Mountain View Voice

Eating Out - December 16, 2011

Backyard beekeeping: big gains for little effort

Besides honey and beeswax, there is an intriguing world inside a hive

by Daniel DeBolt

Information Technology consultant Anita Rosen spends her days teaching people about the beehive known as the Worldwide Web, but prefers spending her free time on low tech pursuits, including a real beehive in her Mountain View backyard.

Rosen says she spends about 10 hours a year on her hobby, but reaps up to 14 gallons of honey a year, plus hand lotion made from beeswax and some other satisfactions that are a bit harder to quantify. The hive is about the size of a small oven but can hold as many bees as there are people in Mountain View.

Unlike her dogs and her garden, the bees don't need to be fed, watered or walked.

It is the easiest hobby in the world, she said to a group who attended a Mountain View Reads Together event about raising bees and chickens in urban areas. Usually, "you don't have to do much except take their honey," since bees produce much more than they need, she said.

Rosen, a student of bees, is fascinated with their behavior. She can tell you that a queen bee can produce 2,000 eggs a day, that the bees can communicate by dancing, and that when traffic in and out of the hive becomes too heavy, the bees somehow know that it's time for some to split off and fly away in a swarm. That's how Rosen got her bees, by catching a swarm.

She caught beekeeping fever after reading "The Secret Life of Bees," a novel about a group of female beekeepers.

"Most people don't have any idea about all the complicated life going on inside a hive," says one of the book's characters named August. "Bees have a secret life we don't know anything about."

The local experts who know all about that "secret life" are the Santa Clara Valley Beekeepers Guild, which Rosen joined five years ago to get some lessons in beekeeping.

Rosen started by putting her name on a list of Guild members interested in catching a swarm, which become available pretty regularly. Swarms are usually seen as a nuisance wherever they go, and if you are inclined to give them a call, Guild members will remove a swarm for free.

Indicating a growing trend, "there's a lot more hobbyists" and more women than when she joined the Guild. Then it was almost entirely an organization of professional beekeepers who were men. She soon began to mentor other new hobbyists, six of them so far.

Beekeeping would be a risky business for any of the highly allergic people who go into potentially fatal anaphylactic shock when stung. Rosen is not allergic, but has had her share of stings. It's almost guaranteed you will be stung if you open up a hive without a protective suit, hood and gloves, she said.

"I got stung a lot more at the beginning," Rosen said. She has since learned not to be so "cocky." Once, a bee got into her hood when she had not fastened it properly, resulting in the side of her head becoming swollen from the sting. Bees can only sting once, and then they die, she said.

Much of the expense of getting started in beekeeping is buying a suit to prevent stings. Other equipment includes the special wood boxes that make a hive, and one of the oldest beekeeping tools, a smoker. Smoke calms the bees by causing them to begin feeding on honey as if to prepare for a fire, and in doing so it extends the bee's torso, keeping it from using its stinger. Rosen said that if someone were to buy all the equipment new, it would run about $300.

Some prospective beekeepers have expressed concern about bothering their neighbors with an increased bee presence, as a single hive can house up to 75,000 bees that are constantly coming and going in the summer.

But Rosen claims, "No one notices anything."

It helps that Rosen has a 7-foot fence around her backyard, which forces the bees to fly higher than they otherwise would. She approached her neighbors after the fact to tell them, with a jar of honey in hand. "They all think it's the greatest thing," she said.

Now everyone she knows has a jar of her honey. Some say it tastes like Mountain View because it tastes like the smell of flowers in the area.

Local honey is said to help with seasonal allergies as well, she adds. "It really cuts down on your allergies because it has a way of building up your immunity," she said.

The wax from the hive can be used for candles or as a grease-like lubricant. Rosen uses it for a hand lotion. With the help of a solar cooker, she melts the wax in the sun over a cheesecloth filter and then mixes it with canola oil. The result is a substance that's hard like a bar of soap, but comes off in a film. She warns that pure beeswax is "the gooiest substance" and won't easily come off your hands.

Rosen says beekeeping is the ultimate conversation starter. Bringing a swarm into your life might also bring more social interaction for yourself.

"I thought this was one of those things only professionals could do," she said. "But I collected my swarm and now I'm helping people."

The Santa Clara Valley Beekeepers Guild can be found online at beeguild.org.

Email Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

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