A soft hum gradually intensifies to an incessant buzz as Jack Ip opens one of the wooden boxes he keeps in his Los Altos backyard.
It’s the sound of thousands of bees taking flight, wondering what’s happening to their home. The swarm grows, which for most people is the signal to get out of the way.
But instead of heading for safer ground, Ip’s eyes light up.
He’s found the queen.
“There she is,” he cries out through his beekeeper suit, pinpointing her among a cluster of the bumbling yet docile insects. “Without the queen, the bees are no good.”
Ip isn’t alone in his enthusiasm. The Los Altos resident sells hives to a growing number of Bay Area residents – several here in Los Altos and Los Altos Hills.
Some beekeepers pursue it chiefly for the sweet byproduct, others more to stave off what researchers call Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a national phenomenon that’s surfaced recently.
In other words, honeybees are disappearing. And no one really understands why.
Because the insects carry pollen to and from plants and flowers, the mysterious decline in their population can affect crop yields across the spectrum.
Leading researcher May Berenbaum, Ph.D., head of the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign Department of Entomology, said that while there’s no consensus among researchers as to why the number of bees is dwindling, it’s definitely not because of the proliferation of cellphones, as some have posited.
“Among the hypotheses still under consideration are infection by a novel pathogen, viral overload and pesticide toxicity (or combinations of some or all of these factors),” she wrote in an email to the Town Crier.
While scientists conduct experiments and formulate theories, residents have taken the situation into their own hands – and the benefits may be widespread.
A blooming passion
For years, Cheryl Evans picked pomegranates from her backyard tree. The tart fruit made great jam, the Los Altos resident said. But she began noticing that her tree had less and less fruit, until finally it had none.
Approximately a year ago, she bought a couple of bee boxes.
“I noticed the bees were really around that tree,” she said. “And now I have more pomegranates this year.”
Evans, who plans to move into a LEED-certified Los Altos Hills home that she and her husband built, said that while the honey that her bees produce is a plus, cultivating hives plays into her environmental conscience.
“Our new home has geothermal heating, solar and rainwater reclamation,” she said. “The bee thing is in keeping with that.”
Evans’ garden, which includes broccoli, kale, garlic, several fruit trees and flowers, just to name a few, thrives. She attributes its success in part to having her buzzy buddies around.
“I have a veggie garden and orchard and thought it would be great to get more bees propagating and spreading more pollen around,” she said. “It’s very exciting – and we just made two gallons of honey. We’ve never had honey that tastes so good.”
Once she moves to her new home on an 11-acre property, where she already maintains two bee boxes, she plans to add more.
“It’s been great,” she said.
Doug Smith, a San Jose-based beekeeper, installed Evans’ boxes. He’s been involved with beekeeping for approximately seven years through the Santa Clara Valley Bee Guild. In his experience, there are three reasons why people develop a passion for it: “Pollination and honey, people have heard about CCD and a lot of people have childhood memories of a family member who kept bees and they’ve always wanted them.”
Demand appears to be growing. Smith said that when he first joined the guild, there were approximately 50 members. These days, a meeting draws four times that.
“There are a lot of different people, different ages,” he said. “A lot of engineers seem to like beekeeping – there’s a lot of problem-solving that goes into it.”
Ip, the Los Altos hive seller, works at Cisco Systems as a project manager. When he discusses bees, it’s clear he finds their behavior fascinating.
“I could squat in front of the hive for hours and watch it – if I had the time,” he said.
Ip said he’s trying to bolster the local bee population through hive adoptions. While he hasn’t noticed CCD taking its course as harshly in Northern California, he mentors nearly 30 amateur keepers throughout the Bay Area who share his dedication. He also coordinates a bee-removal service (he calls them “rescues”) and often preserves the bees afterward.
“Bees are fascinating creatures, and we have a lot to learn from them,” he said. “It’s amazing how a colony networks.”
Ip said his father sparked his six-year involvement with the insects. Tack started the family tradition decades ago while living in China.
Keeping bees isn’t all a pot of honey. It does require some work.
Ip said he teaches novice keepers the basics. Often it’s mismanagement that leads to the downfall of an otherwise healthy hive.
Smith’s advice is to make sure bees have enough food. Mites can deteriorate a colony and predatory bees – like yellowjackets, hornets and wasps – can endanger a hive.
Berenbaum suggests planting the right stuff to nurture a bee bounty.
“Among the easiest things to do are planting flowers that are good sources of nectar and pollen (instead of ornamentals that provide no resources for bees), tolerating ‘weeds’ in lawns that may actually provide food for bees, and buying honey from local beekeepers (local beekeepers can’t make honey without local bees!),” she wrote.
Bee in your bonnet?
Don’t sweat it
OK, so you can’t put bees on leashes or teach them not to fly over a fence into a neighbor’s yard. And striving for a colony’s growth could rub nearby residents the wrong way.
But those interviewed who keep bees found their neighbors don’t seem to mind.
“We have a swimming pool and at certain times of the year, we have a few more around the pool,” said Los Altos Hills resident Don Matsen, who has lived next to an amateur beekeeper for close to 40 years. “We haven’t had any real problems, no stinging.”
Ip said his bees are tranquil and would only sting if given a reason. Also, he’s observed that his bees fly upward as they exit the hive. By the time they get over a neighbor’s fence, they’re far above anyone’s head.
Kimberly Thompson, a Los Altos resident, also keeps bees in her backyard. She said that while they don’t usually sting, it has happened.
“One stung my nephew, but he has a fear (of them) and they say bees can smell fear,” she said. “We’re not afraid of bees – they’re just part of our life.”
Still, a bee sting can trigger an allergic reaction in some people.
Los Altos Hills City Councilman Gary Waldeck said bees could pose a liability if there were an incident.
“Say someone who’s allergic gets nailed – who’s responsible?” he asked. “The town because (beekeeping) is authorized? The beekeeper because they had (bees)?”
Scientists and hobbyists contribute to saving the bee population.
On the research end, Berenbaum said they’re making headway.
“We’ve been investigating the ways that honeybees detoxify pesticides. In 2006, the sequencing of the honeybee genome revealed that honeybees have far fewer genes that code for enzymes than break down pesticides,” she wrote. “We have some evidence that the relatively small number of enzymes available for detoxifying pesticides may underlie the vulnerability of honeybees to pesticides encountered in combinations.”
Ip, along with residents who propagate the benefits of beekeeping, said he plans to keep spreading the word.
“My thing is not honey or production,” he said. “I want to keep educating the public about bees.”
To read Ip’s bee blog, visit www.losaltoshoneybees.wordpress.com.
For more information on Smith’s bee services, call (408) 802-1331.