The honey flow

Spring is the sweetest season for Sacramento’s amateur beekeepers

George Bleekman’s bees are responsible for more than 200 pounds of honey annually.

George Bleekman’s bees are responsible for more than 200 pounds of honey annually.

Photo By Larry Dalton

The cheerful honeycomb-patterned facade of Sacramento Beekeeping Supplies may surprise those driving down freeway-fronting X Street. The spacious store features a honey-tasting bar—squeezable bears with beautifully varied shades of honeys—and sells beekeeping starter kits, as well as live bees in spring. Plus, it’s chock-full of beeswax sheets, fuzzy stuffed bees and pretty much any bee-related thing you can imagine (plus a lot more you can’t).

Sacramento Beekeeping Supplies is the epicenter for the local and regional beekeeping scene. Local beekeepers refer to it simply as “the store,” and well they might: It is almost unique in Northern California. Nancy Stewart and her husband, Fred, a longtime beekeeper with about 40 hives, opened the store in 1984. Since then, beekeeping has grown; Stewart estimates the number of regional hobbyists currently at about 1,000. “We’ve been seeing a bigger level of interest with the back-to-nature movement and more people moving to areas where they have more property for keeping a hive,” she said.

Many people come to beekeeping because, quite simply, they haven’t seen any bees lately. Wild bees have been devastated by parasites. “People come in saying they have fruit trees or nut trees that never produce, and it turns out they’re in an area with no bees,” said Stewart. “That’s how they get into beekeeping.” Most of the time, when you see bees it’s because there are domestic hives somewhere nearby (Sacramento allows two beehives per any-size lot). “The wild ones are pretty much gone,” Stewart added, “though some years are better than others.”

Bees aren’t just important to amateur gardeners. Commercial hives, rented to farmers, are also big business in agriculture-heavy California. “Without bees, California agriculture would decline so rapidly it would be very dramatically obvious,” said George Bleekman, a Granite Bay beekeeper and retired biology professor. Early-blooming almonds, in particular, depend on bee pollination; the almond bloom is also the bees’ first opportunity to forage after their winter doldrums.

Nancy Stewart sells 1-, 2- and 3-pound jars of honey at Sacramento Beekeeping Supplies, where customers also can bottle their own.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Almond honey is paradoxically bitter, but as more plants flower, good honey production picks up during a period in late spring known as the “honey flow.” Because of this, those who want to begin keeping bees need to start in early spring. They can turn for guidance not just to the store, but also to the Sacramento Area Beekeepers Association (SABA), which does community outreach and education.

“A hive for the honey bee” —W.B. Yeats
SABA’s March meeting takes place in a community center in Land Park, under the faint buzz of fluorescent lights. When I arrive, the dozen assembled beekeepers are talking about the season’s hot-button issue: swarming, when bees outgrow their hive and fly in a loud clump, settling in a nearby tree or other location. (Sacramento Beekeeping Supplies provides referrals to beekeepers who can capture spring swarms.)

As the meeting comes to order, it becomes apparent that swarming is just one of the real-life problems that would soon intrude on the kind of beekeeper’s idyll that W.B. Yeats describes in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” where the poet yearns to “live alone in a bee-loud glade.” The reality is less carefree: Varroa and tracheal mites, the disease American foul brood, 90-percent winter hive loss, skunks, and feeding bees with pollen substitutes all come up at the meeting’s panel discussion of beekeeping concerns.

The panel includes experienced local beekeepers Ron Parsons—who has come from capturing a swarm—Bob Sugar and Fred Stewart. They talk about spring-cleaning hives; checking bees; and, above all, varroa (whose species name, Bleekman later tells me, is Varroa destructor), which began devastating hives in the late 1980s. “I lost them all in 1986, every hive I had,” Bleekman recalled.

Methods for combating varroa were developed, but mites have developed resistance, so it’s an ongoing battle. Frank Lienert, a longtime commercial beekeeper, lost half of his hives this past winter and said such loss is the national average. “It used to be fun to raise bees, and now it’s just a lot of work, and hard work—you build ’em all up, and then they die,” he said. “It’s devastating.”

Photo By Larry Dalton

Despite such difficulties, beekeepers are a devoted lot. As Lienert explained, “Once you get it in your blood, it’s there to the end.”

One such amateur is SABA President Howard Mann, who keeps four hives on his one-acre North Highlands property. Mann enjoys the 90 pounds of honey he “pulls” yearly, but he enjoys the bees more: “My wife laughs at me, but I like to get a root beer and sit out in front of the hive and watch the bees working,” he said. “It’s just fascinating to me.”

