It is late at night, and my husband Brian is outside, checking on the hive. Yesterday, he and our 8-year-old son Dylan went with local beekeeper friends to rescue the honeybees in several abandoned, broken down hives. Brian and Dylan kept one colony, and Ed Burns and his 10-year-old daughter, Jenna, kept the other one. Now we have our very own hive.
Brian beckons me to join him; he's wearing a goofy headlamp he requested for Father's Day last year. "Come here," he says. "I want to show you something."
I slip my feet into some old brown loafers we keep by the back door, and step outside. The barn owls that reside in the palm tree behind our house--usually chirping and screeching as they patrol their territory--are, for the moment, silent. He leads me to within a few feet of the hive, stops and whispers: "Go stand in front of the opening, and just listen."
I carefully cross the grass and stop before the hive on its stand next to the apple tree. I crouch down near the entrance, a narrow space at the bottom of the three-box structure, and listen. A low, continuous hum emanates from inside. I stay there a few moments, enchanted.
I say in a low voice: "I can hear them humming in there. It's amazing!" He smiles and nods, the light of his headlamp bobbing. Bees need to keep the inside of the hive at a steady 95 degrees, he explains, which means that some of the workers have the lucky job of beating their wings day and night to regulate the temperature.
Keeping honeybees is more thrilling and fascinating than I ever imagined. Throughout the day, I find myself pausing to observe their activity. In the early morning, they are still inside the hive, with just a few scouts flying around, testing the air. They come out in increasing numbers as the sun warms them, and soon they are zinging here and there in their clumsy, seemingly random fashion. When the sun disappears behind the west hills, they return, often having to fly around in a chaotic holding pattern until they can jockey their way in.
Our love affair with bees began the day we met Steve Gentry. A beekeeper for over 30 years, Steve has been selling honey at the San Ramon Farmer's Market since it opened, as well as the markets in Orinda, Lafayette and Walnut Creek. We were enthralled by his extensive knowledge, his relaxed and jovial nature, and, of course, his heavenly honey.
Brian had found himself a mentor, and began working with Steve and his bees several days a week. Meanwhile, Dylan joined the Tassajara chapter of 4-H, and got involved with the bee project, led by Doug Graver. Dylan was thrilled when he got his own bee suit for Christmas.
Honeybees are industrious and efficient little creatures, and oh so precious. They are great pollinators, increasing the abundance and quality of flowers, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Without honeybees, our supply of fresh food would be severely limited. According to C. Marina Marchese, author of Honeybee: Lessons from an Accidental Beekeeper, "One-third of the food produced in the world – or one out of three bites of anything we humans eat – depends, to some degree, on honeybees."
Thankfully, there is a growing awareness of Colony Collapse Disorder, the dramatic decline in bee colonies that has been attributed to a number of factors, including Varroa mites, pesticides, and malnutrition due to large-scale, single-crop commercial farming (mono-cropping). One of the reasons we decided to keep honeybees is to help strengthen their numbers, at least here in our own community.
Since we began our bee venture, some of our friends expressed interest in hosting bees on their property. Brian and Dylan maintain the hives, and our friends get to enjoy watching their gardens flourish, knowing they are helping boost the honeybee population. And, of course, come summer, they will share in the delights of direct access to local honey.
It doesn't get much more local than your own backyard.