It's a Wonderful Time to be a Beekeeper in Los Angeles

KCET     By Clarisssa Wei     May 20, 2017

For the past five years, a very parched California has meant beekeepers have been struggling. The lack of water meant a notable absence of wildflowers and forage, which stressed out the insects.

“The drought had been really hard on beekeepers,” Jeremy Jensen says, president of the Los Angeles County Beekeepers Association. In the past years, Jensen has had to feed honey to his bees just to keep them alive.

“The flowers haven’t had any nectar and we haven’t be able to produce honey,” he says. “But this year we’re really excited and optimistic about boosting up our bee numbers.” 

Today, new analysis points that nearly half of California is no longer in a drought. And while the holistic effects of the recent rains have yet to be determined, for Jensen and the beekeeping community here in Los Angeles, the benefits are both immediate and noticeable.

“I have seen that nectar and pollen are coming in very early, and that the bees are eager for a bumper year,” he says. 

Clarissa WeiI meet Jensen at his friend’s beekeeping shop, Valley Hive in Chatsworth, where he immediately greets me with a smile and a white beekeeping suit for me to put on.

While the breed that he works with, Italian honeybees, are on the gentler spectrum, Jensen doesn’t take any risks with visitors.

“It’s not fun being stung in the eye,” he says, speaking from experience.

I get in his truck and we drive a couple minutes up the hill to a field of bright yellow and purple wildflowers. On the field is a handful of white bee boxes. Jensen gets his smoker ready, suits up and proceeds to give me a tour.

“Each hive has 60,000 bees,” he says. “One queen, and the rest, 97% of them, are female. There are only a few males. The queen lays 2,000 eggs a day.”

He lightly smokes one of the boxes, which calms the bees, and lifts up a section. It is teeming with hundreds of thousands of bees, crawling around and making honey.

Clarissa WeiBees make honey by chewing collected nectar for about half an hour, then passing it to other worker bees, Jensen mentions. This process is repeated until the nectar turns into the mucilaginous substance known as honey and is then stored in honeycomb cells, which are sealed with wax.

It is their source of food and trained beekeepers are careful not to over-harvest. Not over-harvesting is paramount, Jensen stresses. For him, the bees are more important than the honey and the money.

One out of every three bites of food depends on bees, he notes. Furthermore, between $235 billion and $577 billion worth of annual global food production relies on pollinator contributions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Unfortunately, 40 percent of invertebrate pollinator species — especially bees and butterflies — are facing extinction. While commercial bee populations aren’t as vulnerable as feral ones, pesticide use has been linked to the the presence of mites on the bees and colony collapse disorder — a phenomenon that happens when the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear and leave behind a queen.

According to honeybee researcher Marla Spivak, in the United States today, we have half the number of managed hives compared to that of 1945 due to altered farming practices. Instead of layering fields with cover crops, natural fertilizers that fix nitrogen in the soil, we have opted for synthetic fertilizers. Cover crops were major sources of food for the bees.