little dance and let them know how far and in what direction the nectar is. And what kind of flower and how the flower looks."
In the well-documented bee dance, a worker acts out an intricate roadmap for other bees in the colony to follow to a specific source of nectar.
The workers provide temperature control for the hive. According to Chuck Nichols of San Luis Rey Apiaries, "The bees have to control the temperature inside their hive very, very accurately because of the baby bees that are being produced. They usually control it within about three degrees, and it's right around 94. If it gets real hot, they have to have more bees passing air through the hive to keep the temperature down. When it gets cold they eat honey, because when they eat, their bodies put out heat. That's why if a beekeeper takes too much honey away from them, they die." In general a worker bee lives for six weeks in the summer and six months in the winter.
In the autumn, workers cease feeding the drones, and they weaken and die. Workers then drag them from the hive. It's a maleless society during the winter.
Honey and nectar are the primary food sources for the adult bee, and pollen is the bee's source of protein. "The bees suck the nectar up through their long tongues and store it in a sac called a honey stomach," Hubbell writes. "When this is full, they fly back to their hives and transfer nectar to the young bees, who spread it, drop by drop, throughout the honeycomb in the hives. When most of the water is removed from the nectar, the bees cap each cell of finished honey with snow-white wax that is secreted in flakes from their wax glands."
Bees make honey from nectar by doing two things. They secrete enzymes that change the sucrose in the nectar to simple sugars. To prevent fermentation, bees reduce the water content in the nectar to around 17 percent, both by manipulating the nectar in their mouths and by evaporation, a process the bees help along by fanning their wings to create air movement over the comb.
The worker bees are covered with little hairs. As they travel from flower to flower, pollen adheres to the hairs. The bee then works its legs to brush the pollen into pollen baskets, located on its back legs. In this process, bees inadvertently pollinate plants.
Hardworking bees not only pollinate flowers in the garden and native plants, but contribute as well to agriculture. In the United States in 2000, 14.6 billion dollars' worth of crops depended on bee pollination, and the honey produced last year, according to the USDA, had a value of $255 million.
Chuck Nichols runs San Luis Rey Apiaries with his son in Valley Center. "We've been in a partnership business since 1980," Nichols said. "I have been keeping bees off and on as a hobby since I was 9 years old, and I'm 76 now, so I've been around it for a few years. When I was 9 I had a fascination with bees. I was raised in an orange grove in the San Gabriel Valley, and a guy down the street had a couple of hives of bees. I used to go down and watch them going in and out, going in and out, and one day I found a nice big swarm in my father's orange grove, and so the guy down the street helped me get it, and that's how I started."
For Rex Christensen, beekeeping was a family trade. "I was kind of born into it. My grandfather, John Slivkoff, was a Russian immigrant who moved to Vista in, I think, 1915. Bought a place off of Foothill and San Clemente. He started in bees. My great-grandfather had bees in Russia. My grandfather started having bees in 1931. I was born in '53, so we had between 40 and 100 colonies on the ranch here in Vista all the time. When I got out of high school, I didn't know what I wanted to do. I moved to Colorado for a while and I came back, and there was an old man, Forrest Thomas, here in Vista who was a beekeeper, and he needed someone to help him for the summer. I started with him. That was 1971, and I've been doing it ever since. I apprenticed right here on this spot. He used to own this. He got me started with a couple hives. And when my grandfather got too old he gave me all his equipment."
Christensen's operation is called First Fruit Apiaries. "I'm glad some information's getting out that puts us in a good light, because some people are afraid of bees. They don't understand that bees are a necessity. Most of our food comes directly because of bees. If we don't have bees, the fruit that does develop on our trees -- or our melons or squash or whatever -- doesn't have the size, the shape, the abundance of produce. The bees are necessary. If we don't have bees in avocados, for instance, we don't get a crop. They scream for bees in avocados. They scream for bees in almonds. California is the biggest almond producer. Eighty percent of all the almonds in the world are produced in California because of the bees. Plums, apples, pears, cantaloupes, alfalfa for raising cattle. If you don't have the bees, you don't have the crop.
"It's a very expensive business to start," Christensen said. "If you were to get started, it would probably take, right now, to get what I have, a million dollars at least, because it's $100 a colony. Then you've got all the extra boxes. They're going to cost you about $15 to $20 apiece, depending on the condition. Then you have to have a building. You have to have trucks.
"We're running about three people. Me and a couple other guys. I've got a couple teenagers that come in and help from time to time. The other guys I have working for me are beekeepers, and they have their own bees too."
