Annals of an Urban Beekeeper

Annals of an Urban Beekeeper: Khaled Almaghafi of Queen of Sheba Farms

Story and photo by Jessica Watson

beeIt isn’t easy being an urban bee. In addition to resisting the widespread Colony Collapse Disorder, urban bees must navigate fearful neighbors wielding insecticidal spray and face the daily challenge of locating plants suitable for foraging. For instance, consider the plight of some Brooklyn beekeepers, who noticed last November that their honey had turned a shocking shade of fluorescent red. After much head-scratching, they realized that their bees had been foraging at a local maraschino cherry plant. Tests of the red honey revealed that it contained high-fructose corn syrup and Red Dye #40, a suspected carcinogen.

So how do our local beekeepers keep their bees out of trouble? I decided to check in on one to see.

Walking into the Bee Healthy Honey Shop, newly reopened at 2950 Telegraph in Oakland, I find myself surrounded by expanses of hexagonal wooden shelves that look remarkably like a honeycomb. They are backed by mirrors, creating an illusion of depth that brings on a momentary confusion of scale. Have I suddenly become small enough to have entered a hive?

The shop is clearly the work of a man obsessed. Khaled Almaghafi, 44, tall and lean, emerges from the back of the shop to greet me. A fourth-generation beekeeper, he learned the trade as a child in Yemen.  He keeps 100 hives that are scattered around Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond, and Santa Clara. Here in the East Bay hills, the bees primarily forage on wildflowers, while in Santa Clara the hives are located on a persimmon and blueberry farm.

Almaghafi has a wife and four children to provide for, so I wondered about the economics of beekeeping. For Almaghafi, bees are a good business, and he explains that he has multiple approaches. “If I were just selling honey, I think it would be hard. Removing bees, selling honey, going to the farmers markets, and having a shop for supplies—all together in one package, it keeps me alive.”

Almaghafi is an avid collector of honeys from around the world. Tastings of local and exotic honeys are a central feature of the shop, and the menu shifts with the seasons. On the occasion of my visit I find wildflower, buckwheat, and oak honeys from the East Bay to taste. There is sage honey from Monterey County, orange blossom honey from Fresno, blueberry honey from Oregon, and a coffee honey gathered from Ethiopian coffee plantations. Perhaps the most unusual is a honey that came from an abandoned vineyard in Napa where the bees had foraged on the juice of grapes that had burst. It had a deep, almost caramelized flavor.

The shop stocks a wide variety of books and materials (in both English and Arabic) on natural beekeeping methods and the health benefits of honey. “I want to educate the community and train other people to be beekeepers,” Almaghafi says. To that end he sells suits, hoods, gloves, brushes, smokers, and Langstroth boxes and frames, and he lends his honey extractor out on a barter system. “I get some honey in return; we help each other,” he explains.

Natural beekeeping

Almaghafi’s business has not been immune to the array of challenges currently facing bees. “I’m losing a lot of hives,” he admits. “I have a lot of problems with mites and colony collapse, and this year I noticed the hive beetle—we have them here for the first time,” he says.

Almaghafi told me he typically loses 40 percent of his hives every year. We discuss the recent news from a team of scientists who announced a breakthrough on the causes of Colony Collapse Disorder, which they believe to be a combination of a fungus and a virus. Some beekeepers were surprised that the role of pesticides, particularly neonicotinoids, was not mentioned in the study. It later emerged that the lead researcher had received funding from Bayer, the primary producer of neonicotinoids. A group of beekeepers is currently suing Bayer, and calling for more research on the interlinked factors causing Colony Collapse Disorder.

Almaghafi is hesitant about the root causes of the disease. “It could be true, could be not,” he says. “It’s a combination of many things.” He believes factors in the disease include GMOs, chemicals, pesticides, stress, as well as commercial beekeeping practices, such as the practice of overwintering hives on a diet of high-fructose corn syrup, and the heavy reliance on antibiotics. “Sometimes people will give them so many antibiotics, but not me,” he says. “I don’t want to create resistance in the pests and diseases, and give them more drugs. It’s not good for me. I try to do it naturally.”

I ask about the alternatives and he says he uses an essential oil solution to treat for Varroa mites. Mixing spearmint, peppermint, and wintergreen essential oils, he melts them together with beeswax and neem oil, combining until the mixture is the consistency of lotion. He then soaks a card in the lotion and places it at the bottom of the hive. The bees walk through it and the mites stick to the card. Almaghafi asserts, “It works. It’s working for me. Neem also kills fungus, and it is not affecting the bees.”

“And I’m keeping them in a sunny location,” he adds. “That helps a lot.”

Almaghafi’s raw, organic local honey, which has many fans among area allergy sufferers, can be found at many East Bay farmers markets, and at the Bee Healthy Honey Shop, 2950 Telegraph in Oakland. Free tastings are offered every weekend from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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