Chico area beekeeper weighs in on bees, honey and colony collapse disorder
Mike Wofchuck is perhaps best known around Chico as a drummer. His membership in Oakland-based musical group Loyd Family Players, as well as his time playing with popular local musicians such as fellow hand-drummer Lansana Kouyate and MaMuse’s Karisha Longaker—not to mention his former membership in Chico-turned-famous band the Mother Hips—has made Wofchuck (pronounced “Woofchuck”) a household name in some circles.
But Wofchuck is also becoming known as a beekeeper—or apiarist—a profession he first stepped into nine years ago. His Wofchuck Honey Co. honey is sold locally at S&S Organic Produce & Natural Foods, and at Chico Natural Foods.
On Mar. 20, Wofchuck will teach an introductory two-hour workshop at the GRUB Cooperative on beekeeping, an increasingly popular pastime for people looking to become more self-sufficient—even in large urban areas such as Seattle and New York City.
The ancient art of beekeeping (Greek philosopher Aristotle, for one, was a practitioner) is widely considered to be a rewarding endeavor—both for the honey and for the relaxation it provides.
Wofchuck got his start as a beekeeper when he began working for local beekeeper and commercial beehive manager Rocky Pisto, who splits his beekeeping duties between Chico and Hood River, Ore.
“I tried farming, construction and painting—all great professions—but something about the bees just clicked for me,” said Wofchuck of his early beekeeping days with Pisto. “I also thought Rocky was great to work with.”
Wofchuck credits Pisto and Cherokee beekeeper (and former KZFR programmer) Lee Edwards as two of the biggest influences on his growth as a beekeeper, referring to them both as “masters” of the art of apiculture.
“Beekeeping takes years and years to become a master—like those men,” Wofchuck said humbly. “I still have a lot to learn.”
Nevertheless, Wofchuck has a lot to teach.
“You need to learn how to handle the bees in a proper way—to be calm and careful and focused with how you treat them,” offered the soft-spoken 41-year-old, in an almost Zen-like way, “because they’re really quick to respond if they don’t like how you’re handling them.”
Wofchuck is gearing up for the spring beekeeping blitz. All of his hives—or “bee boxes”—have been out in the local almond orchards pollinating the bloom and exploding in population.
“This is a beautiful time of year,” offered Wofchuck. “When the almond bloom is finished and the bees have filled the hives with lots of pollen and nectar, it is time to go to work. The queens are laying eggs like crazy, so we go in and make new hives out of the existing ones. This is also an important step in swarm prevention. We refer to this as the ‘spring increase.’”
These days, added Wofchuck, the spring increase “should actually be called the spring ‘break-even’ or ‘back-to-zero,’ because with hive loss and colony collapse, it’s been a whole new ball game.
“It’s a massive problem,” he said of colony collapse disorder (CCD), which since October 2006 has caused some beekeepers to lose from 30 percent to 90 percent of their hives, according to the USDA.
Wofchuck has gotten used to a new norm of losing approximately 30 percent to 40 percent of his bees each year. He points to the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) website (www.ars.usda.gov) for theories as to the possible causes of CCD.
“Pesticides may be having unexpected negative effects on honey bees,” states the ARS site. Another possibility is that a “pathogenic gut microbe” called Nosema may be attacking bees. Still another is rampant infection by the varroa mite, which feeds on bees’ blood and transmits bee viruses.
Wofchuck will be trying out a new organic mite treatment—formic acid—this year. “I have not used it yet but I am hopeful,” he said.
Despite the mystery and problems surrounding CCD, Wofchuck has no doubt that beekeeping is a worthwhile activity. He even attributes part of the “overall growing awareness of bees” to the fact that they are in trouble.
“Beekeeping is an age-old tradition. It’s a beautiful thing,” said Wofchuck. “But we’re faced with a challenge. … Basically, this challenge is asking every beekeeper to up their game. It’s a worthy challenge. The bees just need better treatment.”
“I want it to be a conversation about bees and beekeeping,” Wofchuck said of his upcoming workshop. “One of the main things about beekeeping is you’ve got to make sure you do something. That’s why they call it beekeeping.
“It’s not labor-intensive—you can have one hive,” he continued. “But you’ve got to learn about the bees. You need to facilitate the instinctual behavior of the bees, so you’ve got to learn what the bees need and when.”
Honey production from a hive, he added, can be 2 to 3 gallons per year, “depend[ing] on the area, the nectar flows and the size of the hive.”
“Mike’s workshop will be a great place to come learn the basic skills of keeping a beehive anywhere in Chico,” said GRUB’s Stephanie Elliott. “He has helped a few land-mates start bee boxes by offering advice and recommending books to read. He has been a great teacher. We also enjoy his honey.”