Replacing queens is also an expense. They usually cost between $8 and $10 apiece. Christensen estimated that he'd spent $3000 on queens last year.
If Christensen were purchasing queens from Suki Glenn, his cost would be exponentially higher. Suki and her husband Tom live in De Luz, where they own and operate Glenn Apiaries, a business that specializes in honeybee queens.
"We've been working together in the bee business since 1987," Suki said. "When I was in college I had a roommate who had a beehive, and I just got interested in it. My brother had worked for a beekeeper when he was in high school, so I was already predisposed to that. Just started it as a hobby, having a few hives and selling the honey and selling equipment. It started out as a hobby and it grew into a business.
"I was in college at Fullerton. I was studying to be a teacher. I was an anthropology major. Tom was in college and became interested in bees and decided he would rather pursue a career in beekeeping. He worked for a lot of different commercial people and learned all the different facets of the bee business. He decided to raise queens because that appealed to him most. It was kind of happenstance. His parents had had a beehive when he was in high school. Bees kind of intrigued him. He started reading The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture, and I had also studied the same book, which is a classic in beekeeping. We met through the bees."
Before Africanized bees arrived in California, the Glenns' queens sold for $5.50 to $12 apiece. But now, Suki said, "The price has changed. The queens are $75, or $250 for a breeder queen." The price has changed, but the quality of bees they raise has changed too.
"After the Africanized honeybees came," Suki said, "we made an announcement to the bee world that we were no longer going to be raising naturally mated queens. We had been selling up to 20,000 queens a year, with just the two of us doing the work. It was a good business. We just decided that it was not moral to send off anything that could possibly be Africanized."
Africanized bees, a cross of the European honey bee and an African strain, were created in the 1950s by scientists in Brazil and inadvertently released. By 1990, their presence in the United States, in Texas, had been verified. They are aggressive, often dangerous bees that make no more honey than gentler bees.
To be sure that he has no Africanized drones, Tom Glenn prevents his drones from free-flying. "Normally when drones are allowed to free-fly," Suki said, "they can drift from hive to hive, which means not only can our drones drift out of our colonies, it also means that other drones could drift in. And if there were Africanized drones in the area, they could drift into your hives, and you are then inadvertently doing what you don't want to do. Tom's developed a system that's pretty bomb-proof."
Suki described how Tom instrumentally inseminates queen bees: "Very carefully," she said, laughing. "Through a microscope. It's a technique that's been around for about 50 years. You have to collect the drones. There is a procedure where you have to squeeze their abdomen, and their penis comes out. Then you have to squeeze it again a special way, and then the penis will invert. When it does that, there is a tiny bit of semen on it, and he uses a pipette sort of thing, a syringe, and that draws the semen into the syringe. He collects about a hundred drones for this, and he has to extract all the semen from the drones. He has the queens ready. They are put in a special little tube and are given a small dose of CO2 that will knock them out. Then he has to put them in a special holder in the instrumental insemination device. He's got a microscope so he can look down, and there are little hooks that come around and open her up very gently. You have to learn how to put the syringe with the drone semen in her correctly. He usually mixes the drone semen from all the different drones so he has a good gene pool. It keeps a lot of genetic diversity in the bees.
"Semen can be stored up to six months at room temperature. It's very stable, but it's always better to use it fresher. People can ship it. In some places you are not allowed to import the queens, but maybe you are allowed to import the semen. Some people just buy the semen, like in Hawaii. They don't allow any other bees in there, but they will allow the semen in."
Not only do the Glenns provide queens with no African strain, they also breed hygienic bees that are hardy and less prone to disease. "Tom had wanted to improve our own breeding stock," Suki said, "to be able to select better through instrumentally inseminated queens. That was his main goal. The bee population has been really devastated by verroa mites and tracheal mites. We are trying to improve the breeding stock within the U.S. to get bees that are more naturally hygienic so they don't get the diseases. We are trying to have more of a genetic solution versus pesticides and miticides. We are committed to making the bees stronger within themselves so they can take care of the pests without having to resort to chemicals in the hives, which actually weaken the population over time. That's kind of our mission statement."
The Glenns stop breeding queens in October and take a three- to four-month break while the bees winter. During that time, they maintain their 500 to 700 colonies, and by March they are selling queens again. "We sell a lot in Texas, Florida, and California," Suki said. "Southern California is the ideal place to raise queens, because we can have queens ready to sell in March. Most other people wouldn't have them ready till April."
