Interest in beekeeping, home gardening and bee-friendly spaces surge as locals rally to protect declining species

The bees are vanishing in alarming numbers— and no one knows why. Last year the US lost approximately 40 percent of its bee population. It’s a major concern and not just because of the lack of honey. Bees pollinate a third of the world’s food supply. They are the source of the many good things we have come to love and expect. Without bees, there would be no melons or juicy mangoes, no crisp apples or nutritious blueberries, no potatoes or pumpkin pie. And forget that cup of morning coffee or Valentine’s Day box of chocolates. Pantries would be sparse, food bland.

Honeybees are not native to the US. They were brought in by 17th century settlers for crop pollination. Unlike solitary native species, honeybees live in colonies and have greater pollination concentration. Both honeybees and native species are in decline.

Bees have been a part of civilization since the earliest of times. In the Caucasus region of Eurasia, archeologists uncovered a 5,500-year-old jar of honey, the oldest ever. Honey was found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. And yet now, after eons of proliferation, the bees are dying. The rate of attrition accelerated in 2006 when colonies vanished without a trace. The phenomenon became known as Colony Collapse Disorder or CCD. Recently, bee species in Hawaii and the rusty-patched bumblebee in the Midwest were placed on the Endangered Species List, the first insects to achieve this dubious distinction.

So why are the bees dying off? Lack of suitable habitat and pesticides that weaken their immune system are reasons often cited. Fortunately, Sonoma County hasn’t been idle waiting for answers. Many have already rallied to help the bees.

The Sonoma County Beekeeping Association (SCBA) is the largest of 16 local bee associations in California. “In 2010 we had 50 members,” says Ettamarie Peterson, beekeeper for 25 years and past president of SCBA. “Now we have over 450. I suspect the press alarm about CCD had something to do with it. Everyone wanted to help. Many wanted to become beekeepers.” This might partially explain the jump in membership. Perhaps it also has something to do with the county’s agricultural heritage. Or maybe it’s the region’s farm-to-table movement and the focus on organic food. Or perhaps it’s just that locals feel strongly about their environment and protecting the special place where they live.
SCBA members range from Ukiah, down through the county and over to Napa. The club is divided into five geographic ‘cluster’ mentoring groups. Workshops, hive dives and bee cafés offer learning opportunities and an exchange of experiences. Three years ago SCBA launched a classroom educational program. It’s been a huge success. Sixty-five schools and 6,500 students have participated. One of those was Live Oak Preschool in Healdsburg. “This was our second year,” says Therese Walker, executive director. “Four-year-olds tend to be afraid of bees. All they know is that they sting.” The preschoolers make cardboard hives and discuss all the things that happen in a bee colony. They get real excited when the SCBA team lets them try on the beekeeper white suit and veiled hat. One teacher even dresses up like the queen bee.

“It’s fun, educational and they’re no longer afraid,” Therese says. Preschool through high school teachers may request a classroom visit by filling out a form on the SCBA website. And for anyone interested in bees and beekeeping, association meetings are held on the first Monday of each month at 6 p.m. in the Rohnert Park 4-H Center. There’s always a guest speaker and meetings are open to the public.

The appropriately named Beekind store in Sebastopol opened to sell honey at about the same time as the CCD scare 10 years ago. “People came in feeling sorry for us,” said Katia Vincent, co-owner along with her beekeeper husband, Doug. “They were concerned we wouldn’t have any honey. Then everyone wanted to help. They wanted to be beekeepers,” Katia says, echoing Ettamarie’s comments. “So we began stocking hives and accessories.”

Beekind is now the go-to-place for beekeeping equipment, honey and even bees. Visitors linger around a revolving multi-tiered tasting tray sampling an assortment of local, regional and international honeys. The names on the jars are tempting—Bolinas Eucalyptus, Toyon or California Christmas Berry, Tupelo and Italian Truffle are just a few. Customers purchase honey for its soothing, sweet taste. They also buy it for the health benefits. Raw honey is a source of vitamins, minerals and natural antibiotics. “Some hospitals use honey to treat wounds and reduce scarring,” says Katia. A starter hive, bee suit and accessories costs $500 to $650.

“We offer free introductory classes three times a year,” Doug says. “It’s a chance to learn what’s involved before making the plunge.”

Serge Labesque’s classes at Santa Rosa Junior College are a must for beekeepers. The sessions are well attended and many take the classes more than once. “Dedicated beekeepers want to do the right thing for their bees,” Serge says. “The more they know, the better the chances of success. I learn new things about bees all the time.”

