By Kate Daly
Special to the Almanac
Local honey is becoming a sweet business for beekeepers on the Peninsula these days.
For Richard Baxter, who started beekeeping when he was 9 years old, it's exciting to see so many new people getting involved in his favorite hobby.
Semi-retired, he runs Golden Harvest Bees out of his home in Redwood City, and helps set up and maintain about 100 hives in the area.
He says that when he joined the Beekeepers' Guild of San Mateo County 10 years ago, there were maybe 50 members; now there are more than 300. The support group meets monthly to talk about the joys and challenges of raising bees.
Mr. Baxter teaches introductory classes in beekeeping a couple of times a month for $45. He also sells basic starter kits that include a box to set up a hive with bees, and food to get a colony established. That costs around $600; he also offers a maintenance plan for $75 a month on top of that.
He harvests the honey usually in the spring and fall, and the owner gets to keep all of it.
Alternatively, he will install a hive at a property for free, give the resident up to five pounds of honey, and keep the rest to sell as raw honey at places such as Draeger's, Beltramo's, and the Country Corner store in West Menlo Park. His wife makes soaps, lip balms, and lotions out of the wax and honeycombs, and they sell that, too.
Mr. Baxter recently spoke at Wegman's Nursery in Redwood City to about 50 people wanting to know more about backyard beekeeping. He says he was thrilled to see so much interest because "this is generally the time to get started."
Spring is when bees naturally swarm to try to find a new home. He will gladly trap a local swarm of honey bees, or what Woodside hobbyist Mike Sieber calls "freebies." The only other way to obtain bees is to buy them, and that can cost a $100 and more per package.
Mr. Sieber sells his honey at Emily Joubert in Woodside. He has been keeping bees for 35 years, and notices that it's getting harder and harder to keep his hives alive.
He estimates he lost 30 to 50 percent of his hives this past winter due to colony collapse disorder. He's driving to Vacaville and Orland (about 20 miles west of Chico) this month to pick up new bees to replenish his supplies.
Starting in February, more than a billion honeybees are trucked to the Sacramento Valley to pollinate the state's almond crop, a multi-billion-dollar industry. After their work is done, the bees are then shipped off to other parts of the country that need them.
What's killing off the hives? Experts explain it could be a combination of pests, pathogens, pesticides and herbicides, and/or lack of habitat. Bees forage a mile or two to collect pollen, then return to their hives to make honey. During their travels they could easily encounter natural enemies such as varroa mites, wax moths and small hive beetles, and environmental stressors such as lack of rain.
Mike Vigo, ranch foreman of the Bee Ranchers, based in the East Bay, services dozens of hives at homes in Woodside, Portola Valley and Atherton. This year, he says, he's very concerned about late-season bee forage. "If there's not enough rain, everything blooms early ... and by the end of July and beginning of August, if bees don't have adequate food sources, we'll need to feed them," he says.
He recommends feeding them simple syrup made from two parts sugar and one part water.
Less than two years ago, Mr. Vigo set up a hive in Leslie Doyle's yard in Portola Valley. With kids, dogs and cats, the family gives it a healthy 5-foot berth and has run into no problems getting stung, Ms. Doyle says.
Mr. Vigo comes by regularly to maintain the hive, and last fall harvested 36 pounds of honey. She's a graphic artist and was delighted to put her own label on 70 eight-ounce jars and give them to clients, family and friends for Christmas.
Mr. Vigo also keeps hives in Portola Valley and Woodside, where the arrangement is that the host gets two pounds of the honey, and then Mr. Vigo sells the rest of the harvest to Roberts Market, where it is packaged as Roberts Kitchen Honey in 16-ounce jars that retail for $16.99.
Mr. Vigo keeps two hives at Mike Corley's home in Woodside. "The honey is phenomenal," says Mr. Corley. "There is something extra to it that makes it feel cool because it's from your house."
After the last harvest Mr. Corley ended up buying the honey back and putting a personalized label on it so he could give jars to clients over the holidays.
Mr. Vigo also keeps four hives in Karen Gilhuly's garden in Woodside. Last fall he set up his gravity-strained extractor in her garage to harvest his local clients' honey. Frames of honeycombs were scraped into a bucket, and the wax was salvaged for Mr. Vigo's daughters to make lip balm and candles.
Ms. Gilhuly's daughter Kate sampled some of the fresh honey and pronounced it as having "almost a smoky, darker, more flavorful" taste than the spring harvest, which tends to be lighter and sweeter, based on what's blooming then.
Mr. Baxter says some people seek out local honey "for medicinal benefits ... for a good 80 percent of people with hay fever the pollen in the honey has a way of stimulating your immune system to build up tolerance."
"Talk to your doctor," he recommends, since some believe there's only anecdotal evidence to support this claim.
Mr. Sieber says for him it's not all about the honey. He finds the entire beekeeping experience therapeutic. "In the afternoon light you look up in the air and see the bees coming and going, and in the summer when it's warm in the garden, there's a scent, the most incredible smell."