Robb Littrell, 32, is based in Imperial Valley but keeps bees seasonally in San Diego County. Like Rex Christensen, Littrell comes from a long line of beekeepers and learned the art from his grandfather and father. "I've been doing bees all my life. I think I was 24 or 25 when I got my grandfather's bees. My dad is also a beekeeper. I remember working in the summers, you know, pulling honey, working the bees, stuff like that. I was a stacker. That's how I got started. I stacked the frames with all the honey in them."
Littrell, who operates Beez N A Boxx, supplements his queens' diet during the fall. "Around October we feed corn syrup with brewer's yeast, a pollen substitute. It makes the queen lay and keeps feed in them so they won't starve."
Christensen also supplements his bees through fall and over the winter. "After the harvest season, the bees are kind of down. They've really pushed hard, so we're going to start feeding with supplements to get them prepared. We'll start building the bees up and making sure they make it through the winter."
The fall is also a time to examine the hives and repair the boxes, lids, and pallets. Hives are repainted. In the fall and spring, beekeepers check to see if they have bad queens. One indication of a bad queen is if the larvae are scattered about on a comb -- called scatter brood. Another sign is low honey production in a hive that's located where other hives are flourishing. This is a tip-off that the queen is not laying any brood. Littrell, who has from 900 to 1300 colonies of bees over the course of a year, said, "We mark the bad queens and kill them, and we either let the hive raise their own new queen or we buy a new one."
Christensen, like many other commercial beekeepers, does not let the hive raise a new queen. "We used to let them free mate, but this area is Africanized now so I get all my queens from Northern California and Hawaii, up around the Chico and Redding areas. Some of the first queens I get in Hawaii and some of the last queens I get in Hawaii, because they have kind of a perpetual spring over there. They come better. They're coming out of an area where there's a nectar flow, and they're ready to go. If you get queens from an area that's out of production and they're supplementing with sugar syrup, the queens' health isn't as good." The queens are shipped UPS.
Some beekeepers split colonies in the autumn. For Littrell, dividing the colony is one of the most enjoyable parts of beekeeping. "You're looking at all the bees moving around. You look for the queen. You see all the eggs and stuff like that. I think that's the best part because you are actually in the hive."
"Around November and December," Littrell said, "you start counting your numbers and getting ready for the next season."
"We lose between 15 and 30 percent of our colonies over the winter," Christensen said, "and you never know if they have diseases and mites. Some of the queens have been overworked the year before and don't make it through.
"After Christmas," Christensen continued, "when the days start getting longer, the queen will start laying more eggs and prepare the hive for spring."
"The queen is the sensor of the hive," Nichols said, "and she will not do anything until she thinks there is a honey flow coming. She'll lay very rapidly, building up for this honey flow that she's anticipating. How she does this, don't ask us."
Early in February, Nichols, Christensen, and Littrell move their bees to almond groves. "We always take everything we can up to that," Nichols said, "because it pays good money. Without bees in the almond grove you wouldn't get any almonds." Nichols and Christensen truck their hives to the San Joaquin Valley. Nichols hauls "512 hives on a run. We make as many as ten runs going to the San Joaquin Valley."
"They go into the almond bloom," Christensen said, "and the queen really kicks in and the bees start building their numbers. They start bringing all the pollen and nectar to supplement the feed. They change dramatically from the winter, and they'll build up to a very strong, high strain. The bees don't make any honey for us to take off there, but they get stronger."
The bees stay in the almonds for about five weeks. Then beekeepers move their hives to other crops. "There are 123 different crops in California that benefit from bee pollination," Nichols said.
Littrell goes "to San Diego County or Riverside, into the avocados. We put bees in avocados in Temecula, De Luz, Fallbrook, Valley Center, and the Pala Mountains. That's during March. Also in March we do cantaloupes and watermelons in the Imperial Valley."
Christensen takes his bees "into citrus or into the brush. Along the coastal areas there are mustards. We'll go into Riverside County in the citrus and start making orange honey around the first of April."
"I think any beekeeper lives for the spring," Nichols said, "when you see that new honey coming in. It's such a great thing to see a hive build up and start to harvest honey."
Once the bees have built up their numbers and strength, they begin making honey that can be harvested. Christensen starts harvesting "about the tenth of May, sometimes it's the first of May, with the citrus, and then we go into button sage. That's through June. And then sumac. If we get enough rainfall we'll make buckwheat. And then this time of year" -- in August -- "you never know, we might make stuff from the residential areas -- red apple, certain trees." Last year it seemed like "everything just came in at once because of the weather. Every year's different."