Some would find that hard to believe. With a full beard, soft voice and the focused mind of a scientist, Serge is Sonoma County’s bee guru. Serge disavows feeding bees sucrose or treating hives. “It weakens the genetics. It’s not good for the bee’s long-term survival. We should let nature improve on nature.” He’s a strong proponent of working with local bees and not purchasing packages online. Bees not acclimated to Sonoma County’s environment have less chance of survival. And those from other places may bring pathogens and weaken local populations.

Students in Serge’s classes learn good beekeeping practices and how to detect and deal with issues early on. The aptly named Varroa destructor is one of those issues. The tiny mite arrived in North America from Asia in 1987. Some say it’s an even greater threat than CCD. Varroa hide and reproduce in the hive’s larval cells. They live off the larva and introduce viruses. Bees with strong genetics can fight them off; weak hives are doomed.

Some beekeepers develop an interest in bees at an early age. Hector Alvarez of Hector’s Honey Farm in Fulton is a third-generation beekeeper. In Mexico his grandfather was a hobbyist and his father owned 120 hives. As a youngster Hector would tag along to help while learning the trade. Now with more than 700 hives, he has considerably expanded the family tradition. At his River Road farm stand customers purchase jars of his golden honey—blackberry, wildflower, lavender, and star thistle. And there’s an assortment of freshly picked vegetables grown on the farm’s fertile 14 acres, all pollinated by Hector’s bees. Cows, chickens and goats dot the landscape. Weathered white bee boxes occupy a spot in a corner. Goats wander among the hives munching tall green grass, facilitating a flight path for the foragers. Stacked bee boxes sit on pallets enabling easy transport to parts of the county where blossoms proliferate throughout the season. In addition to the River Road stand, Hector and his family sell raw honey, pollen, beeswax candles and vegetables at nine farmer’s markets in the area.
Cheaper imported honey can be purchased at supermarkets. But buyers beware! There are no FDA standards for commercially sold honey. Often honey produced commercially is heated to a high temperature to prevent crystallization. Though there is nothing wrong with crystallized honey, consumers prefer the familiar thick liquid consistency, unaware that heat destroys antioxidants and the antiviral properties that provide health benefits. And cheap honey may have been diluted. Be safe: buy local.

Beekeepers in Sonoma County tend to be hobbyists. Yet Mike Turner of Windsor turned his passion and love of bees into a career. As a professional beekeeper he manages hives for wineries, farms and residences. “I’m like the pool guy or the gardener,” he says. “I provide a service. My service just happens to involve bees.” Hiring a manager is ideal for those who want to help bees and the environment but don’t have the expertise or time to acquire it. Mike provides hives—and bees too. On occasion he gets new bees when he’s called in to remove a swarm. “People panic when they encounter a swarm. It’s a natural reaction. Swarms look menacing, but they’re not. They’re actually quite gentle. Bees swarm because they’ve outgrown their hive. They’re just hanging out until they find another spot.” SCBA’s website has an extensive list of beekeepers who will come and take a swarm away.

Mike manages seven hives for Jordan Vineyard and Winery in the Alexander Valley. The winery’s property encompasses 1,200 acres, most of which is natural habitat. “The bees seem to like it here,” Chef Todd Knoll says. Jordan’s apiary is situated in a lush meadow opposite the culinary garden. “Eventually we’d like to replicate the Häagen-Daz Honey Bee Haven at UC Davis,” Todd says.
In the meantime there’s no lack of pollen and nectar for the bees. Walking past the herb garden one detects the distinctive fragrance of rosemary intermixed with basil. And there’s thyme and blue borage. Flowerbeds of dark rich earth brim with bright flowers. Further on there’s an orchard and an experimental berry patch. “I use honey as a sugar substitute in recipes whenever I can. It adds character,” Todd says. He uses bee pollen, too. “It makes a good salad topping. It’s multicolored and it’s healthy.” He’s even commissioned a potter to make honey pots from the property’s clay-infused soil. The small containers with honey will accompany aged, nutty cheese selections. Visitors come to Jordan for the wine—and the experience. On tours they get to visit the culinary garden and the apiary. They can hike the vineyards or drive past scenic vistas where cattle roam the hillsides.

Jordan Winery is an oasis in the midst of a grape-growing monoculture where bees often struggle to find diverse sources of pollen and nectar. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Sonoma County needs both bees and grapes. Hedgerows, natural brush and buffer strips alongside vineyards can provide bee habitat. And the selective use of vineyard cover crops can also help. Cover crops protect soil from erosion, improve fertility and serve as a haven for beneficial insects. During the winter months much of the valley is blanketed with vibrant yellow mustard, a cover crop that attracts bees. But then the arrival of spring brings morning fog and, by necessity, tall mustard stalks have to be tilled or mowed to prevent frost from settling on top and penetrating the canopy. Then other seasonal crop mixes like red clover, rye, fava beans, dandelion and the easy-growing purple Phacelia californica can take over and continue to nurture the soil and provide nutrients for the bees.

