Saving Sonoma's bees, 1 hive at a time
As we grapple with the coronavirus crisis, our bees struggle, too, though for different reasons. Over the past 50 years, the number of honeybees has declined. Each winter since 2006, about 30 percent of beehives collapsed because of disease, parasites, poor nutrition and pesticide exposure.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), one out of every three bites of food in the U.S. depends on honeybees and other pollinators. The bees pollinate $15 billion of crops each year, including more than 130 fruits and vegetables. Without bees we wouldn't have our cherished crisp apples or flavorful peaches, nutritious blueberries and lush melons, that morning cup of coffee and Valentine's Day box of chocolates. Much is happening in Sonoma Valley and throughout the county to address this issue.
The Sonoma County Beekeepers Association (SCBA) is the largest chapter in the California State Beekeepers Association, with 450 members. Within SCBA there are geographic 'cluster' subsets. East cluster, with 100 beekeepers, covers an area ranging from Schellville to Oakmont and west Napa. Susan Simmons is a cluster coordinator.
'When my husband and I moved here from the East Bay, we wanted space to grow a garden and plant fruit trees,' she said. 'Having bees was part of that vision.'
She describes beekeeping as complex work.
'There's much to learn. I shadowed my 'bee buddy' for a few years. Now I'm a buddy for others.' Local beekeepers in Sonoma meet regularly at each other's homes. They participate in workshops, hive dives and share experiences. Unable to gather as before, East Cluster members now meet via Zoom. They exchange information on the health of their bees — and themselves.
Thea Vierling heads up the cluster's education program. She and beekeeper Kim Bergstrom did a presentation at the Sonoma Charter School earlier this year.
'Why do beekeepers wear white?' Vierling asked the young students. She pointed to Bergstrom, attired in the traditional beekeepers garb — white jacket, hat and veil.
'Because it looks clean,' ventured one boy.
'Good answer,' Vierling said with a smile. 'I hadn't even thought of that.'
'What's big, furry and black and likes to eat honey?' Bergstrom asked.
'Bears!' came the collective response.
'You kids are so smart,' Vierling said. 'Beekeepers wear white so the bees don't get excited thinking we're bears.'
Vierling showed them a wooden box and explained that 50,000 bees live in a hive. The kid's eyes got wide. She lifted a frame with comb.
'The queen lays eggs in these hexagonal cells made from wax,' she said. 'And the bees use them to store pollen, nectar and honey.' She goes on to explain the different roles of bees in the colony — the forager, drone, nurse bees, worker bees and the queen.
Bergstrom held up an artificial branch with blossoms, an apple, a peach and a carrot stalk. She explained pollination. 'Without bees we wouldn't have any of these.'
'Be nice to the bees,' Vierling said. 'If you see a swarm, don't throw rocks or spray it with water or anything else.' Vierling wags her finger. 'And no pesticides in the school garden.' Vierling slips outside and reappears in a huge queen bee costume. The kids marvel.
'What a wonderful experience,' said teacher Rachel Cisneros. 'The presentation fits perfectly with our science curriculum and environmental studies.'
SCBA sponsors a school pollinator garden project enabling pre-K through sixth grade students the opportunity to start their own pollinator garden. One of those participants is Kristi Draluck's kindergarten class at Prestwood Elementary School.
Draluck herself is a beekeeper. Several years ago, Draluck began converting an abandoned playground near her classroom into a garden. SCBA provided pollinator plants for the kids to plant in a converted sandbox. 'It's important that kids learn about pollination and the environment at an early age,' Draluck said. 'They are our future.'
Each fall, Sonoma County schools can apply for an SCBA grant at sonomabees.org.
Serge Labesque of Kenwood teaches evening beginner and intermediate beekeeping classes at Santa Rosa Junior College. Soft spoken, bearded Labesque approaches beekeeping with the mind of a scientist. 'Dedicated beekeepers want to do the right thing for their bees. They want their bees to survive. Honey's a side benefit,' he says.
Sonoma County, with its vast swaths of vineyards, is a tough place for bees. Grapes do not need bees for pollination, and aren't a source of pollen and nectar, the food bees need. And, to make matters worse, many vineyard managers spray harmful pesticides. Organic and biodynamic farmers don't do that. They encourage the growth of wildflowers or plant beneficial cover crops like red clover, rye or easy-growing purple Phacelia californica between the rows of vines.
The past mild winter was particularly difficult for the local bee population. Many beekeepers lost one or more hives. 'In deep, constant cold temperatures, bees stay tightly clustered,' Labesque says. 'During a mild winter, bees tend to break cluster more often. They're more active, and perhaps more stressed than they would be if they stayed calm.' Not everyone can be a beekeeper.
For those who can't Labesque advises, 'Plant for bees. And be a savvy consumer by using and buying food that is produced in ways that are not harmful to pollinators.'
Though the climate is unpredictable, with Sonoma Valley's resourceful home gardeners, dedicated beekeepers, school educational programs, and more environmental friendly vineyard management practices, there is hope our pollinators will survive — and endure.