Harvesting the honey means removing it from the hives. Each hive is a large box with frames, usually ten frames per box. The frames, traylike in shape, are removable and contain honeycomb made of beeswax or plastic. Most professional beekeepers use plastic. The wax comb is reserved for the brood chamber, where the queen and larvae live. "We used to use beeswax foundation," Nichols said, "but they have it now in plastic that is formed like a bee comb, and the bees build on that. The plastic is always good. The older stuff, which is wired -- what we called wire foundation -- after a period of years starts to sag and deform."
Another problem, Rojas said, is that "The beeswax ones break in the extractors because the honey is heavy and will blow out the wax comb into a lot of pieces -- a big mess."
A beekeeper can tell when the honey is ready because the top of each cell in the comb will be capped in white. "We call it frosting," said Nichols.
When harvesting the honey, beekeepers must leave an ample supply for the bees, especially during the winter months. A colony should have 15 to 20 pounds of honey in reserve at all times of the year.
Honey is removed from the comb through centrifugal force created by an extractor. The wax cappings are sliced off, the comb is placed in the extractor, and the honey is spun out. The professional beekeepers then put the honey in large tanks, and later it's poured into 55-gallon barrels. Each barrel holds 650 pounds of honey.
Nichols sells his honey to Sue Bee Honey Co-Op, Littrell to American Honey Company in El Centro, and Christensen to Miller's Honey Company in Colton. Last year, Nichols said, was "what we would call an average year." He expected to "do probably 300,000 pounds of honey out of this operation."
The hobbyists and sideliners bottle their honey for personal use or to sell in small quantities. "People come and buy it from me," Bob Madsen said. "I sell it to them for a buck and a half a pound. That kind of helps pay for my gasoline. It doesn't pay for my time or anything, but it helps out. It's all word of mouth. I don't advertise and I don't peddle -- I don't go to the farmer's markets and peddle my honey. I do go over and see it, and some of that stuff that I'm selling for $1.50 is like $6.00 there."
Madsen keeps bees primarily for his own health, but also to help others with health ailments or swarming problems. "I get a lot of pleasure knowing that the honey that I make makes people happy, and in a lot of cases it heals people. It heals young people that have asthma, especially if they live within a ten-mile radius of where the honey is gathered. Take about a teaspoon a day in the morning, and after about a year you don't need to eat the honey anymore and you don't have the asthma. It just disappears. It's kind of creepy. It really works."
Madsen's hives are in Chula Vista and Jamul, and he calls his honey "city wildflower." "The honey that I have here changes color at different times of the year. I get some very unusual-tasting honey. I have a gigantic Catalina cherry tree that blooms out if we get ten inches of rain. The bees pull off of that, and it comes out really light gold. It tastes like that too."
"Producing honey's a lot like making wine," Christensen said. "Every year the flavor's a little different. The amount you make is different. The color is different."
All three professional beekeepers have longstanding agreements with property owners to place bees on their land at different seasons, but with the increased population and building in Southern California, land for bees is disappearing.
"In L.A. County, I forget what the numbers were, something like 36,000 acres of oranges," Nichols said. "I heard the other day it's less than 100 acres of oranges left in L.A. County, so you don't make any orange blossom honey is what it amounts to. The whole thing has changed so much. The population development and this sort of thing. Some of our best locations that we had were very, very close to the coast. Some of them were within a mile of the ocean. All of those have gone into housing developments, so we have none of them left. We are working more inland now."
"San Diego County is a very productive area," Christensen said. "Now it's getting hard to find a place to put bees, and there's a lot of stress on the bees from us having to move the bees as much as we do. San Diego is a problematic area because you've got million-dollar homes right next to these big agricultural areas that need bees. People move in and they don't understand it and they get irate." According to Christensen, residents fear Africanized bees in particular. If there are complaints, most often the beekeeper must move the bees. "Eventually, I suspect there will be very little beekeeping in San Diego County," he said. "You can see the writing on the wall, with the problems with Africanization and that bad P.R. and so much urbanization."
To stay in business and make a profit, beekeepers must contend not only with urban sprawl, but with disease, bad weather, and even wildfires.
