Features, stories, and reported articles written by Julie Brown.

High-Altitude Buzz

Moonshine Ink | October 2011

This story originally published in Moonshine Ink, an independent monthly newspaper based in Truckee, California. Read the story on MoonshineInk.com.

Despite being mildly allergic to the sting of a bee, Gage Shaw was at ease standing in a vortex of a thousand honeybees.

Armed with a stiff, white beekeeping suit and veil, as well as sturdy elbow-length gloves, the 15-year-old beekeeper walked up to the hive without hesitation. Putting a bit of muscle behind a flat metal tool, Gage pried up the top of the hive and revealed the mysterious and industrious colony below.

On this late-September day, Gage and his mother, Barbara Shaw, were harvesting honey from the Shaw Family Farm's last remaining hive. Of the eight hives started by the Shaws since the spring of 2009, bears had destroyed two, others starved, and a couple more had died of disease. This hive, however, was the survivor. It lived through last year's monumental winter. It escaped bear attack. And under the Shaws’ careful monitoring and care, disease was kept at bay.

Puffs of smoke engulfed the hive, a technique that masks the bees’ pheromones, or scents secreted by individual bees to spread an alarm signal to the greater colony. In this case, the smoke prevented the colony from swarming.

'This isn’t anger you’re seeing right now,' Gage said about the bees in flight around him. 'It's confusion.'

Calmly, Gage took the hive apart, frame by frame, each covered with a dense layer of diligent bees that he gently brushed off. With each move, more bees took to the air around Gage and added to the strength of the rumbling buzz surrounding him.

It wasn’t until the second box of frames that Gage found the jackpot. He pried up a frame heavy with the weight of its honey and held it up into the sunlight. The bees had built a patterned layer of dark wax to keep the honey in place, but a couple rich and golden drops oozed through weaknesses in the wax.

Gage offered me a taste. I pushed my finger into the beeswax, breaking it so that the honey — pure and straight from its source — covered my finger. Nothing had ever tasted so sweet.

'That is pure gold,' Gage said.

Not the bee's knees

Beekeeping is said to be possible anywhere except Antarctica. While honeybees thrive in temperate climates, the colony — which some beekeepers view as an organism in and of itself — has certain techniques to survive the winter. Worker bees, which are all female (all the male drones are kicked out for the winter as the colony trims its population for survival), huddle around their queen and vibrate to create energy that will keep the hive around 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Snow can actually be an insulator for the hive, though beekeepers should wrap their own insulation around their hives too.

Honey, which the bees make for food and eat for fuel over the winter, and health are two other key ingredients necessary for bees to survive until spring.

'You can keep bees in extreme areas,' said Randy Oliver, a commercial beekeeper in Grass Valley who has been keeping bees for some 45 years and travels across the globe to consult and speak to beekeeping groups. Most recently, Oliver traveled to Hawaii, Argentina, and Pennsylvania to talk about bees.

Honeybees survive winters and endure short blooming seasons in New England, Canada, and Alaska. Beekeeping should be possible in Truckee/Tahoe too, Oliver said.

'The interest [in beekeeping] across the country is just massive,' Oliver said. 'I’m actually surprised at how little [beekeeping] has taken off in Truckee.'

It's not surprising, however, to the handful of locals who have pursued beekeeping in the area. The challenges that confront beekeepers anywhere are heightened in Truckee/Tahoe. From bears to snow to disease, it seems that local beekeepers must be prepared to face failure before success.

'This is the edge of survival for European honeybees,' said Dan Joseph, a Truckee resident who tried his hand at beekeeping last year and failed.

'This is a tough place for humans to survive,' Joseph continued. 'I don’t think it's impossible [to keep bees]. I think it's doable. But it's tough. You could have some success, but you’re going to have failure too. And there's probably a higher percentage of failure [in Truckee/Tahoe] than in the valley.'

Another aspect that makes beekeeping difficult is the absence of an established network of beekeepers. Both the Shaws and Joseph have driven down the hill to consult with Oliver. But lacking a strong, local beekeeping community to show beginners the ropes makes it difficult.

'It's a transfer of knowledge,' said Ray Hopper, the beekeeper at Reno's River School Farm, about the learning curve of beekeeping. 'If you can tap into someone else's expertise, you can avoid problems.'

A small beekeeping organization, the Northern Nevada Apiculture Society, formed in Reno two years ago. And while the group has grown from 20 to 50 members, most are located in the lower valleys surrounding Reno, not the mountains.

Beeline for the cause

Hopper doesn’t know why he found his hive completely abandoned when he opened it at the River School Farm in August. All he saw were some brood — bee larvae — and a couple dead bees.

'We’re not sure what happened,' Hopper said, though he does have a theory that his hive was infected with nosema, a parasite that gets into a bee's gut. 'It's highly irregular.'

