When English wildlife photographer Martin Dohrn’s documentary, My Garden of a Thousand Bees, aired in 2021, it wasn’t just the existing backyard beekeeping community that was abuzz.
Watching Dohrn, homebound like everyone else during the height of the pandemic, turn his skills to film the incredible amount of apian activity happening in his own backyard garden, stirred up a swarm of interest in beekeeping for thousands of viewers. California alone is host to 1,600 species of native bees, according to planetbee.org.
But, it turns out, this isn’t a venture to embark on casually.
“Beekeeping is animal husbandry. It’s an easy game to get into, but a challenging game to be really good at,” said Oakland’s Jerry Przbylski. He ought to know. His father kept bees from the 1930s until 1960. Przbylski started beekeeping in East Oakland in 2011, and is now the vice president of the Alameda County Beekeepers Association (ACBA).
For one thing, as several backyard beekeepers interviewed for this article pointed out, it isn’t a cheap hobby. Start-up costs for one beehive for the first year can run as high as $760, according to the website “Beekeeping for Newbies.” This includes hive components, protective gear and tools, and miscellaneous supplies—but the website’s estimate also includes buying bees, a practice not universally endorsed by urban beekeepers.
“Get three beekeepers together, you get six opinions,” said Przbylski.
George McRae noticed that the fruit trees in his Richmond Hills backyard were getting great pollination. He then saw that a ventilation shaft in his next-door neighbor’s house was home to a colony of bees. But when the property changed hands, the colony was destroyed. So, in 2010, after talking to a beekeeper friend and being dared to do it by his wife, he bought a horizontal top-bar hive, a frameless hive type based on ancient beekeeping techniques. He attended an ACBA meeting, met a mentor living in Berkeley, and bought a homemade “bee lure” concoction.
“Within a couple of days, bees were coming to check out the hive,” said McRae. By week’s end, a swarm had occupied it. “I felt blessed, and I felt an overwhelming obligation to take care of them,” he said.
Today, his hives are flourishing, and he also helps tend the hives at The Edible Schoolyard at Berkeley’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School, along with fellow beekeeper Eleanor Devine.
In her two years of Richmond beekeeping, Connie Hibbard has purchased bees both years. A dedicated gardener and home-grown food devotee, keeping bees seemed a logical next step in fighting climate change. Her first year, she chose Italian bees because of their reputation for being docile and friendly. She bought a hive from horizontalhives.com, and was mentored by experienced beekeeper and neighbor, Marcie Zellner.
She successfully harvested five gallons of honey in October, but discovered the bees she’d chosen were “not a strong bee,” so this year decided on Saskatraz bees, a new strain developed in Saskatchewan, Canada. Her “nuc” (nucleus colony) of 300 bees is established in the horizontal hive, which, she points out, helps keep them at an optimum temperature, while keeping out beetles and hornets.
Fremont beekeeper Phil Strob gave beekeeping an initial stab 10 years ago, but admits he didn’t have all the information he needed. He successfully lured a swarm into a homemade box, but they departed, leaving wax moths to feed on the beeswax. Then, six years ago, after finding a local expert to aid him, and joining the ACBA, his renewed efforts paid off. He now maintains three hives at home, and five elsewhere.
Although he does have a horizontal hive, Strob favors the more traditional Langstroth hives, stacking rectangular boxes with removable frames in which the bees build comb. “Top-bar hives are harder to maintain,” he said.
Paula Breen has been ACBA president for less than a year, but she has been keeping bees since 2017, and now has hives in multiple locations, including San Leandro and Martinez. She joined the organization, which currently has 338 members, as soon as she got her first bees.
The ACBA, Breen said, offers monthly meetings on second Tuesdays, with speakers. “Some present in-depth research information, some offer advice for beginning beekeepers,” she said. The club also sponsors a Google group, “Hiveline,” for members to share information.
Przbylski and other members of the ACBA have launched a “Local Bee Initiative” within the club to encourage the propagation and redistribution of local bee colonies as an alternative to ordering “package bees” or colonies or queens from outside the Bay Area.
Contra Costa County’s Mount Diablo Beekeepers Association (MDBA) was founded in 1982. With 426 members, “We are one of the largest hobbyist beekeeping associations in California,” said MDBA president Jan Pinkerton Spieth. MDBA offers beekeeping classes in public schools, best practices classes for its members and community classes designed to reduce fear of bees and promote “understanding of how amazing the honeybee is,” she said.
From January through October, on each second Thursday, the MDBA holds an all-members meeting, featuring “Bee Chat,” where members ask questions or seek advice, and seasoned beekeepers respond with suggestions. A speaker, ranging from locally recognized experts to internationally known researchers and beekeepers, then presents a program.
Strob noted that local beekeeping groups also exist, such as the Fremont beekeeper group of 90 members to which he belongs. Joining a local group also can help mitigate the challenges of backyard beekeeping.
Pinkerton Spieth agreed. “We’ve grouped our members into geographic ‘clusters’ and offer basic beekeeping skills: opening the hive, handling frames, marking queens, identifying and managing/treating for non-native pests and diseases that bees are so prone to in the 21st century.”
