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How these Northern California beekeepers are keeping their hives in business during the drought

Buzz kill

The nation’s honeybee colonies in 2017 numbered 2.88 million, with approximately 30,000 bees per colony, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That count had dropped 12% from the 3.28 million recorded five years before. But colonies have showed much improvement from the collapses of the early 1980s and turn of the 21st century.

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.

In 2014, veteran beekeeper Spencer Marshall extended the partnership with the Fairmont to Sonoma where its honey is also used in its restaurant.

Marshall splits the honey produced from those garden hives with the hotel. He sells his honey retail at $16 per pound at Whole Foods from the honey he collects from his hives.

Having witnessed many struggles for the honey bees in his 50 years in business beekeeping, Marshall, 78, also expressed concern about the drought not providing enough food for them.

“It’s going to be difficult in July. The flowers will have less nectar, and the queen will lay (fewer) eggs,” he said. Eggs are commonly hatched after 21 days.

Like Koseba, Marshall showed a heightened appreciation for the pollinating creatures.

“When I first started doing bees in 1972, I had a remodeling business in Marin (County). I threw my back out. Then, when the mites hit the (bee) population in 1982, I was at a bee club meeting. The almond growers put the word out that they need bees,” he said.

Today, Marshall averages a honey operation producing about 30,000 pounds between March and November. They go dormant in the deep of winter.

“They can’t fly in the 50s,” he said of the seasonal temperature, while checking his bee boxes in the Sonoma hotel garden. Marshall uses a small smoke machine as a diversion, so he can carefully inspect their homes without having them try to defend themselves.

“Look, now they’re kicking ass,” he said, adding he was pleased with the progress the bees were making on producing honey. He said Sonoma and Napa counties present a good, temperate climate for beekeeping. After the initial raising of the roofs of their bee box homes, they soon ignored his advances and went about their business of working on the honeycomb.

“See, all they want to do is work,” he said.

Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, tech, energy, transportation, agriculture as well as banking and finance. For 27 years, Susan has worked for a variety of publications including the North County Times, Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe News. Reach her at 530-545-8662 or susan.wood@busjrnl.com.

Buzz kill

The nation’s honeybee colonies in 2017 numbered 2.88 million, with approximately 30,000 bees per colony, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That count had dropped 12% from the 3.28 million recorded five years before. But colonies have showed much improvement from the collapses of the early 1980s and turn of the 21st century.

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