So what about the many of us who don’t own a vast property, a vineyard or are not inclined to become beekeepers? What can we do? The good news is that bees actually thrive even better in urban settings and neighborhoods where there’s plant diversity, irrigation and less use of pesticides. They are attracted to colorful flowers, fragrant herb and vegetable gardens, and pots of bright blossoms on a deck. They like certain trees and shrubs, too—bay, manzanita, eucalyptus, bottle brush and citrus are favorites. What’s not good is the use of systemic neonicotinoid pesticides, a nicotine-based chemical linked to bee decline. In a reaction to environmental and consumer concerns, Costco, Lowe’s Home Improvement and Home Depot have adopted bee-friendly policies aimed at reducing the use of neonics.

Sonoma County is in the vanguard of a movement to save the bees—and our food supply. With the ongoing support of home gardeners, dedicated beekeepers, farmers, wineries and vineyards—that can happen!


Gravenstein Apple Fair Sweet on Pollinators

The Gravenstein apple and the bees and other small creatures that pollinate them are the focus of the 44th Annual Gravenstein Apple Fair, scheduled for August 12 and 13 in Sebastopol’s Ragle Ranch Park. Produced by Sonoma County Farm Trails, the theme for this year’s fair is a timely one: “In Praise of the Pollinators.” Attendees will learn from local experts about the importance of bees and other pollinators to our food supply and what they can do in their own yards to help them survive. There will be beekeeping demos, cooking demos using honey, and mead-making demos followed by a mead tasting. Tilted Shed Ciderworks is creating a special cider for this year’s fair that will contain honey from Capracopia (also known as Redwood Hill Farm) and Gravenstein apples from various Farm Trails members. Michael Joshin Thiele of Gaia Bees, a leader in the biodynamic apiculture movement, will speak about his work; and master basket weaver Charlie Kennard will demonstrate how to weave a basket hive called a skep, used often as swarm catchers. In the children’s corner, kids will discover how to make seed bombs that encourage pollinators, flower crowns and seed mosaic art. For tickets and more information, visit


The Melissa Garden, an inspiration

Nymph Melissa of mythology spooned honey to the infant Zeus… and Melissa is the Greek word for bee.
On their 40-acre undeveloped property outside Healdsburg, Barbara and Jacques Schlumberger created a 2-acre bee sanctuary—a fantasyland for bees. “We were concerned about the plight of these fragile creatures. We wanted to have a special, natural place where they could thrive,” says Barbara. And The Melissa Garden is that place. It’s a world devoid of pesticides. A world of copious untainted pollen and nectar. A world absent of all the bad things humans wittingly or unwittingly do to their environment.

Plants bloom most of the year, yet it is spring when the garden comes to life. Pollinators proliferate—not only bees, but butterflies and hummingbirds too. The garden turns into a kaleidoscope of color—bright yellows, subtle reds and deep purples set against a background of vivid young green. The first to bloom are the California poppies, borage and the native blue Phacelia tanacetifolia. Local manzanita and mustard grow on the hillsides. And moss-covered rock taken from the property border the pathways providing a feeling of ageless time. The garden centerpiece is a circular tiered fountain where water cascades over the sides. “There used to be lawn here,” Barbara says. “It required a lot of maintenance. This is so much better. And it’s a place for bees to come for a drink.”

The Schlumbergers thought only beekeepers would be interested in what they had created. Not so. People from all over the world—master gardeners, naturalists, garden clubs and those wanting to learn more about habitat gardening all came to share their stories. “My favorite time was when the kids from the Waldorf School came to visit. We’d sit under the oaks and talk about the bees. Then I’d ask them to sit quietly and listen to the sounds of nature—the bees humming, the birds chirping in the trees, the rustle of the leaves.”

After living on their spectacular property for 16 years Barbara and Jacques are downsizing. The property is for sale. “It’s sad to leave,” Barbara says wistfully. “Yet we have so many wonderful memories from our time here.“ Then her eyes light up and she smiles. “But don’t think I’m going to stop helping the bees. No way. Wherever we end up, I’ll still be planting for the pollinators.”
The site and garden were designed by Kate Frey, author of the book “Bee-Friendly Gardens” and co-owner of The American Garden School in Forestville.


Sonoma County Beekeepers’ Association

Kate Frey Sustainable Gardens

Jordan Vineyard & Winery

Mike Turner

Pollinator Partnership