"About eight or nine years ago we got mites real bad," Madsen said. "Well, it was about '92. It just knocked about 80 percent of all the bees in California and just killed them all. There are two different types of mites: verroa mites and tracheal mites. They really, really ravage a colony of bees.
"And then, of course, you have your wax moths," Madsen continued. "The larvae eat the wax and the box and the frames and everything else. If you're an amateur, like I was years ago -- I opened up a box and it looked like chocolate chip ice cream. It was just a mess of webbing and little black spots all over it. The wax moths had laid their eggs, and the larvae just eat everything right up. They target the protein, which is the bee bread. And they ravage all the wax too. All that's left is this oozing, creepy, sticky webbing, just like a silkworm would make. My first experience was in the early '70s. I didn't know what it was. I went up and talked to Henry Knorr, and he said, 'Oh, those are wax moths. A weak colony can be attacked by the moths very easily, and you can lose the whole works. The bees can't function. They can't do their jobs.' "
"We have our good, good years," Nichols said, "and we have our good years, and we have our really lousy years. We've had too many lousy years lately. The rainfall really hurts us. [Last] year we had normal rainfall, and it helped an awful lot. When we get a really heavy rainfall, it makes a difference in the honey that we produce that comes from the brush. In other words, this is the stuff that's in the mountains. It's the sages and buckwheats and sumacs. [Last] year everything was going great, and then we had a lousy June because of all the overcast and dreary weather. And when July came around, it got so hot so fast it kind of shut off the production of the buckwheat and the sumac, so we didn't make what we should have on that."
Christensen, Littrell, and Nichols all mentioned the aggravation of trucks and forklifts getting stuck in the mud in February and the cost of having equipment towed out of the almond groves.
In 1996, Christensen had hives on land that was burned in the Harmony Grove fire. "I lost 600 hives in the Harmony Grove fire," Christensen said. "That just about wiped me out. I only had 1200 colonies. I was in Central America, and I came back. It was all burned up. It was all new equipment. The insurance covered $25,000, and it was worth about $85,000 -- plus the [honey] crop. I had to go out and buy bees that were a little inferior. But we made it."
Then there is the problem of messing with the bees. Beekeepers use smokers, a small stainless-steel device with a bellows attached to blow smoke into the hive, which calms the bees but does not guarantee complacence. Bee suits, designed to give the beekeeper optimum protection, aren't always bee-proof, and not all beekeepers wear them. Littrell never has. "I just wear the veil," he said. "I wear a long-sleeved shirt and pants. That's about it. They still sting through your shirt."
Madsen wears a bee suit part of the time. "Yesterday I was working with bees," he said, "and I just had a pair of shorts, a T-shirt, a veil, and gloves. If the bees are real vicious, I wear a complete suit. I have bees here that I have had for years. They just land on me, ricochet off me, and do their thing. Those are the kind of bees you like."
"When we're harvesting honey," Nichols said, "we wear equipment. When you open a hive up, you are exposing honey to the outside world, so to speak. You've got a hive over here next door, and they say, 'Hey, they've got that one open. Let's go and steal some.' They get what we call a robbing tendency going. Sometimes it can get real severe, and you have to wear all your protection -- your gloves, your suit, everything."
Whether a beekeeper wears a full bee suit or not, every one of them gets stung from time to time.
"I think that I've been stung as many as 50 times in one day," said Nichols. "It's something that happens. It's part of working with the bees. You accept it. One of the things about getting stung by anything -- probably 95 percent of it is the shock value and 5 percent's the actual sting. We've eliminated the shock value. All you have is a little pain, and as many years as I've been working with them, I still swell a little and they still hurt."
According to Rojas and Nichols, bees can detect adrenaline. "The bees are the same as the dog," Rojas said. "If you are afraid of the dog, the dog is going to bark. He is going to try to impress you. And bees are the same. They have the sensitivity to smell you if you have a little discharge of adrenaline. The best way to go with bees is very slow and very sure of your moves. Don't move quick. Don't wave your hands in front of them or in front of your face. Just let them go by. If you are waving your hands or moving quickly, you are telling them that you are ready to fight. They react and go all over you."
"Over the years," Nichols said, "I think one of the main things I've learned from bees is to kind of calm down and take things the way they are. You get excited, you lose your temper around bees, and they know it. When you lose your temper, your adrenaline count goes up and your body puts out an odor and the bees can sense that odor and they'll just sting the hell out of you. You have to try to calm down and say, 'Well, that's the way it's gonna be, you know,' and you work with them. It calms you down. You very seldom see a beekeeper who is a real hyper person. They just can't work with them. You very seldom see a beekeeper who is an alcoholic. I think the fact that you're working with nature and the beauty of nature to start out with and seeing what's done with a simple little insect, it changes your outlook on things."
