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Fires claim 60 of Sonoma Valley beekeeper’s sweetest hives

The wildfires that carved a black swath across Wine Country took lives, homes and even whole neighborhoods. The damage was epic, its scale hard to grasp. The spectacle of decimated homes was astounding to witness, but smaller losses, too, are now being tallied, each casualty a minor tragedy of its own.

Hector Alvarez is a third-generation beekeeper, a relentlessly hard worker and persnickety perfectionist whose husbandry yields famously “full strength” bees. At one point, Hector had nearly a thousand hives, but the drought, and the compromised vegetation it produced, shrank his hive total in recent years.

During the chaotic weeks of the Wine Country wildfires, Alvarez’s total shrank further still.

Sixty of his beehives went up in smoke.

They were situated in a meadow off Lovall Valley Road, where acres of wildflowers and accessible water made keeping a hive happy almost easy.

“The whole thing burned,” Alvarez said sadly. “Nothing left. Just nails and screws.”

When Alvarez arrived to move his hives on Tuesday, Oct. 10, his bees were unharmed, according to a friend who was still on the property. “There was no fire yet, and the hives were OK, but CHP was blocking the road and wouldn’t let me through,” Alvarez said.

First responders were using the meadow as a staging ground and, in the confusion, Alvarez couldn’t find the right person with whom to negotiate access. He did manage to convince a guy with a bulldozer to surround the hives with duff from the firebreak, thinking that maybe it would offer some kind of protection. But eventually – Alvarez thinks perhaps that first Wednesday – a spark set the brush off, and everything was lost.

“That was kind of sad because the fire came later,” Alvarez said. “Another guy in Glen Ellen had a turkey farm and got his animals out. He called the Agricultural Commissioner’s office. If I’d known to do that, I would have, too.”

Honeybees are considered livestock, and used to pollinate a wide variety of crops. Without them, certain crops – like almonds — would simply cease to exist, and others – like grapes — would produce compromised yields. They are integral to food production across the globe, responsible for propagation of many human food crops.

To sustain a single colony, honeybees require daily access to nearly an acre of flowers. They fly several miles, moving at speeds of up to 15 miles per hour. In winter, when foraged foods are harder to come by, the hive subsists on its own honey.

“They eat their own stores,” explained Etta Marie Peterson, a Petaluma beekeeper who considers Alvarez a mentor.

Other apiarists feed their bees sugar water in the cold months, reluctant to relinquish the honey. But Alvarez is a purist, and refuses shortcuts.

“He is one of the best beekeepers I know,” Peterson said. “He has helped so many of us newer beekeepers with his wisdom. He made a special trip to help me with a defensive colony, and showed me that they were that way because they were crowded. He reads the frames like a book!”

Replacing lost equipment will cost Alvarez money, and rebuilding his hives in Sonoma will take time. Winter is the wrong time to establish a colony, and the vegetation bees need to thrive may take years to regrow. “All that manzanita, all the undergrowth, will take a long time to come back,” Alvarez said.

In the interim, limited quantities of “Hector’s Honey” and other wares can be found at the Sonoma Friday Farmers Market, and at his River Road farmstand two additional days each week.

While saddened by his losses, Alvarez is pragmatic. The fires nearly cost him his home, too. “At this point I’m just glad that I only lost 60 hives. Other people have had it far worse.”

Contact Kate at kate.williams@sonomanews.com.