The Buzz Around Town

Small-scale beekeeping provides a chance to learn the basics of
bees
n by Carolyn Straub

Special to South Valley Newspapers

A dozen golden honeybees swing in and out of two square beehives. Llagas Creek moves silently to the east, and fall-colored trees dot the three acres that Howard Honerlah shares in San Martin with his wife, Joyce.

Honerlah’s 13-year-old son, Christian, and daughters – Cheryle, 18, and Maryalice, 16 – belong to the Pacheco Pass 4-H Club. Along with raising a 4-H heifer, the siblings are budding beekeepers. Winter is nearing, and the 20,000 bees that claim each hive on Honerlah’s property have slowed down, just maintaining their lives.

Beekeeping has been a family tradition since Honerlah, 57, started it at the age of 14 in San Mateo, where he grew up and kept seven hives that contained “a lot of bees.” Honerlah enjoys the hobby and commends its educational value. His last worry is being stung by one of his workers.

“I’ve been doing this so long, I really don’t remember why and how I started. I know the nasty ones are the yellow jacket, hornets and wasps. They give essentially nothing commercially usable,” said Honerlah, a member of Gilroy Beekeepers’ Association. The association consists of 10 to 15 beekeepers, mostly hobbyists and small-scale honey farmers.

According to Wayne Pitts, association president, there are no small-scale honey farmers or beekeepers associations serving San Benito County. There is, however, a large-scale commercial bee business, Peavey Apiaries in Hollister, owned by Tom Peavey.

Honeybees were introduced to Santa Clara Valley from Europe in the 1850s. They are different from native bees, being social insects. Male drones fertilize the queen in spring, while female worker bees, her court, continue the work once the queen is impregnated, building combs and supplying honey for her food. Sometimes workers will produce a “royal jelly,” a substance secreted from the glands in the heads of worker bees. The duty of guard bees is to battle intruders.

“Last week there was a fight outside the hives; (the bee) was just not a member of the hive,” Honerlah said. “Of course, if you step on a honeybee, it will protect itself.”

Honerlah’s European variety honeybees aren’t producing as much honey as they will when flowers and trees bloom come spring. About 45 days from now, Honerlah will place quart-size sugar-nectar jars onto the lids of the hives to allow the bees to enter and eat the nectar-like substance, their main food.

This will stimulate the crowd, and the female workers will then begin assisting the queen, who is the only egg layer.

Honerlah uses a Langstroff beehive, which is a secure, moisture-proof, white wooden box shaped like a block with slats or frames housing thousands of honey-producing bees. Honerlah’s hives have 10 frames with a “queen excluder” to keep the queen from the surplus honey that can be sold for market. The brood box where the queen lays eggs is the hive.

“It’s a nursery,” he said. “The queen is recognizable because she has a bigger body – she’s essentially a baby factory. That’s her job.”

Honerlah’s boxes have a foundation that worker bees build out by secreting beeswax, eventually creating the honeycombs that contain honey for the queen and her larvae. A screen encloses the bottom of each box, forcing out force varroa mites, a major pest. Trachea, or internal mites, and a bacterial disease called foulbrood are other enemies, Honerlah said. A full hive can weigh 60 pounds.

Honeybees are attracted to dark colors, so when he must, Honerlah wears light-colored overalls, a helmet with white veil – similar to a safari hat – and elbow-length gloves. If he were to pull out the frames to check on the bees, he’d wear a beekeeper’s suit, which includes more articles of clothing than his getup.

About once a week, Honerlah picks up the lids to see how the colony is doing.

“If you visit much, it can be detrimental because they don’t like to be disturbed,” Honerlah said.

Nectar starts flowing around February or March. The bees communicate through a complex system of pheromones, chemical substances they secrete to “talk” and “dance.” Smoke is used to dull them while they’re working in a hive.

Although not much honey was produced last season, Honerlah introduces bees readily and is building a third hive body. It is legal in unincorporated Santa Clara County to have a hive, and many others in the area also have home hives, Honerlah said.

According to the Department of Agriculture, U.S. honey production increased by 1 percent in 2004 with a yield of 184 million pounds, averaging 72 pounds per reported colony.

“It’s like rock candy,” said Honerlah, as Cheryle held up a baggy containing a hardened chunk of pure honey. “Crystallizing is a natural process, and it lasts a long time.”

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