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.
I 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.
Bees 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.
“I got started off in this industry when I was aware of the bee decline,” Jensen, who started beekeeping five years ago with just ten hives, says. “Bees are dying off and I realized that I can make a difference so I started beekeeping. It turned into a passion to help save the environment.”
Today, Jensen is a commercial beekeeper and has roughly 200 hives. He went from a wide-eyed freshman at the Beekeepers Association meeting to becoming its president.
“My first meeting, I learned that bee hives are 97 degrees all year long. If it drops under 97, the brood will die. After learning that, I was hooked,” he says.
Jensen regularly rotates his hives between almonds, orange and avocado orchards. The different flowers impart a distinct flavor into his honey. But for those who don’t have the time and vehicle to lug around their hives, he recommends setting up shop in an urban backyard.
Urban beekeeping in Los Angeles was just legalized two years ago, overturning a 136-year-old ban. The conditions: one hive per 2,500 square feet of property in single family home neighborhoods, a water source, and a barrier of at least six-feet tall between hives and neighboring lots.
“I even put one in my grandmother’s backyard,” Jensen, who lives in the Valley, admits sheepishly. Since the law passed, membership and interest at the Los Angeles Beekeeper Association has skyrocketed, which Jensen calls a true community. Beekeepers swap tips and notes and help each other raise bees.
“It’s hundreds of years of beekeeping experience in one place,” he says, noting the association was established in 1873. “The thing that I love about the Los Angeles group is our diversity. Our diversity of people and our thousands of microclimates.”
Mid-conversation, he sees a swarm of bees on a nearby tree, scouting for a new location and interrupts the interview to take a look. When a hive is overcrowded, scout bees look for a place where a portion of the colony can go to set up a new home. This frees up space in the existing hive and ensures survival of the insects.
Jensen is truly delighted; it means he can reroute this swarm into a new hive box.
After all, now is the perfect time. For the first time since bees were legalized in Los Angeles County, there is now an abundance of wildflowers blooming all over thanks to the recent rains.
“You don’t keep bees because you want to get rich off of it, that’s for sure,” he says. “You do it because you love the bees.”