It's called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and it's a term that can be applied to any case in which bees mysteriously disappear from their hive. Commercial beekeepers have reported bee losses between 30 and 90 percent. Some believe inadequate food supply based on habitat loss and monoculture farming are key causes. Others point directly to systemic pesticides.

When you think of all the fruits and vegetables that rely on bees for pollination — apples, almonds, blueberries, broccoli, chocolate, coffee, melons, peaches — CCD becomes a major threat, and it's been heavily covered by the media. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council's bee fact sheet: 'Without bees to spread seeds, many plants including food crops would die off. Keeping bee populations safe is critical for keeping American tables stocked with high-quality produce and our agriculture sector running smoothly.'

Like many who are part of the recent surge in backyard beekeeping that's swept the nation from New York City — whose health department just lifted a ban on beekeeping — to rural towns, a movement that's been largely in response to the honeybee crisis of CCD, Joseph wanted to keep bees to become part of the solution.  

'I got excited about beekeeping as a way to help out with the issue of pollination,' Joseph said, noting that most of the food we get should be credited to pollinating insects. 'It's a good thing to do.'

But Joseph's good deed quickly turned into tragedy when his bees became overwhelmed with an infestation of Varroa destructor mites and nosema.

'Going into the winter, I knew I was ‘over-mited,’ which stresses your bees out,' Joseph said.

When Joseph checked his hive in the spring his bees were dead. The massive amount of poop inside was a clear sign that he also over-insulated the hive. Honeybees take cleansing flights throughout the winter and hives need ventilation.

'It was sad that they weren’t here this spring and summer,' Joseph said. 'This has taught me a lot. I’ve slowed down, but haven’t given up the idea of doing it again.' Joseph suggested starting with two hives, so if one weakens you can draw from the other. And if he does it again, he’ll probably have his honeybees spend the winter down the hill.

Bears love bees

There's another wild card to consider when keeping bees in Truckee/Tahoe — bears. Contrary to Winnie-the-Pooh folklore, bears go after beehives for the protein-rich brood, not for the honey.

Bears destroyed two of the Shaws’ hives. Once, the bear dug a trench under the electric fence protecting the hives and literally dragged the hive under the fence. The second attack happened last summer when a bear shoved a straw bale onto the electric fence and climbed over. The Shaws woke the next morning to pieces of the destroyed hive strewn across their yard.

The Shaws were able to recover one box — 10 frames — from the attacked hive and joined it with the last intact hive, which likely strengthened their sole hive for the rest of the summer.

'There's a big learning curve' to beekeeping, said Barbara Shaw. 'And there are so many challenges up here.'

Nearby the Shaw Family Farm, the Gerbers, Olympic Heights residents, also lost their hive to a bear attack. It was a huge disappointment for Sheri and Christian Gerber, who had managed to keep their bees through an entire winter. The Gerbers were out of town when the bear came after their hive. When they came home, everything was destroyed, Sheri said.

'It was that time of year when we were just going to get honey,' Sheri said, lamenting their loss.

Regurgitated nectar

Honey — the sweet gift that successful beekeepers receive from their hives. Many start to keep bees for the romance of it, as an avenue to get back in touch with nature. But none can deny that they look forward to the honey harvest.

Back at the Shaw Family Farm, Gage left half of the honey in the hive for the bees to survive the winter. Putting the last of the collected frames in the back of his truck, he drove to the garage where the sticky part of the job started.

Taking a large knife, Gage sliced the top layer of wax off the frame. Golden honey spilled over the top of the knife as soon as it was released from its waxy cage. Gage then put the frame in an extractor that spins and throws the honey off. A thick, yellow river poured out of the extractor when he released the valve.

'There's a deceptively large amount of honey in these frames,' Gage said.

The Shaws harvested almost four gallons of honey this fall. When considering the earlier summer honey harvest, that single hive produced about five gallons of honey.

'We consider this pretty successful for our region and are very happy with it,' Barbara wrote in an email following the harvest. 'The honey is delicious.'

The Shaws are doing all they can to set up the colony so it can survive the oncoming winter. If their bees make it through the season, the Shaws intend to add another hive in the spring, continuing their beekeeping efforts.

Beekeeping is more work than one might think on first impression.

'Everyone makes it sound like it's this hobby that doesn’t take that much time. But it does,' said Sheri Gerber. 'You have to be paying attention. You have to be feeding them.'

But even after the bear canceled out the Gerbers’ efforts, Sheri still said she reaped rewards from her bees — in the form of pollination, at least.

'Certain flowers will go nuts and go crazy if you have bees pollinating them,' Sheri said. '[Keeping bees] was a good experience and I’d like to do it again.'