As increased amount of crops demand more bees, local organizations are trying to educate the public
Local bee populations seem to be being hit by all sides — while there are calls being made to help recuperate the pollinator population, the increase of bees being brought into the county also puts local hives at a higher risk for disease or death.
Their pollinating nature has led to increased demand for honey bees and while some people may be trying to meet that demand, a lack of education and the dramatic increase in bees has put local pollinators at risk.
Amber Hamby, founder of SustainaBee, has experience both keeping bees and educating the public about beekeeping. Hamby founded SustainaBee last fall. The group aims to educate community members on beekeeping in return for housing SustainaBee’s hives.
She runs approximately 200 hives throughout Sonoma County, with the bulk of them being housed in Healdsburg. While the hives produce honey that’s sold throughout the county, at the crux of the company is the goal of educating the community on the importance of bees, working to increase local bee populations and developing resilient queens.
“Beekeeping is a huge educational curve,” Hamby said. “It’s not something where you can plant it and give it some water and it’ll be good to go. I think the learning curve especially requires the education component to begin with. Beekeeping is somewhat of a philosophy — you can talk to five different beekeepers and get six different answers on how to do things. I don’t have the answers. I can’t say what exactly is right and what exactly is wrong, but I try to provide facts and provide education and really provide facts about bees.”
The Sonoma County Beekeepers’ Association (SCBA) also works locally to help increase awareness of local bees. The association has around 500 members and travels to local fairs, classrooms and public meetings to help educate the general public on best practices. Additionally, members within the group share different species of bees as a way of diversifying local bee populations.
“Everybody is basically in it to protect the bees. Everybody is very aware of the plight of pollinators,” said Kelli Cox, 2019 SCBA president. “Sonoma County Beekeepers is trying now to expand people’s views and rather just think only of honey bees as pollinators, we’re trying to just think of other bees that are out there that we need for pollinators.”
The efforts of both SustainaBee and the SCBA work to ensure that people who decide to keep bees do so in a way that helps the already existing population, not harm it.
One issue that can be seen as a threat to the local bee population is increased demand.
Locally, both Hamby and Cox pointed to California’s growing almond crop as being one of the catalysts in increased demand for bees.
According to an August 2018 article put out by Stanford University’s Bill Lane Center for the American West, California had 1.33 million acres of almond orchards, nearly triple the 500,000 acres that were recorded 20 years prior.
“The growth of almond orchards has made the Central Valley the new center of gravity for migratory beekeeping,” the article states. “With this shift has come new concerns over the health and safety of bee colonies, both on the road, and while they forage in California’s crops.”
While both called out almond crops as being a primary contributor to pollinator demand, the crop is primarily located in central California and the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s 2018 California Almond Acreage Report didn’t list Sonoma County as having any almond acreage (the counties leading almond production were Kern, Fresno and Stanislaus.)
However, for many beekeepers hoping to earn a living keeping bees, one of the most viable ways to do so is to move their hives to different locations throughout the season as part of migratory beekeeping — a type of beekeeping wherein beekeepers from around the county travel with their hives to help pollinate crops.
Balancing bee demand with bee health can be complicated.
“I think right now it’s a little complex,” Hamby said. “Because of the almond industry, it’s bringing a lot of new beekeepers into the industry. That being said, there’s a lot of land that beekeepers have to cover. What I’m finding is Sonoma County is seeing a lot more pressure from more bee populations coming in. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, it’s a double-edged sword.”
With increased demand introducing more beekeepers and by proxy, more bee colonies, into the county, there’s a higher risk for disease and pests. One of the most detrimental of which is the varroa mite — a parasite that specifically targets honey bees.
According to U.C. Davis’ El Niño Bee Lab, bee colonies with high varroa mite numbers likely don’t survive the change of seasons and the options available to beekeepers as a way of managing varroa mites are limited. When faced with a varroa mite infestation, Hamby said that beekeepers often have to choose one of two routes — either employ varrocides (chemicals used specifically for varroa mite removal) or take a more natural approach and “let Darwinism take its course.”
One of SustainaBee’s goals is to help cultivate stronger queens with the hope of colonies eventually being able to survive when faced with infestations of the parasite. This potential solution, however, requires time for the queens to evolve and adapt to the mite.
For Cox, the introduction of bees meant specifically for pollinating large-scale crops introduces the possibility of the larger, commercialized bees attacking smaller ones.
“One of the challenges that Sonoma County is facing right now is that as the almond areas around Sonoma County are increasing, where they treat their bees and where they use a lot of pesticides, as they’re growing, they’re starting to push more hives into Sonoma County,” she said. “They’re bigger, fatter bees and those bees, usually around now or earlier, will come and annihilate local bees because they’re hungry.”
One of the biggest challenges facing local bees is “bee hype,” Cox said. “Everybody goes ‘Oh my gosh, save the bees,’ and people came up with things like the flow hive or all of these other things that are inappropriate in the management of bees, and they try and keep bees without much knowledge.”
She said that while most people decide to keep bees for good reasons, many don’t have the education to fully understand what they’re getting into.
Coupled with Hamby’s goal of producing stronger queens as a way of strengthening colonies to where they can eventually evolve to defeat varroa mites is her mission to help educate people who may want to try their hand at beekeeping.
Beginners who employ Hamby’s help will learn what to do when inspecting a hive, what to look for, as well as bee biology. With those who are more experienced, she shifts her teaching more toward tricks and trades.
“There’s different things that I can do, but the more important thing is that I go into their own setting and teach them what needs to be done in order to make sure that those beehives are alive,” she said.
“I think importantly like anything, there’s a lot of information out there. When you hear things from the media about what’s killing bees and what you should do, you take in a lot of sound bites. I think really the education part is important for the entire community to get on the same page,” she said.