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Local beekeepers continue to protect pollinators in face of national crisis

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Scott Ball opens up one of his beehives to check on the colony inside. The hive is one of three at this particular apiary in Livermore, located on the open space of an acquaintance. (Photo by Erika Alvero)

Scott Ball was concerned for his queen.

Queen bee, that is. Her majesty was nowhere to be seen in the bottom layer of his hive, but worker honey bees were busily feeding a few other "queen cells" -- which could indicate they were preparing a few possible replacement queens, portending ill for the colony, which depends heavily on its sole egg-layer.

"The reason I don't want that to happen is because then that's lost profit, lost time," said Ball, who owns a small business called Buena Vista Honey based in Livermore. "It takes a lot more energy to recover from." Rebuilding a society after a leader's death can be tempestuous -- honey bee colonies seem to be no different.

Ball is part of the Tri-Valley beekeeping community, a brood that maintains hives for whatever reason, be it honey harvesting or environmental stewardship. Or just out of a general affinity for the black-and-yellow-striped pollinators.

Unwittingly or not, they have joined into the complex agroecosystem in which honey bees play an integral role -- an ecosystem in which these same bees have been on the decline and face increasing dangers from pesticides, mites and the loss of their foraging environment.

It's vital for the public to recognize, Ball said, "how important it is that we take care of our environment, take care of our pollinators, whether they be honey bees or butterflies or whatever."

Ball started his business a year ago, though his interest in bees began when he was in high school -- he asked his dad for a beehive for his birthday.

"'You're sure you don't want a stereo?'" Ball recalled his father's response.

But a hive he received, with his father dutifully taking over the colony once Ball left for college.

Now Ball, who also works as an engineering geologist, has returned to bee life. He currently keeps seven apiaries, a few of which are close to his Livermore home -- a helpful proximity for the pollination of his own garden, as bees can travel as far as three miles from their hive, though some have been known to go farther.

Honey bees are known for their complex and communal social structure. A single colony can have up to 80,000 bees, the majority of which are the female worker bees with a few hundred male drones.

"The males absolutely do nothing," Ball said. "All they do is sit around, relax, take a break, eat some food, go out and try to find a queen to mate with." (He's not alone in this sentiment: at one point a hymn from the Mormon Church, which uses a beehive as a symbol, had a line stating, "The world has no use for a drone.")

The worker bees spend their days collecting pollen and nectar, which they bring back to the hive. The nectar is then deposited into a myriad of hexagonal cells in their hive, which they also create themselves using built-in wax glands -- Ball gives them a frame to work with, but they have the ability to initiate one themselves, as seen by feral bee hives.

Honey bees communicate with one another through what is known as a "waggle dance." If, for example, a worker bee has found a nearby flower patch, she will return to her colony and share the location with a specific "waggle." "The way they wiggle has to do with the energy that they have to expend to get there, how far it is to get there," Ball said. "The direction that they dance and how they do the dance tells the other bees what direction to fly, in relation to the sun."

Ball harvests cut comb honey from his apiary, which consists of what he calls a "mongrel Italian" bee species. Donning a white, spaceman-like bee suit, he carefully lifts the various layers of the hives every few weeks to check on his colonies and on the hexagon-filled frames that he has placed in the boxes. To produce the cut comb honey, he will later cut the nectar-filled honeycomb from the frame and then break it up into smaller pieces.

Some honey bees brought specifically to pollinate avocado or almond or blueberry fields produce honey with distinctive flavors based on their pollination sites, but outside of a monoculture situation, it's difficult to control where they travel. So much of the honey Bay Area residents consume is what many beekeepers call "wildflower honey," Ball said.

"You really don't know where they're getting it from," he said. "They're getting it from a number of different sources."

The cut comb harvesting requires intensive monitoring and is more time-consuming than using a liquid extractor -- and might result in more honey bee casualties, as you necessarily squish a few every time you open the hive -- but he enjoys the process. So far, he sells to The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards and Salt Craft in downtown Pleasanton.

Pleasanton resident Lynn Martin, on the other hand, is a more casual beekeeper. She entered the beekeeping realm as a child, as her father kept bees in Livermore.

She returned to beekeeping a few years ago after seeing an advertisement for a "flow hive," a cheaper and less-intensive honey harvesting method.

"I would not have gotten into beekeeping if I had to harvest the honey the old-fashioned way," she said. "It's way, way too much work."

She now has two colonies in her backyard, nestled amidst a sea of agapanthus and yellow lion's tail flowers, which seem to be popular with hummingbirds and other pollinators in addition to bees.

So far, though other veteran beekeepers may snub the newfangled liquid extractor, Martin hasn't found a downside to the flow hive. To harvest the honey, she just has to insert an L-shaped metal "flow key" into the hive, turn, and out flows the honey.

The fresh honey is nice, and watching bees busily buzz in her backyard is therapeutic, Martin said. But she returned to beekeeping primarily for environmental reasons.

"I knew that the bees were in trouble," she said.

