Thank the Bees

Food fans swarm to protect the pollinator

Beekeeper Steve Demkowski shows a beehive’s removable frame to a group of student beekeepers at Happy Hollow Zoo.

Photographs by Lane Johnson

When a colony of honybees built a hive in the wall of Jay Keller’s house in Sunnyvale, he didn’t call the exterminator. He started beekeeping.

“We could smell the honey,” Keller says. He hired a professional beekeeper to move the bees out of the wall and into two hives in his backyard.

“There was a spot on the wall where the worker bees kept the queen warm in winter,” he says. “We estimate there were about 60,000 bees living in the wall. They made 75 pounds of honey.”

The honeybee is a small insect with a big responsibility. In addition to producing honey, bees pollinate more than 100 agricultural crops in the United States. Billions of dollars worth of food, including dairy products, fruits, and vegetables, are dependent on the honeybee’s efforts. The California almond industry, for example, is almost entirely dependent on bees. Eighty percent of the world’s almonds come from California’s 600,000 acres of almond orchards. Starting in February and lasting only 22 days, about 1 million beehives—containing 40 billion bees—are driven by truck all over the United States, from one orchard to the next, to pollinate the flowering almond trees.

“You can thank the bees for every third bite of food we consume,” says beekeeper Steve Demkowski, who manages hives in San Jose’s History Park and Happy Hollow Zoo and teaches children and adults how to keep bees. Although Demkowski sells his honey under the label Willow Glen Honey, he says that “making honey is not nearly as important as the bees’ role in pollinating our food.”

The honeybee is just one of several pollinators, including bumblebees, butterflies, beetles, and bats, but in the last decade, there have been a lot fewer honeybees buzzing among the flowering crops.


“There have been huge declines in honeybee populations in the last few years—up to 90 percent in some areas,” Demkowski says. This is attributed to a mysterious condition known as Colony Collapse Disorder or CCD, in which most or all of a hive suddenly dies or disappears. CCD appears to have peaked in 2008. Like many beekeepers, Demkowski believes that “no one factor is responsible for CCD. Mites, diseases, stress from moving hives, and pesticides all combine to kill large numbers of bees.”

Meanwhile, upscale hotels, top chefs, and backyard beekeepers have swarmed to bolster the honeybee population. The roof of San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel supports a 3,000-square-foot herb and vegetable garden and a set of beehives. The hives yield about 60 pounds of honey each year, which the hotel chefs use in ice creams, desserts, marinades, and vinaigrettes, and serve alongside cups of tea at afternoon tea service.

South of Monterey at Carmel Valley Ranch, Chef Tim Wood makes honey-marinated chicken wings with honey produced by the ranch’s bees. Guests at the golf resort can watch the beekeeper tend to his hives, which are a feature of the ranch’s two-acre organic garden.

Chef Laura Stec of Portola Valley, a “green cuisine” advocate and author of Cool Cuisine: Taking the Bite Out of Global Warming, uses her kitchen expertise to raise awareness of the importance of bees to our food supply. She teaches classes to culinary students ranging from kids in inner-city Oakland to novice chefs at the Culinary Institute of America.

As part of a class that illustrates her book’s planet-friendly cooking concepts, Stec has her students taste an artisan cheese and vegetable platter highlighting bee pollinator crops. “I include honeycomb, because most people have never seen or tried it,” she says.

The flavor of honey varies from region to region, Stec says. “Later in the season, honey is darker due to the wider variety of flowers in bloom. It tastes different, too.”

Backyard beekeeper Jonathan Grant-Richards agrees about the variety of honey flavor. His beehive sits on his property high in the Santa Cruz Mountains. “We have a lot of rosemary growing in the yard. You can taste it in the honey,” he says.

Grant-Richards has had a few adventures with his bees, from taming an aggressive hive to capturing wandering swarms from 40-foot-tall trees. He’s been stung occasionally, although he says that keeping covered with a beekeeper’s suit, headgear, and gloves keeps stings to a minimum. “The suit is really to keep me calm. If I know I’m protected, I stay calm and the bees pick up on that. They react to your mood.”

“The queen determines the personality of the hive,” Grant-Richards says. “If she’s gentle, she passes on that trait to the rest of the bees.”

The honeybee is not native to the United States; it was brought here by European settlers in the early 17th century. Today, the gentle and productive Italian honeybee is the most popular species for beekeeping. The Langstroth beehive, used by professional and amateur beekeepers all over the world, is a wooden box with removable frames or drawers. It was developed in 1852 by Ohio beekeeper Lorenzo Langstroth.

After keeping bees for 40 years, Alan Henninger of the Delta Bee Club in San Jose says, “Beekeeping used to be easier. We didn’t have to feed the bees. Now we need to give them sugar syrup and protein supplement to help them get through the winter. There [used to be] just one major bee disease—American foulbrood—but now there are at least five.”

Bees carry chemicals, such as pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, back to their hives. Feeding bees from a single source, such as the pollen from one type of tree, is akin to feeding them junk food. “Bees, like people, do best with a variety of foods,” Henninger says.

Moving bees from place to place is also a major stressor. The large commercial bee operations, which move bees all year from one crop site to another, have seen the largest losses from Colony Collapse Disorder. “The small beekeepers don’t have such severe problems,” Henninger says.

Short of setting up our own backyard beehive, what can we do to help the honeybee population? Beekeeper Demkowski says, “Reduce the size of your lawn. A lawn is toxic to most life. It’s a desert—all one species, and not allowed to flower.”

Demkowski suggests letting a corner of your yard revert to a meadow, with a wide variety of flowering plants. “Add more bee-friendly plants to your property. Salvias, lavender, rosemary, clover, and most native plants are good choices,” he says. If you have a vegetable garden, “let some plants go to flower, such as lettuce and broccoli. Don’t keep things too tidy.”

Jay Keller and other beekeepers advise against using pesticides. Bees are very sensitive to pesticides, especially the systemic poisons people commonly use on roses and other ornamentals.

As research continues on the causes of Colony Collapse Disorder, beekeepers learn more about how to protect and care for these amazing pollinators. Despite all the foreboding news about bees, beekeeper Alan Henninger says there is a silver lining. “Bees have been around for millions of years,” he says. “They’re resilient.”


Laura Stec's Local Honey Sparkler


To promote education about honeybees, Chef Laura Stec uses honey in creative ways. Her “Local Honey Sparkler” combines homemade honey syrup with sparkling water. The honey becomes effervescent when the sparkling water is added—think “honey latte”.

“Honey is the perfect replacement for high fructose corn syrup,” she says. “You can also drizzle honey syrup over ice cream or yogurt.” 

Local Honey Sparkler
Makes 4 glasses
1/2 cup honey syrup
1 (32-ounce) bottle sparkling water

To make honey syrup: Heat honey in a small saucepan over medium heat for about 1 minute. Remove from heat. It shouldn’t be too hot; you should be able to put your finger in it. Add 2 tablespoons sparkling water and stir. Put syrup in a glass container and chill for at least 15 minutes.

To make the sparkler: Pour 1 to 2 tablespoons of honey syrup into a glass. Cover with sparkling water and stir. For best results, chill glasses in the freezer for at least 15 minutes. 


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