Many non-beekeepers have heard of “colony collapse disorder,” a crisis that drastically reduced the bee population, and continues to impact it. This happens when the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear. Although scientists are still studying the causes, parasitic Varroa Distructor mites are considered to be a factor.
All the beekeepers interviewed have had to contend with the mites, but none of them support chemical treatments. “Mainstream beekeepers treat Varroa Distructor in the belief that bees are incapable of coping with them,” said Przbylski.
Phil Strob has found that placing strips of Swedish dishcloth soaked in oxalic acid (an organic compound occurring naturally in fruits and vegetables) and glycerin in the hives, is effective in managing the mites.
Paula Breen noted that beekeepers are, at least for now, also mite managers, and that there is no simple, straightforward solution—but that sharing information through clubs, such as the ACBA and the MDBA, is one of the best ways to work towards one.
Other beekeeping challenges cited by those interviewed include swarming, which happens, explained George McRae, when the hive population reaches its maximum. This can cause problems, which is why there are businesses that specialize in capturing the swarms and relocating them.
But the ACBA, said Przbylski, has a “swarm hotline,” (510) 898-6696, that handles more than 700 calls a year. “Those calls account for over 300 reports of honeybee swarms, most of which can be relocated by local beekeepers before they fly off,” he said. The club doesn’t charge for relocation, considering it a community service that also can provide bees for club beekeepers.
The MDBA can also provide volunteer beekeepers who capture and relocate swarms.
Parts of Oakland and Berkeley may, in fact, be bee top-heavy, several interviewees agreed. “Overcrowding negatively impacts beekeeping success, and may result in increased spread of pathogens,” said Przblyski, which is why the clubs strongly encourage potential new beekeepers to research how many hives already exist in their neighborhoods, as well as varying city and county ordinances.
“In the Bay Area, there are ‘Bee Legal’ advocates trying to regularize bee-related ordinances,” he said.
Despite the challenges, the rewards of beekeeping are both tasty and soul-refreshing. All the beekeepers noted the sometimes subtle, sometimes startling flavor differences in honey harvested at different times. Said Breen, “We have tastings at my house, and honey harvested even two weeks apart has distinct flavor differences.”
Spring-harvested honey is light and floral. George McRae tastes apples, plums and cherries, plus a variety of flowers. His fall honey savors of buckwheat, eucalyptus, raspberry and ivy. Breen describes her fall honey as “butterscotchy.” Hibbard is a fan of the caramel taste of fall honey, and said, “Honey is like wine; it improves with age. There is a much more complex flavor.”
Honey is rich in antioxidants, may improve heart health and is an age-proven treatment for healing wounds. Some studies report it’s useful in lessening depression and anxiety.
And, according to the Mayo Clinic, “Honey has been anecdotally reported to lessen symptoms in people with seasonal allergies.” Health professionals report, however, that those results haven’t been consistently duplicated in clinical studies.
Beeswax has a number of useful purposes. McRae makes lotions, soaps and candles from the wax his bees produce. He sells these locally, along with some of his honey, which is popular for use in honey wine and mead.
“[Bees] are endlessly fascinating,” said Breen. “[Keeping them] is an active meditation. Everything else in your mind turns off. I feel infinitely connected to nature, and I have seen so many more insects in my backyard, including 20 species of native bees.”
“In the end,” said Pinkerton Spieth, “we do it because we’ve fallen in love with the honeybees and their remarkable society, their devotion to keeping their colony alive, their communication, nectar harvesting/honey-making. For me, every aspect about the honeybee and life in the hive is amazing and inspiring.”
Interviewees offered advice for anyone considering becoming a beekeeper:
“We discourage ‘bee having,’” said Przbylski, which he defines as “the practice of plunking down a hive and doing nothing with it.” On the other hand, ACBA encourages planting for bees, especially bee-friendly plants that flower in summer and fall.
Strob concurred about native plants, singling out evergreen flowering shrub “Pride of Madeira,” whose blue or purple flowers bees love. He also suggested contributing to 10×10+10, which connects larger land restoration projects to individual habitat contributions. A $10 donation provides a “pollinator habitat” sign, plus commits the donor to planting 100 square feet of pollinator supporting foliage, and donates $10 to larger restoration projects.
“Find a mentor, take classes, do an internship,” suggested Breen, also a strong proponent of gardening with native plants. “Native bees are the ones that need saving,” she said.
“First, join a beekeeping association,” said Pinkerton Spieth. “It’s ideal if a newbie joins a beekeeping organization a year before they get bees—there is time to prepare.” Her other recommendations include using books and online sources, such as “Scientific Beekeeping,” an online resource created by Grass Valley beekeeper Randy Oliver, and finding a mentor.
“We all fail the first year or two,” she said, but we learn important lessons. If you find beekeeping calls your name, you just need to keep at it. That’s why being part of a group is so important, for the reassurance that while there’s a lot to learn, the tools are available to help you be successful.”
Hibbard offered this list:
- Find a mentor or master beekeeper for advice.
- Get good equipment.
- Always wear protective gear, at least until you feel really comfortable.
- Use horizontal hives.
- Be prepared for whatever happens.
Included in that final admonition might be this last word from Phil Strob: “Beekeeping becomes an addiction.”