California is the place to be—if you're a bee. With more than a million colonies, the state represents 37 percent of the country's estimated 2.86 million colonies, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics from April 2021.
The term colony refers to a hive containing a queen honeybee and attendant worker bees and drones. Worker bees are female, while the male drones exist solely to mate with unfertilized queens.
Domestic bee populations are currently holding steady, despite drought and disease, but it's not happenstance.
- Photo By Cherish Whyte
- LOOKING GOOD Male drones do not possess stingers—unlike female worker bees—and feature eyes that are twice the size of worker bees.
"Bees are on the rebound because beekeepers are working harder than ever to keep the hives healthy," said Jeremy Rose, owner of San Luis Obispo-based California Bee Company (CBC).
With three-quarters of the state still suffering from a years-long drought—categorized by the USDA as "extreme" in San Luis Obispo, Monterey, and Santa Barbara counties—beekeepers have their work cut out for them.
"In a drought, bees are stressed because wildflowers do not produce nectar and pollen, which are their source of food," Rose explained.
The snowball effect impacts pollination of the state's more than 400 crops, representing the country's primary food source. Certain crops, such as almonds, depend entirely on bees—and California supplies 80 percent of the world's almonds.
A second even more destructive bee stressor is the Varroa mite.
"It is a parasitic mite that feeds on the fat body of the honeybees, causing them to be weakened and helping to spread deformed wing virus, which essentially leaves newly hatched bees without the ability to fly," said local beekeeper Erin Holden.
Holden and Rose are household names within the Central Coast's bee community. Both are Cal Poly grads, with respective degrees in animal science and fruit science. They also educate bee enthusiasts, assist fellow beekeeping operations, produce honey and honey-centric products, and proudly represent the Central Coast Beekeepers' Alliance, with Holden at its helm.
The group features a Facebook page with more than 1,000 members. Some dabble in the hobby, while others operate multiple apiaries—dedicated plots of land where hives and bees are raised.
"I've been a beekeeper in Atascadero for five years now," said Holden, who is also a registered nurse at French Hospital Medical Center in San Luis Obispo. "Beekeeping became the perfect hobby to fit into our lifestyle and to help our garden flourish. I read about beekeeping for a couple of years before I found the Central Coast Beekeepers' Alliance, which led me to some amazing mentors and the ability to take the plunge into beekeeping. I've been hooked ever since."
She's served as the group's president for three years. She also manages hive operations for other properties, including Paso Robles' Cass Winery; runs the winery's beekeeping education program; and teaches beekeeping classes at local libraries and in her home—"where beginners suit up and get hands-on in my hives," she said.
"I joke now [that] I almost like educating about beekeeping more than the act of beekeeping itself," she said.
- Photo Courtesy Of Queen Bee Caramels
- NUTTY NOUGAT Queen Bee Caramels proprietor Erin Holden ranks smoked almond with smoked sea salt among her top flavors. Upcoming seasonal varieties include pumpkin pie and spiced maple.
However, the golden end product merits all the hard work.
Holden said this year she has pulled about 7 gallons of honey and 20 pounds of cut comb from her nine hives.
Customers at local restaurants, including The Hatch in Paso Robles, use her honeycomb "for their amazing cocktails," she said. "I've also sold to the community through Facebook, but ... I'm mostly keeping my honey to use in my company, Queen Bee Caramels. That's been going great since I started this past June."
Holden creates several caramel varieties, from honey sea salt and chocolate coconut to chai and coffee. They can be purchased from her directly or at several locations: General Store Paso Robles, Caliwala Food Market and Deli in Santa Margarita, The Creston House and General Store in Creston, and SLO Provisions and Lincoln Market and Deli in San Luis Obispo.
While Holden's caramel company is presently a part-time, home-based passion, Rose's larger honey-producing operation is a full-time gig, with dozens of apiaries and approximately 2,000 hives.
While his current hives are thriving, it wasn't always the case.
"I started keeping bees in 2005 during the tragic colony collapse disorder," Rose said. "This was when commercial beekeepers were having up to 90 percent of their hives suddenly die off, and no one was sure what was going on.
"My friend Dan [Nelson] and I started CBC to breed bees that would be more robust and able to survive. Today, 16 years later, my friends, family, and I continue to work hard keeping bees and producing beautiful raw honey here in San Luis Obispo."
The company produces several varieties of pure, raw, unheated, and unfiltered honey, including artichoke blossom, sage, wildflower, and honeycomb chunk.
He primarily sells his products at See Canyon Fruit Ranch and SLO Food Co-op in San Luis Obispo, at farmers' markets throughout the region, and directly to consumers via his website. In addition, clients can purchase live local bees and pollination services.
Rose and another local beekeeper, Patrick Frazier, are also adjunct professors at Cal Poly. They teach a popular beekeeping class—with a long wait list—during the fall and spring quarters.
Not only does Rose think that beekeepers "serve the general good of all," but their byproduct also boasts health benefits.
- Photo Courtesy Of California Bee Company
- FLORAL BOUQUET Artichoke blossom honey is California Bee Company owner Jeremy Rose's current favorite. "It is literally my hives foraging nectar from a field of blooming artichoke flowers," he said.
"In addition to tasting great, many consumers of local unfiltered honey report dramatic improvement in seasonal allergies," Rose said. "The improvement [is] thought to be due to eating the small amounts of naturally present pollen grains in unfiltered honey."
On Oct. 23, Locals and tourists can learn more about beekeeping and honey's health benefits at Paso Robles' annual Golden Oak Honey and Pumpkin Festival.
Now in its eighth year, the event was founded by San Luis Obispo resident Jodi Tellier to generate publicity for the Beekeepers' Alliance, but it's expanded to include other local organizations and vendors.
Plus they'll get to taste local liquid gold.
"Consuming raw unprocessed honey is to experience true depth of flavor," Rose said said. "Each bee location results in honey that is a little different, and each ... year results in unique honey.
"For instance, last year out at our favorite place in the world, See Canyon Fruit Ranch (CBC's primary apiary), the bees made nearly pure apple blossom honey. We only produced a very small amount," he said, "and it had such a beautiful flavor reminiscent of the aroma of apple trees blooming in the spring." Δ
Flavor Writer Cherish Whyte is a bee-liever. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.