Honey bees at work

By Sarah Inez Levy

 

Photo by Carole Topalian

There are dog people and cat people, fish people and people people. We all look to other creatures for companionship, choosing those that can offer just the right combination of personality, looks, maintenance, and love. However, most of us wouldn’t go for a pal that is too small to cuddle and sticks us with venom when in a bad mood.

“The first thing to do is don’t run away,” said Orinda beekeeper Steve Gentry, who believes that once you get up close to the bees, you’ll be too fascinated to turn back. “It’s so complex that you could spend years researching every question that comes up as you look into the hive, years just trying to answer, ‘how do they do that?’”

Aristotle once poetically explained that, “Honey is distilled from dew and is deposited chiefly at the raisings of the constellations or when a rainbow is in the sky.” We now know that his description is not the most scientifically accurate (honey is actually repeatedly swallowed, digested, and regurgitated nectar—yum), but his depiction, a magical creation myth, is still relevant today as it reflects our timeless fascination with and utter ignorance of the mystical bee.

Luckily, there are bee people like Steve Gentry to act as our bee ambassadors, a link between the apian world and those who have never thought beyond the bear-shaped squeeze bottle. “The bees can’t talk, so I’m the interpreter,” he says. “Somebody has to do that.”

Gentry describes raising bees as a form of meditation and a path to self-expression. In his more than 20 years with what he describes as a “hobby gone crazy,” he has learned to read the bees. He talks about how each hive has its own mood or personality, just like a dog. The difference, of course, is just that “most people don’t deal with bees as much as dogs.” Gentry can hear when bees are getting ready to sting and he knows when to back off and put on his protective veil. And when he does get stung, he uses the experience as a lesson in pain management.

Gentry is a founding member of the Mount Diablo Beekeepers Association (MDBA), which meets monthly at The Gardens at Heather Farm, a nonprofit education center and wildlife habitat in Walnut Creek. The MDBA was founded in the early 1980s by five rookie beekeepers hoping to share advice and equipment.

 

Kirk Peterson operates a smoker to calm the bees as he prepares to extract honey from a hive.

 

Now a club of approximately 125 members, the MDBA remains an invaluable resource for novice and expert beekeepers alike. Meetings include guest speakers, raffles, and an open forum to exchange ideas. Members also organize expeditions to catch swarms in the spring and teach beekeeping to children enrolled in 4-H.

Steve Gentry is one of the association’s most active members, producing around 7,000 pounds of honey per season. At first, he gave all of his honey away, but when strangers started showing up at his door demanding honey, he decided it was time to start charging. Now he sells it at local farmers’ markets and at several Whole Foods stores in the area. He points out that the honey he sells is more flavorful than commercial brands, which are often treated to eliminate variability, and pasteurized, which knocks out the subtle perfumes of the flowers’ essential oils.

“Honey is anything but a static product,” Gentry says as he launches into a passionate speech about terroir, describing the variable colors, flavors, and textures that honey might derive from the local floral landscape as the season changes.

Interestingly enough, Gentry does not think of himself as a great beekeeper. “I’m just durable,” he says, adding that he continues to view every sting as a learning experience.

 

Kirk Peterson inspecting a hive of honey bees

 

Kirk Peterson, another avid East Bay beekeeper, describes himself as a dog person and doesn’t claim to understand the bees. “We just cohabitate,” he says, explaining that for a forager such as himself, beekeeping is a way of connecting with the earth and getting back to his ancestral gardening roots.

Peterson ordered his first swarm from the MDBA in 2001. The urge to take up beekeeping came about when an employee at Peterson’s Rockridge architecture practice mentioned that eating local honey could keep away allergies, with the pollen in the honey acting to desensitize a person against the pollen in the air. When the first colony died shortly after he acquired it, Peterson ordered another. This arrived with a Yemeni beekeeper, who had vacuumed the swarm out of a heating vent at Kaiser Permanente.

Peterson continues to raise bees in the garden behind his office, giving away his 50-odd pounds of honey per season to grateful friends and family. Like Gentry, Peterson talks about honey as a truly local product. “When I walk the dogs around the neighborhood,” he says, “I’m always wondering if our honey came from the nectar of the flowers I pass.” He recalls how one season, when the garden had grown particularly unkempt from neglect, his honey tasted decidedly like the blossoming fennel that had overrun the yard.

“We’ve been called eccentric,” Peterson admits of himself and his fellow bee-folk, a sentiment that Gentry would be unlikely to contradict. And while those of us who are not bee people might prefer to keep a safe distance from the buzzing hive, we can appreciate how honey offers us a strong connection: to the earth, to the local community and to the ancient magic of the bees themselves. Gentry likes to say that he is “selling honey from your backyard back to you—It’s your nectar!” •

Mount Diablo Beekeepers Association

 

Writer Sarah Inez Levy once ate a Pop-Tart outside Chez Panisse. Except for this one lapse in judgement, she has enjoyed a steady love affair with the edible treasures of the Bay Area. When she’s not writing about food, she’s eating it. And when she’s not doing that, Sarah spends her time promoting green businesses with Straus Communications and convincing everyone in her path to only eat fresh tomatoes when they are in season.