Kendal Sager is sweet on bees. Not only does she keep hives and reap the rewards by selling their honey, she also is a strong advocate for bees.
"They’re just such fascinating creatures to learn about," the Los Altos beekeeper said.
Sager is eager to spread the word. She leads classes - for kids and adults - on beekeeping, products that can be made with honey and beeswax, and the busy creatures themselves.
Sager sells her honey and related products at fairs and through her website, but her main focus is education. She teaches classes at elementary schools, Hidden Villa and through Los Altos Hills Parks and Recreation.
Sager was initially inspired on a first-grade field trip to Hidden Villa, where she "made cream into butter, and ate things from the organic garden. … I came away from that thinking, I’m going to be a farmer someday. And my folks were like, Sure you are, sweetie."
She didn’t become a farmer - opting instead for a degree in computer science - but remained passionate about nature education.
"When I went to school in Seattle, I did children’s field trips at the Washington Park Arboretum," Sager said. "So when I moved back to the area and I had a yard, I was looking for the easiest farm critter that I could keep in my own backyard."
After a bit of research, she discovered the answer was honeybees.
"Some of my friends in college had bees," Sager said, "and I was amazed at how calm they were - they were so different than I thought they would be."
Sager was working at DreamWorks Animation making children’s films when the company relocated to Los Angeles. It was then that she thought of turning her love of nature into a job. A class at a Bay Area honey farm taught her the basics. In 2011, with one hive in a side yard, Sager began her beekeeping.
Bees as a family affair
According to Sager, beekeeping can be a great activity for families, and kids are thrilled to get involved with it.
"I bring some of my observation hives into children’s classrooms and they’re always so fascinated," she said. "It’s such an interesting thing to watch. Even from the outside (of the observation hive), you can see what colors of pollen are coming in."
She pointed out that bee suits are available in children’s sizes; her friend’s 2-year-old wears one that Sager described as "a body net for a toddler."
She warned that children (and pets) have to learn to respect the hive early on. When looking for places to keep her bees, Sager’s main consideration is, "Do you have a space in your yard that’s not going to force an interaction between the people and the bees? If you have young children who might not know the consequences of running over and pounding on the beehive or something like that, it might not be the best thing. Or if you have little dogs that have no fear of anything."
The Fiegl family of Los Altos Hills has kept bees for a few years. Seven-and-a-half-year-old Wolfgang has been participating in the activity since he was 3. The St. Nicholas Catholic School second-grader enjoys showing off the hives to visitors, said his mother, April Zhong Fiegl, and is comfortable around the bees.
"He would stand right in front the hives and watch them (go) in and out. … Our bees seem to know him well, and they are very friendly to him," she said.
As for actually working with them, that will happen soon.
"My son has been observing the harvesting process," Zhong Fiegl said. "I believe he is ready to help out during the next summer harvest."
The family has seen an increase in production from its organic vegetable garden since keeping bees.
"We very much appreciate our bees," Zhong Fiegl said. "I believe it is the best way to educate young children to become an environmentally responsible citizen."
Sager’s post on Nextdoor.com looking for hive space led her to the Hamblin family, whose Los Altos yard has now been home to two hives for a year. John Hamblin, an avid gardener, was drawn to the idea of the bees’ pollination help.
Cameron Hamblin, who homeschools daughter Elizabeth, was looking for ways to supplement the science curriculum.
"I asked Kendal if we could coordinate when she comes to check on the hives so that Elizabeth could learn about the bees, their environment and how the honey is made and harvested," Cameron said.
Elizabeth helps Kendal examine the hive, the condition of the bees and the queen’s status, along with the amount of honey produced. She has also helped harvest the honey at Kendal’s home - where they go through the entire extraction process.
The Hamblins’ other school-age daughters have had less exposure to the bees because they are usually at school when Sager is there.
"My almost-2-year-old daughter is starting to wander the yard more, so we’re trying to educate her quickly on keeping her distance," Cameron said.
There have been a couple of exciting times since the bees arrived.
"We’ve had at least two swarms, and at first it seems like it’s a scene from a horror flick involving killer bees," Cameron said, "but mostly they’re circulating in a large ball to make sure they don’t lose sight of the queen as she finds them a new spot."
Cameron noted that having the hives in their yard has been a good experience.
"We just enjoy having them," she said. "The yard feels more alive with them buzzing around."
However, the Hamblins aren’t sure if they’re ready to manage the hives on their own.
"Kendal is a great teacher, but bees are very sensitive and I think we need a few more years of experience/exposure to contemplate taking that on," Cameron said.
Although hives can grow quite large, Sager said beekeeping can still be a weekend activity. She explained that during the first year, bees expand their population and beekeepers may not get any honey. But in the second year, Sager said she usually yields approximately 100 pounds of honey.
Waiting for the honey harvest until fall and collecting it all at once saves on cleanup time throughout the year, but it’s still a major project.
"It makes for a big weekend production," said Sager, vice president of the Beekeepers’ Guild of San Mateo County. "It usually takes a few hours to harvest it all."
Advantages of local honey
Many allergy-sufferers extol the benefits of local honey, and it makes sense to Sager.
"I haven’t seen a scientific study on this, but I know people who swear by it," she said. "It is in line with a lot of allergy treatments - a low, consistent exposure to the allergen."
But it’s important to know exactly what you’re allergic to. Sager explained that "a lot of tree pollens are wind-pollinated and not bee-pollinated. So these tree pollens that are everywhere and blow around. … It’s not something the bees are eating." But the bees eat a lot of things that people can be allergic to, so getting local honey - especially honey produced at a time when you suffer the worst allergies - can help.
For more information on Sager’s products, classes and other events, visit kendalsbees.com. b