Aside from honey production, honey bees are responsible for pollinating over 100 crops in North America, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"Pollination is responsible for over $15 billion in added crop value, particularly for specialty crops such as nuts, berries, fruits and vegetables," USDA officials wrote in a recent report. "Of the 2.5 million colonies of bees in the United States, the almond crop in California alone requires approximately 2 million colonies, and this need is projected to increase significantly over the next few years."

But over the last eight years, the department found that nationally, the honey bee population saw winter declines ranging from 22-36%; and during surveys taken in 2014-15 and 2015-16, the summer declines were at least as high.

The phenomenon has been termed "colony collapse disorder," or CCD. The specific reason for CCD is still somewhat murky, according to the USDA, but experts believe it can be attributed to several factors in conjunction with one another: pesticides, parasites and loss of forage habitat lead the way.

The fight to protect the honey bee has taken on political dimensions, as seen by the Obama administration's formal strategy to protect the critters back in 2015. And though much of the preservation fight comes from commercial beekeepers, urban beekeepers and hobbyists have a place too.

Ronni Brega, president of the Alameda County Beekeepers Association, says they try to educate the public about the importance of pollinators and dangers of pesticide use. The association has a booth at the Alameda County Fair, a prime educational opportunity.

The club has also formed a "Local Bee Initiative" to focus on keeping bees disease-resistant and parasite-free. "Keeping bees is very difficult," Brega said. "It's very time-consuming and it's not just about putting a box in your yard and harvesting honey. It's about animal husbandry."

The ability to legally keep bees within Pleasanton's city limits is fairly new -- the city's beekeeping prohibition was lifted in 2015, thanks in large part to the efforts of David Browne, who lives a few streets over from Martin in the Birdland neighborhood over by the Ken Mercer Sports Park. Both Browne and Martin belong to the Alameda County Beekeepers Association. (Ball, on the other hand, is part of the Mt. Diablo Beekeepers Association.)

Browne's dive into Pleasanton's beekeeping regulations came after someone complained about his own hives a few years ago, which at the time were situated along his back fence that abuts the Sports Park. After investigating, he found that beekeeping had been banned within Pleasanton (then a town) limits in 1926.

"I think the code got changed 80 years ago because at the time, farmers thought bees hurt their crops," Browne said. "So funny how things change. So they thought bees would mar the fruit and the crops."

He worked with city officials, who agreed the prohibition was outdated -- regulations vary throughout the Bay Area, but San Francisco, for example, treats bees primarily as a "nuisance," meaning hives are fine to keep as long as no one complains.

"The population of San Francisco was 10 times Pleasanton, and if they can deal with it just from a nuisance perspective, then we could have something that says 'four hives allowed,'" Browne said.

He initially proposed a four-hive limit -- maintaining multiple hives is good beekeeping practice, in case something happens to one colony, especially to the queen. Mail-in queens are an option, but it's better to stay local, as bees can take a while to accept the scent of an outsider.

The Pleasanton City Council ultimately voted to amend the city code in February 2015, allowing Pleasanton beekeepers to maintain two hives on single-family residential properties and up to 10 on properties within agricultural districts.

"To be very frank we approached beekeeping skeptically," Adam Weinstein, the city's planning manager at the time, told the council back in 2015. "These are stinging insects, after all, so we approached this project with the expectation that we might find beekeeping incompatible with residential neighborhoods."

"However ... we came out of our research concluding that beekeeping could actually be conducted safely on detached, single-property residential properties, and agricultural zones," he added.

Now, Browne finds himself somewhat of a local bee consultant, called in if someone stumbles onto a swarm. He likes to catch feral bee swarms, which he does with lemongrass oil and a box. "For some reason that scent is an attractant to bees," he said.

Local beekeepers urge others in the community to join them in their work -- or if not join them, to value the pollinators and plant bee-friendly flora in their yards. Even after a painful bee sting, said Ball from his Livermore apiary.

"If we got rid of all our pollinators, it would be very difficult to produce the produce that are in our markets," he said. "We need to look at that and realize, 'Yeah, I got stung, but gee I'd like to have that peach tomorrow.'"

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4 people like this
Posted by Paulette
a resident of Val Vista
on Jul 28, 2018 at 8:48 pm

Delighted to hear that there are beekeepers in Pleasanton. I have long wished for Pleasanton citizens becoming more enlightened about bees and other pollinators, having noticed the populations plummeting in my own neighborhood and the massive amount of people who misguidedly use pesticides for everything under the sun. I was thrilled to see a real butterfly in my yard a couple weeks ago, it had been so long since I'd seen one there. I noticed honeybees getting smaller or only see the black bumblebees mostly in my yard. A year or so ago, an entire colony of bees landed in the Liquid Amber tree in our front yard. It was such an awesome experience. I was hoping they would find a place to live nearby; but, they ended up flying off. Boo hoo! Anyway, the presence of beekeepers in Pleasanton fills my heart with delight!

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