How these Northern California beekeepers are keeping their hives in business during the drought
North Bay resorts will be abuzz with more than summer revelers in the next few months, with some hotels creating an oasis of habitats for honeybees trying to survive yet another year of drought.
For decades, it’s been tough for the super pollinators that have endured parasites, pesticides, weather extremes and urbanization. But with the help from the finer digs in the Wine Country like the Fairmont Sonoma and Montage Healdsburg, the hope among North Bay beekeepers is a bumper crop of honey awaits — even with fewer flowers expected to provide nectar and pollen.
“With drought, the flowers are not maintaining the blooms and it weakens (the bees’) collection (of nectar),” Sonoma County beekeeper Candice Koseba said. “We don’t see as many. I think it’s tougher for bees to make it through the winter. We’re going to see more colony die-off from disease and other stressors.”
That also makes a beekeeper’s job tougher to maintain these little, special workhorses of the insect kingdom.
Beekeepers like Koseba — who’s based in Healdsburg — have turned to luxury hotels as a means to protect the pollinators from the elements by setting up hives as bee “boxes” in the rich flora found in higher-scale resorts.
Resorts in the Wine Country use the honey in their restaurants, spas and shops as a natural, farm-fresh ingredient to eat or heal from. The beekeepers split the bounty of honey and often remain on retainer to tend to the hives. Koseba charges at least $200 per hive, with a two-hive minimum and extra surcharge if the locations are difficult to get to. She locally sources the bees by capturing wild swarms, like a recent call that came from the owner of a horse farm in Windsor.
At the Montage resort, where rooms among the 130 bungalows start at $1,345, “bee lining” has been added to the list of activities, along with cycling, kayaking and fitness sessions, as well as winery, museum and art gallery tours. The bee educational event provides an apiary journey hosted by Koseba’s Sonoma County Bee Company. The Montage represents one of 19 apiaries she services. The chef-turned-bee-whisperer of sorts started tending to the Montage hives in June 2019, the year she began her business venture.
As the latest improvement, Koseba transferred one colony of bees from one hive to a hollowed-out tree log last Friday to accommodate the bees on the 258-acre grounds. Guests may walk by on the path and read a sign with an excerpt about the bee habitat.
The Montage uses the honey lifted from the combs in its spa, sells Sonoma County Bee Co. products in its shop and provides the restaurant chef with the natural sweetener.
“I speak the language of chef,” said Koseba, who hails from northwest Indiana in a long line of canners, picklers and farmers. She made her mark as a trained chef at the Single Thread restaurant in Healdsburg, before transforming her position to culinary liaison, then “forager” who outsources food ingredients.
Along the way, she became fascinated with the bee world, thus starting her own beekeeping business. The business has grown by 20% each year. She nets between $3,000 and $6,000 a month from the multifaceted brand that also involves honey tastings in a kit. They went virtual during the pandemic.
Overall, Koseba does not fear reinventing herself or her business as she admits she’s constantly learning about the activity.
To expand her knowledge, Koseba took classes with the California School of Herbal Studies out of Forestville. She even made a beekeeping trip to Kenya to learn about African beekeepers’ tricks of the trade.
Spring presents the busiest season for Koseba, conducting maintenance on the various bee colonies and receiving calls about rogue beehives. The responsibility bears down, but Koseba takes the burden in stride.
“I just want them to survive,” she said. “Tending to their hives gives me great joy. I feel quite responsible.”
Koseba advocates for more public education on these extraordinary creatures that seem to have their own language. One such example is the rarely-seen “waggle” dance in which a honey bee may tell others where to find nectar, pollen or water.
Beeing alive in a rural and urban landscape
Honeybees have found friends in low and high places alike.
Over a decade ago, the Fairmont San Francisco signed on with American Canyon-based Marshall’s Farm to tend to the major hotel’s rooftop gardens as one in several worldwide locations in its efforts to support the dwindling populations through the years. The hotel uses the several hundred pounds of honey it produces from the 1,000-square-foot culinary garden’s hives in its restaurant’s soups, salad dressings and pastries as part of its sustainable cuisine offerings. It also uses the harvested honey for its guests to enjoy with afternoon tea and in featured, locally-brewed beers.