Alameda Bees

Donna Layburn, CEO of Alameda Natural Grocery, checks on the bees currently lodging at the Alameda Marketplace rooftop bee hotel.

Donna Layburn, CEO of Alameda Natural Grocery, checks on the bees currently lodging at the Alameda Marketplace rooftop bee hotel.

AID FOR THE APIS

An Alameda grocer is looking out for the bees

BY ERIK FERRY | PHOTOS BY OLIVIA VIGO

Let’s just face it, there’s nothing better to spread on a slice of artisanal pistachio levain than some fresh, aromatic, local honey. Praised be the baker, and praised be the bee.

In case you haven’t heard, about a third of our most important food crops—from pistachios grown in huge commercial orchards to those heirloom cucumbers and squash in your garden—are dependent to some extent on Apis mellifera (aka the honeybee) for essential pollination. That’s good reason to be aware of the bad times honeybees are facing and be active in helping them weather the storm.

The best understanding at the moment is that the problems stem from a combination of environmental stresses and poor agricultural practices. Most obviously hurting the bees are the vampire-like varroa mites (think ginormous ticks for bees), but also implicated are crop monocultures; the infamous, widely used neonicotinoid pesticides; and stresses causing reductions in flowering plants. Before the early 2000s, beekeepers figured on approximately 15% annual hive mortality, but recent rates have been closer to 50%. Planting more bee-friendly plants, favoring organic farming methods, and following sound apicultural practices can help our small allies get their moxie back.

And it can be a neighborhood thing as well.

Which takes us to the idyllic neighborhoods of Alameda and the aisles of the Alameda Marketplace, where we stroll past specialty shops proffering everything from Marin County chèvre and grassfed bison steaks to organic leeks and wines worthy of worship.

Stopping by shelves holding jars of uber-local honey, we meet a local honey heroine, Donna Layburn, CEO of Alameda Natural Grocery (ANG). True to her Northern California counterculture roots, this self-described “earth mother” is a strong proponent of local beekeeping. She networks with a dozen urban apiculturists tending bees around the island, and her store provides a market for the 500 pounds to over a half-ton of honey they might harvest annually. Store staff also work to create knowledgeable customers who ensure that the product flies off the shelves soon after each twice-yearly harvest is made available.

Donna and her enthusiastic employees have organized, bankrolled, and distributed information about honeybee conservation, along with several hundred packets of mixed native wildflower seeds that will bloom into the kinds of flowers that bees love, to a range of Alameda schools, youth groups, interested individuals, and civic organizations. After copious winter rains, the island is now coming ablaze with patches of gorgeous indigenous blossoms in front yards, vacant lots, public parks, and community gardens.

“People in Alameda are wanting to know more about how to protect our environment and do the right things,” Donna says, speaking of the store’s weekly Friday-night lecture and discussion series on issues linking food, the environment, and sustainability. “We get well over a hundred people on average to our lectures. At the one about bees, they had endless questions and wouldn’t let Mike off the stage.”

Donna-Layburn-and-Mike-Vigo

Donna Layburn and her wing-man beekeeper Mike Vigo make the biannual honey harvesting into a sweet event for customers.

The “Mike” to whom she refers is Mike Vigo, Donna’s wing-man on beekeeping and the founder-proprietor of Bee Ranchers, an Orinda-based enterprise providing support services for home and small-scale beekeepers. Mike and Donna began collaborating five years ago, after a mutual friend suggested Mike as someone with the practical chops needed to help Donna get more involved in apiculture.

“I blame my daughters for getting me into this business,” Mike reveals. “My eldest was involved in a 4-H project involving bees back about 2010, and insisted that we get some hives. I was a little resistant at first, but that’s a battle I’m glad I lost. Bee stings are next to unknown at our place, and as a family we immediately became enthralled with the whole process . . . the upshot is, I began doing it full-time for others, starting right about the time Donna and I met.”

