After Sonoma County fires, beekeepers prepare for difficult winter

Among the questions we are still asking about the impact of the October fires is, “What about the bees?”

A comprehensive answer will unfold over time, as bees and their keepers have three aspects of impact to deal with, destruction of colonies by the fires, loss of fall and winter forage, and long-term exposure to smoke. For wild bees, there’s a fourth, potentially catastrophic, impact: Loss of habitat. A beekeeper can build a new box for his colonies but it takes years for a tree, for example, to develop the sort of nutritious hollow that wild bees need in order to thrive.

For now we know that many hobbyist beekeepers lost their hives, although some randomly survived, like lone houses in otherwise destroyed neighborhoods.

Joey Smith of Let’s Go Farm lost his bees to the Tubbs Fire, which took his farm and home, too. It was particularly devastating as his colonies were thriving this year, he explained, doing the best since he began beekeeping.

Hector Alvarez, Sonoma County’s biggest professional beekeeper, lost ?52 hives. He keeps between 600 and ?700 hives but loses as much as 25 to ?30 percent each year because of colony collapse.

“It will be a hard year,” predicted Alvarez, who comes from generations of beekeepers. Among the challenges: He needs to buy equipment, build new boxes, re-establish more colonies, and find locations with enough forage for his hives.

Alvarez follows the bloom, moving his hives from south to north in the spring, so that the bees may pollinate specific crops, but only locally. For professional beekeepers, pollination is their primary endeavor; honey and bees wax are secondary sources of income. The largest beekeepers begin in early spring in the south, traveling north sometimes all the way through Canada. Without such pollination, countless crops would fail.

It is hard to measure the financial impact of bees on our local economy because pollination itself is hard to quantify. In 2016, apiary products such as honey, wax, and the renting of hives for pollination, had a value of $263,200, up from $97,400 in 2015, according to Sonoma County Crop Reports. But this modest figure does not account for the thousands of stone fruit, apples, tomatoes, zucchini, pumpkins, flowers, and more that bees pollinate.

Nationwide, bee pollination contributes about $30 billion to our economy. The USDA categorizes bees as livestock. They are as essential to us as water and oxygen, or nearly so.

Surviving colonies have many challenges to deal with now. Fall is a time when bees must grow from their larval stage into foragers before winter sets in, a process that takes six weeks. Summer bees live just seven weeks, but fall bees live for about seven months, with tremendous chores to do throughout their long lives.

The bees that survived within fire zones face a loss of forage, not only the wild and cultivated plants that would normally be blooming now but also plants like Eucalyptus that bloom throughout the winter and early spring.

Yet bees adjust. Certain colonies are already showing evidence that bees are flying greater distances than usual to find pollen and nectar.

The big unknown is the impact of sustained exposure to smoke.

“It takes a colony of bees about 24 hours to return to normal after it has been subjected to just 5 minutes of smoke,” Michael Thiele, a natural biodynamic beekeeper, said.

“What will be the impact of 14 days of exposure?” he asked, adding that no one knows yet.

“I feel ridiculously lucky,” Lizanne Pastore, a physical therapist who lives in Glen Ellen said.

Pastore, who is a member of the family that owns Oak Hill Farm and the Red Barn, lives behind B. R. Cohn Winery, at Old Hill Ranch, owned by her mother-in-law, Anne Teller, the matriarch of Oak Hill Farm.

She began keeping bees seven years ago, developing colonies that could thrive during Glen Ellen’s long dry summers. During the drought, there was even less pollen and nectar than usual and her bees adapted well. She keeps six hives, with three in two separate areas.

She and her farmer-vintner husband, Will Bucklin, lost several outbuildings, including one of three guest cottages on their land, along with his studio, office and all of his records.

Pastore credits old vineyards, which served as a fire break, with saving their home.

But what saved her bees?

“It was extremely dramatic,” Pastore said, as she described how the fire came within just a foot or so of the hives, with heat so intense that it melted some of the wax and makeshift plastic covers. There was closely-cut grass surrounding the two apiaries and the approaching fire, which literally surrounded the hives, ran out of fuel just in time.

“All the hives are doing well” Pastore said about what she found during her final pre-winter inspection.

The bees were already replacing the honey they ate during the fire, something that smoke triggers them to do in case they must flee, with fresh nectar.

Pastore collected honey for the first time this year and she has no plans to sell it. Her bees typically do most of their foraging in the spring, when pollen and nectar are abundant, and then live through the dry summer on the honey they have made. But this year, with late rains, the bees foraged all summer and by early fall there was an abundance of honey. She will give away what she doesn’t use herself.

Come spring, Pastore plans to give bees –– survivor stock, as these bees are called –– to those in the area who have lost theirs, emphasizing the importance of location when it comes to establishing thriving colonies.

“We are adamant that we should not get bees from elsewhere,” she explained, adding that it is a policy of the Sonoma County Beekeepers Association to discourage bees from other areas. The membership organization has one of the most active bee-sharing programs in the United States.

Michael Thiele, who lives in Sebastopol, sees an opportunity amid the loss.

“We have a great opportunity right now to learn from wild honeybees,” he said.

Thiele is studying wild honeybees and bees raised in hives made of natural materials, such as logs.

“Research shows wild honeybees in unmanaged environments are tremendously resilient and have great vitality. I want to know why,” said Thiele.

One crucial role of wild bees is helping to maintain a strong gene pool in managed colonies. As bees swarm, their virgin queen avoids mating with drones from her own colony and instead mates with drones from both managed and wild colonies, who hang out in what is called the drone zone, about 200 feet above the ground.

A drone, as male bees are called, has one job: to mate. When he does, it is the end of the line for him, as he dies during the process. In years of abundant honey, worker bees will let the drones eat but in a lean year, they will toss their brothers out of the hive, tearing off their wings if necessary to keep them from coming back.

Michele Anna Jordan hosts “Mouthful, Smart Talk About Food, Wine, & Farming” on Sunday evenings at 6 on KRCB 91.1 FM. Email her at

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