When Madsen assists people with swarms, he exposes himself to unknown bees. "I had a friend of mine call me up," he recalls, "and say, 'Hey, I was over in San Carlos. One of my friends down the street has some bees. Can you come and get the bees?' I said, 'What size is the swarm?' 'Oh, it's about three foot tall.' I thought, 'Wow!' 'And it's about 24 inches in diameter.' I thought, 'My God. That's humungous.' They're usually about the size of a baseball. It's been about 17 years ago that this happened. So I went over there and took two boxes, two regular boxes to put them in that had an organized box with frames and foundation ready for them. When I got these bees, it took me two boxes. I take them; I bring them down here. I observe the bees for a day or two before I take them out to the yard. I'm just walking across my back yard, and, wow, they just nail me. I thought, 'These guys are history.' " An older beekeeper, Bob Collins, that Madsen shared a bee yard with said, "Oh, no. Don't kill 'em. Let's just take 'em to the yard, and we'll re-queen 'em." Madsen said, "Well, that was a bad idea, because we took them to the yard and every time we drove into the yard, they'd attack the truck. It was that bad. They'd sting the tires and the windshield wiper blades. They'd hit the windshield and the side windows like heavy hail. That's what these bees sounded like. Bob Collins, he just passed away this year, said, 'Oh, no. Leave 'em, leave 'em. We'll get some queens.' That didn't happen. The queens didn't come. You'd drive out to the yard, and it was not a pleasure to work the yard because you had these guys on you all the time. I took a Weed Eater to keep a nice firebreak around the yard and the colonies. These bees would attack the Weed Eater, and they attacked with such vengeance that they blew the engine up on the Weed Eater. It was an expensive piece of equipment. These were very clearly Africanized bees, with capital letters, and that was long before the big panic about Africanized bees. Finally I just killed them because I couldn't take it any longer."
The biggest threat to beekeeping in San Diego may be that it's a lot of hard work. "There are not too many of us left," Christensen said. "The young people are not doing it, because it's hard work. They're doing something that's easier. It takes a long time to get to the point where you can make it. Some people just don't have the staying power."
"It's just awful hard to find people who will work with the bees," Nichols concurred. "Let's put it this way, it's a lot of manual labor working with bees. A lot of people don't want to put out manual labor anymore."
"It takes sometimes as much as five years' preparation, looking ahead as far as places to put bees," Christensen said. "You look at the climate and the plants. They've taught me a lot about climate and plants. Variables. They've taught me perseverance through hard times.
"If you're in the agricultural business, it's staying power. The guys who can stay are the winners. The people that don't plan ahead, they're out doing something else.
"It's a big gamble," Christensen went on. "You're depending on the weather. You're depending on if a bulldozer's going to come in and knock over your bees -- because of building, you might get a call saying you no longer have a place. You're depending on if your trucks are going to make it, because you're moving a long way.
"If you have a smooth year and everything goes and you have a good crop and the price is up and you have bees to make it through to next year, you can sit back, take a deep breath, and say, 'Well, we made it. We made some honey. We paid the bills. We have our lifestyle.'
"Our lifestyle is a lot different than most people's," Christensen continued. "It's kind of like the old cowboy lifestyle. We're out herding these bees all over the place. We get out on the open ranges. We see a lot of farm country, a lot of open land. People give us their land or lease us land to put bees on, and we have acres and acres and acres that sometimes we even partially manage that isn't ours. We get to see it go through the seasons. We get to be out at night and see stuff that most people don't see. We're moving bees. We have to load them. They're out flying in the day. We wait till early dusk or morning sometimes, depending on if it's cold enough. If it's cold enough, they won't come out. In Imperial Valley, I load up at two in the morning. It's the coolest part of the day. It can be pretty hot down there. Sometimes it'll be in the mid-70s, or it might be 100. If it's too hot, the bees are all hanging out because they can't get enough oxygen. If it's cool enough, they're all inside and you can load. You can see shooting stars when you're out there, and you have this whole expanse. You see a lot of predawn scenes. A lot of sunsets. Of course, sometimes you miss a lot of sleep."
"It's not always an easy life," Suki Glenn said. "Things don't work all the time. It's the vagary of working with nature. It can be wonderful, and it can be devastating."