Honey harvest at Alameda Natural Grocery (

Honey harvest at Alameda Natural Grocery (

According to Mike, Alameda’s hives are more productive than those in most other parts of the Bay Area. He surmises that the cool bayside temperatures, abundant greenery, and summer fog keep plants hydrated and blooming longer, blunting the famine conditions that drought has wrought on colonies in less-favored microclimates. He mentions a recent nationwide survey of suburban communities and the impacts of residential landscaping on honeybee populations: Preliminary results released last season listed Alameda among the regions most favorable for honeybees.

Donna concurs and surmises a manner of attention in Alameda as a contributing factor: “Consciousness about the environment, the effects of synthetic chemicals, and a desire to have wholesome food is already high in Alameda, and it’s growing. Attendance at our weekly lectures proves that, let alone everything that I’m hearing in the community. Residents want to support local production and businesses. And kids really get it. They want to plant the native flowers, get their families to stop using synthetic pesticides on their yards, buy organics, the whole thing,” she says.

Mike concurs, saying that his customers have complementary objectives in wanting home hives: “It’s a way for them to bring a slice of nature into their lives, support honeybees, get honey from their backyards to have along with their home-grown veggies. Many of them tell me about having grandparents who kept hives, and how fascinated they were as kids to witness the bees just doing their thing.”

Mike leads the way up to the Alameda Marketplace rooftop one sun-burnished November afternoon for a look at Donna’s four hives. Two are abuzz with air traffic, and the combs are chock-a-block with honey and beeswax. Plying a hand-held canister, which puffs anesthetizing smoke into the series of stacked panels comprising the hives, Mike levers out a few panels to check production. He observes how an excluder for the relatively large queen restricts brood rearing to the lower levels, allowing the smaller workers to devote the upper panels entirely to honey production. All good there.

But the other two hives are a different story. Only a few months before, these had also been thriving, Mike says. But now they have become the silent abode of a few mummified bee corpses, scavenging ants, and an interloping black widow spider, which receives little mercy from Mike. Varroa mites had done it; them and the opportunistic diseases that infect the bees via the wounds where the mites have fed. The plan is to re-colonize the hives in the spring.

A month later, visitors to the Marketplace are treated to a honey harvest. Mike has honeycomb panels from Donna’s healthy hives and a number of others from Alameda’s informal backyard bee collective. Wielding a triangular tool shaped rather like a mason’s trowel, Mike proceeds to heat the blade and use it to neatly slice the caps off the beeswax cells holding the fragrant amber bounty. As an admiring crowd gathers, Mike loads the trimmed panels sidelong into a portly stainless steel centrifuge reminiscent of a top-loading clothes washer. A flip of the switch, some loud whirring and vibration, and the spigot at the contraption’s base releases a thick stream of honey through a strainer and one-by-one into a waiting legion of glass jars. Onlookers begin peppering Mike with questions like “Aren’t you going to have some bees getting mixed in with your honey?” and “Don’t you pasteurize that stuff?” (Answers are “no” to both and “there’s no need to” with the latter.) Throughout the efficient and picturesque process, the audience continues its interested murmuring with unabated questions coming especially from the young. Mike doesn’t miss the opportunity to make a few points about bees and how their well-being amounts to an indicator of the health of their environment and of ours.

A few hours later, the harvest is done, with close to 300 pounds of golden honey in a phalanx of jars reflecting the afternoon light pouring in through high windows. Mike gathers his tools, conversing with more of the curious as he prepares to head out. Donna continues supplying eager purchasers, passing out jars of honey as she has since the first came up from under the strainer. The entire harvest will be gone within a week or two, Donna says, so that’s it until the next harvest, which is likely to happen in late June. Mark your calendars.

To learn more about the bee initiatives at Alameda Natural Grocery, visit alamedanaturalgrocery.com. To learn more about the Bee Ranchers, visit thebeeranchers.com. For good and authoritative information on honeybee conservation: Project Apis m., projectapism.org

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