Mann has persevered despite a challenge that might dissuade less-entranced hobbyists: He developed a severe bee-sting allergy three years ago. “Now I make sure I’m well-covered and carry the shot and Benadryl with me.”

SABA member Russel A. Dalske, who has been involved with beekeeping since he was a kid (“about 38 years too long”), takes a philosophical approach. “You have to be at peace with yourself. You can’t have any turmoil, because they pick up on the scent, like a dog can sense adrenaline and fear.”

Dalske is particularly evangelical about bees, doing school visits. Most recently, he planned to bring hives to the Sacramento Zoo for its April Earth Day celebration. Bleekman also does school presentations but began beekeeping initially for better pollination in his fruit orchard. He got hooked, however, on the academic interest of the pursuit. And then, of course, there’s the honey.

Photo By Larry Dalton

“And is there honey still for tea?"—Rupert Brooke
Bleekman bottles and sells 200 to 300 pounds of honey annually from his 10 to 12 hives. He even has a honey house, built after his wife started noticing that everything in their home was sticky. Such local honeys are distinctly different from the blandly sweet supermarket variety.

“A lot of people start out with something milder, like what they get in the grocery store,” Nancy Stewart said. “But once they’ve tasted other honeys, they realize that that is sweet but not very distinctive.”

Mann, asked how his own honey compares with mass-marketed honey, said, “For one thing, my honey’s raw, so all the good enzymes are still there. Also, we have a lot of vacant lots around here, with lots of star thistle. Mine has that star-thistle flavor most years.” Light, delicate star-thistle honey is one of the best varietal honeys, made from the nectar of particular flowers.

Varietal honeys are generally not sold by hobbyists, but by commercial beekeepers, who have large numbers of hives they move from place to place as certain crops bloom. Lienert, for instance, sells 10 to 12 varieties of honey—everything from strongly flavored eucalyptus to delicate star thistle. His jars, ranging from petite to gargantuan, along with honeycomb and honey sticks, are on offer every Sunday at the farmers’ market under the freeway, at Eighth and W streets, and also at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op and other stores.

At Sacramento Beekeeping Supplies’ honey-tasting bar, Stewart walks me through a tasting. Just as with wine, we go from light honeys to dark. A safflower-alfalfa blend honey with a rich, almost buttery taste is a current favorite of Stewart’s. Orange-blossom honey has a subtle citrus tang that Stewart’s customers love. Sage has herbal notes.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Dark amber honey from Grass Valley has a molasses-like flavor. It’s sweet, of course, but not overpowering. Stewart says this unusual honey has become popular at the store: “People see the color and think it’s too dark, but they taste it and want to buy it.” I’m with them; Stewart lets me choose a jar to take home, and the dark amber is it.

To bee or not to bee
The honey is seductively delicious enough to tempt me to ask Stewart about the beekeeping starter package. “We sell a beginner’s kit that includes the first box, protective gear—smoker, hat, veil, hive tool—and a book,” she explained. “The kit is about $160, and then you need the next two stories on the hive and the bees. All that adds up to about $300. I used to think that sounded like a lot of money, but if you think about what other people pay for their hobbies—they pay $300 for one golf club! Plus, there’s the interest of learning about the bees and their habits, and you get your own local honey.”

Beekeeping is not an occupation to undertake lightly, as Bleekman warned. “On the surface, beekeeping is quite easy, but it’s pretty darned labor-intensive. First, you need a dedicated interest in managing live organisms, and, second, unless you have adequate time in your day job to do this work, I’m not sure I would advise you to get into it. Dedication means you’ve got to go out and look at those bees twice a week at least.”

That’s why many take a cautious approach. Lydia Sheridan, for instance, was the only person (besides me) at the SABA meeting who doesn’t yet keep bees. She’s been fascinated by bees since she took a course in college, nearly 20 years ago. She just moved to a house in Carmichael with a yard that would accommodate hives, but she’s still considering whether to jump in next spring, gathering information the way the bees gather nectar.

Resources for learning about beekeeping include beginning classes offered through SABA in the early spring (this year’s class has already taken place) and the books and advice at Sacramento Beekeeping Supplies. Or, you could buy honey and hope your neighbors have bees to pollinate your garden.

That’s my approach, and I think I’m in luck. The other day, in the rose garden at McKinley Park, rosebuds were still tightly furled, but little blue flowers dotted the sprawling, bristly rosemary, and three or four bees bobbed purposefully among them. I watched them for a few minutes and idly wondered who in my neighborhood was keeping bees.