In a Palo Alto backyard on a sunny July day, Allen Larson brushed his gloved hand through layers of oozing honeycomb and humming honeybees, rifling through drones, larvae, workers and wax, his white suit and screened headgear protecting him from the increasingly irritated insects whose turf he was invading.
"Ahhh, there she is!" he finally exclaimed in triumph. He'd found the queen.
Her royal majesty (whom Larson described as a particularly comely monarch) -- longer, darker and shinier than the hive mates surrounding her -- is one of perhaps 30,000 honeybees residing in this one hive alone. And as interest in backyard beekeeping blossoms, hives like hers are springing up all over town.
There's no official count of beekeepers in the Palo Alto area but they -- and their bees -- are out there, pollinating gardens, collecting honey and in some cases even selling it.
Though beekeeping has occurred for millennia, with the emergence of the Slow Food and locavore movements, along with recognition of the vital role bees play in a healthy environment and their recent endangerment (see sidebar), interest in backyard beekeeping has been on the rise in recent years. Santa Clara Valley Bee Guild member Wayne Pitts said official membership in his guild now hovers in the hundreds, up from double digits 10 years ago. The Beekeepers Guild of San Mateo County boasts similar numbers. But many more beekeepers do not belong to any organization.
"There are probably more beekeepers than anyone would think. Most people keep bees in their backyard and no one notices," Los Altos beekeeper and blogger Jack Ip wrote in an email. "I know people who I sold hives to and mentor aren't in these local clubs."
Grocers such as Country Sun Natural Foods and Draeger's Market sell honey from Double J Apiaries in Los Altos Hills, while Pitts sells his Uvas Gold brand at the Palo Alto Farmers Market each weekend. Common Ground Garden Supply and Master Gardeners of Santa Clara County host workshops on backyard beekeeping, and Common Ground's Patricia Becker said that while she's been selling local honey in the store for years, interest in beekeeping supplies and classes is definitely ascending. Restaurant maven Jesse Cool has recently adopted two hives from Ip, while Ohlone Elementary School keeps two educational hives on campus, with guidance from Pitts.
According to the National Honey Board, there are between 139,600 and 212,000 beekeepers in the United States. Ninety-five percent of those are hobbyists with fewer than 25 hives.
Larson (www.getbees.net), a professional beekeeper who sets up hives, assists with maintenance and extracts honey for clients all over northern California, said he has around a dozen customers in the Palo Alto area, including Catherine, at whose home he was working on a recent morning.
Catherine, who asked that her last name not be disclosed, is one of Palo Alto's "underground" beekeepers, who fly under the radar, producing honey for personal use and wary of potential attention from non-bee-friendly neighbors. The city's municipal code permits residents to have up to two hives on their property but only if adjacent neighbors consent in writing.
Catherine, who's kept bees for three years, hasn't had any complaints yet but said she'd be devastated if forced to give up her hives and the delectable, golden syrup -- useful for sweetening everything from tea to baked goods to tomatoes or eating straight from the comb -- they give her.
"The honey is to die for," she said. "Summer honey tastes completely different than winter honey. I love the product."
Larson guarantees his clients at least 25 pounds of honey per hive per year but said most average between 30 and 50. Catherine said her family eats three pounds a week.
Scott Mitic, his wife, Katie, and their sons, Dylan and Tyler, ages 7 and 5, have made beekeeping and honey a family project. Their Suburban Blend honey club provides honey to friends and family, as well as to a few dozen subscribers and customers who purchase it from the entrepreneurial Mitic boys. They sell it for $5 a jar from their Old Palo Alto driveway. Mitic said he hopes to be the biggest honey producer in town ("we want the bragging rights") and added that another resident -- Apple's Steve Jobs -- is rumored to have hives of his own.
The Mitics have two hives in their yard, another at the city's community garden near the Main Library and a few more scattered through the area in friends' yards. They've had nothing but positive responses from neighbors, with their honey getting a welcome reception.
"My neighbors love us; they make out quite handsomely and reap the reward. It's become more of a neighborhood science experiment," Mitic said.
Because the bees are drawing nectar from a variety of gardens and wildflowers, their honey is a true suburban blend, giving the business its name.
"The flower gardens around Palo Alto provide a wonderful, fertile environment for bees. Professional beekeepers grow crops around the bees to flavor the honey but in our case it's a blend ... from citrus, lavender, rosemary and a number of blossoming trees, singing with the bees in the branches." The different nectar collected by the bees shows through in the product.
"That tree that's blossoming right now is going to impact the taste of the honey," he said. "You can taste the changing of seasons. When you make it yourself it all tastes pretty good."
A few years ago, Mitic was inspired to take up beekeeping after marveling at the high price of honey in the grocery store.
"It's a really amazing process. To get started all you need is about $100 of equipment, a box, some frames and foundation, then you obviously need the bees," he said.
Domestic bees most commonly belong to the genus Apis and were originally introduced to the Americas from Europe. Mitic ordered his initial batch through the mail.
