Weird Winter Put Bay Area Beekeepers to the Test

NEWS: Weird Winter Put Bay Area Beekeepers to the Test

You’ve probably heard of backyard chickens in California cities. But backyard beekeeping?

Hundreds of Bay Area residents have installed hives in recent years, and the hobby really took off when pandemic lockdowns forced people to stay home. Membership in the Alameda County Beekeepers Association alone has jumped to 500 people from around 60 in 2011, according to Robert Mathews, the association’s new president.

“There are beehives and chickens in every third house, it seems,” said Mathews, 57, a techie by day, bee enthusiast on weekends.

Beekeepers say their hobby is a solitary, meditative pastime that helps them connect with nature despite their busy lives. I first learned about the growth of home beekeeping from my Oakland neighbor, a full-time nurse who has three hives in his backyard.

Tracy Fasanella, another Oakland resident, stumbled into beekeeping this year. She adopted two hives from a friend in San Leandro. A semiretired accountant, Fasanella said she felt fulfilled, and occasionally daunted, by the wealth of knowledge she was gaining from her bees.

“I had no idea what I would be getting myself into,” she said. “Sometimes I think it’s pretty scary having 40,000 bees around you.”

The unusually rainy and cold winter in California this year created additional challenges for novices who are still trying to learn the ropes.

The wind kept knocking down beehives, killing some bees and leaving little food for those that survived. The unusually stormy winter also posed problems for bees that pollinate California’s commercial crops elsewhere in the state.

Jill Lambie, a hobbyist turned professional bee consultant in Oakland, said she had never witnessed a season quite as complicated as this past winter. Bees couldn’t get enough food or pollen, which caused their larvae to fall ill. And opportunistic viruses are surfacing more than she’s ever seen.

In the Berkeley Hills during the first sunny week of April, Lambie and her business partner, Karen Rhein, who call their consulting business BeeChicks, were performing mite checks on a group of hives. Mites can damage hives by infecting them with viruses. One type of virus carried by mites results in a bee being born with no abdomen, while another deforms their wings and leaves them too weak to fly.

“Eleven mites!” Rhein exclaimed, counting and recounting a sample.

To conduct a test, experts scoop a cup of bees from the hive, place them in a jar of sugar, and shake the container in a shallow tub of water to record how many mites fall out. If more than 15 mites are found, that signals that a hive could quickly be in distress and need to be treated.

While Rhein conducted the test, Lambie was on the phone with another Bay Area client who had called in a panic. The client’s bees were swarming, fleeing the hive en masse.

She turned around and sighed. “This is going to happen so much this spring,” she said.

Today’s tip comes from Levie Isaacks:

“I live in Sebastopol, where my favorite trip into the city is from Freestone through Valley Ford to Petaluma and Highway 101. The bright green rolling hills with clumps of California poppies and happy cows is an exhilarating, visceral experience this time of year. It’s amazingly beautiful.”

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected]. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.

The New Yorker writer Dana Goodyear recently published a lovely essay about California’s superbloom.

The year that Goodyear moved to Los Angeles, in the winter of 2004-05, was among the region’s rainiest, and her memories of that time are of slick roads and fallen palm fronds. She remembers understanding Los Angeles as a place that was “abundant, intoxicating, unmoored.”

This year’s spring is a return to that time, as gentle slopes have turned purple and yellow and California poppies peek through sidewalk cracks, she writes:

“It’s hard to stay optimistic in a dry landscape. A desiccated city is a metaphor for dysfunction, and a mirror of it. It looks like the end of a story. The failure of an ill-conceived experiment. Proof of unsustainability. But, when a desert comes alive, the story opens out again. There is, alongside the simple joy of seeing so much color, a sense of possibility. The chaos feels generous, and generative.”

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