"That certainly didn't excite the postal workers," he said of the unusual postal order. "It's one of the most amazing things you'll ever see; the box was literally vibrating with thousands of bees."
Once the supplies are in place, "Mother Nature takes care of the rest. As long as the queen is in the center, the bees will immediately start to take care of her," he said.
A honey beehive is a complex society, ruled by one queen, who is raised to her position by the hive, fed special "royal jelly" (a nutritional secretion for larvae) and set apart from the rest in a special "queen cup" cell. When mature, she mates with the males on one or several "nuptial flights," then retires to the hive to lay the eggs that will become the future generations of bees -- up to 2,000 eggs a day. The industrious worker bees (adult females who lay only unfertilized eggs) gather the nectar, build the comb and feed their hive mates. The male bees are the drones -- bigger and fuzzier than the workers and lacking a stinger.
Worker bees forage daily for nectar, which they bring back to the hive to be placed into the "honey cells" they've created, Ip explained.
"Honey is kept in the cells until the moisture level is right, before the bees cover the cells with wax, capping the cells for storage. ... When capped, we know it's time to harvest -- that's if they have excess," he said. Since the bees need honey to survive, keepers are careful to always leave enough in the hive come harvest time.
Smoke (mostly burning leaves) is used by keepers to calm the bees and mask the scent of their alarm pheromone. Most beekeepers use a series of stacked boxes as hives, with removable frames inside on which the bees construct their honeycomb. Raw honey can be eaten right off the comb (the wax is edible, too), but most keepers use an extractor (a centrifuge-like device) to separate the liquid for bottling. Since honey is largely sterile, it doesn't require much filtering or regulation and won't quickly spoil.
Honey production "depends on the weather and a thousand other things," Pitts said. The Gilroy resident keeps several hives in Palo Alto. Customers who purchase his honey at the Palo Alto Farmers Market have asked him to place hives on their properties to benefit their gardens. He takes care of the maintenance and extracts the honey a few times a year.
Pitts likes his honey the way he likes his beer: dark.
"The darker the honey the more flavor it has. The darker honey comes from later in the season, picking up more of the minerals," he said. Others prefer the milder, lighter taste of early honey.
And while you don't have to be a rocket scientist to keep bees, in Pitts' case it hasn't hurt: His day job is working at Lockheed Martin. He also works with Ohlone science teacher Tanya Buxton on maintaining the school's hives and speaking to students about bees. In general, kids "are really, really interested in bees. There's a few of them in each class that are scared," he said, but the majority are fascinated. One of Ohlone's hives is used for honey production while the other is for observation and teaching.
"I teach the kids all about the cycle of the bees, and they help in the honey harvesting," Buxton wrote in an email, adding that a hive was lost last year due to campus construction.
"I repopulated that hive and also have a hive behind glass for the students to see the bees coming and going and observe the bee dance and find the queen," she said.
Though bees have a reputation as fearsome creatures, Mitic said that's undeserved, especially in the case of honeybees, who sting only to protect their hive and are generally quite docile. All beekeepers get their fair share of stings but most seem not too bothered.
"It's relaxing," Pitts said of tending the hives. "It forces you to move slowly. I don't even wear a suit. If you move with patience the bees tend to leave you alone."
"I have to thank my dad for getting me into beekeeping. We are partners, working the hives together," Ip said of his father, who kept bees during his youth in Hong Kong.
"Bees are neat creatures. Trying to learn and understand them is just half of the fun. Going into the hive and seeing their home is another. And for my dad, seeing the queen during a hive inspection puts a huge smile on his face," he said.
When a hive grows too crowded, a new queen is raised by the hive and the old queen flees, followed by a large group of her minions, to find a new home. This phenomenon is known as swarming. While a roving cloud of buzzing bees hovering nearby may look frightening, Catherine said swarming bees are at their most gentle, since they lack a hive to defend and are heavily laden with honey.
"A swarm is really beautiful," she said, comparing the sound to the resonant "om" chant performed during yoga and meditation.
Sometimes honeybees swarm and settle down in places where they're not welcome, such as in recycling bins or ceilings. In those cases, Ip and his father are ready to step in, rescue the bees by trapping them with a special vacuum and find them a new home. The Ips, along with other bee enthusiasts, frequently receive calls to perform bee relocations from all over the Bay Area. They recently removed a hive from a Palo Alto office building, and Ip said he works almost every weekend during the summer.
Though bee removals are hard work, "it's important to rescue the bees because most people don't know what to do with them. If I and other beekeepers don't provide the service then people will call pest control and the bees will get sprayed and killed," he said. "We don't charge much, and most of the money goes back toward the bees. We just like to go and remove the bees from the structure and capture the queen."
Ip keeps a blog chronicling his beekeeping adventures at www.losaltoshoneybees.wordpress.com.
"Just watching them is very enjoyable, seeing them grow a whole network. Beekeeping is fun and rewarding; everyone should do it," he said.