A Hive in Your Backyard

backyardEach year, hundreds of people in the East Bay take the bold step of establishing a beehive or two in their backyard for the first time. Their motivation is often a desire to help honey bee populations while promoting greater yields of garden fruits and vegetables from the extra pollination. They also enjoy having the delicious honey to eat and share with friends.

For me, the initial draw was a fascination with the way honey bees work together as a super-organism for a common goal. I was also intrigued by the almost-magical medicinal properties of honey. Beekeeping has continued to hold my interest because of the never-ending learning, not only about beekeeping, but about the view it offers into the interconnected web of nature. I know exactly when my apple tree blossoms, because that’s when my bees swarm in the spring (and vice versa).

According to the USDA, 31.1 percent of bee colonies were lost during the winter of 2012/2013. Signs point to greater losses occuring right now. Maintaining a beehive in your urban area can help bees survive by offering them a large variety of trees and plants that are likely to be kept watered year-round, unlike flowers in parched hills of the surrounding wild areas during the dry season. In our gardens, something is likely to be flowering at all times of year, and these blossoms produce a lot of food (nectar and pollen) for honey bees.

Many people are afraid that keeping honey bees will increase the danger of bee stings in their own or neighbors’ home environment. In fact, honey bees will sting only to protect their hive: They are not aggressive, but rather, are focused on the finer things in life, such as visiting flowers and making honey. It’s their cousins, the yellow jackets, that buzz angrily around at picnics and give the bee family a bad reputation. Honey bees coexist well in a backyard with chickens, dogs, cats, and children. One of the cats living at the home where I keep my hive is very interested in the bees and has gotten stung twice, but that’s unusual. Honey bees won’t hang out in your yard. They will be out foraging, covering territory in a one- to two-mile-wide radius of the hive as they seek out the best and easiest sources of nectar, which are often flowering trees.

Beekeeping is very rewarding. It’s a great way to learn about nature and bring you closer to its rhythms. Oh, and you get honey (gallons of it after the first year). If you want to take the plunge and get a hive or two for your backyard, you’ll find plenty of local resources for supplies and instruction. April is the time to get honey bees, so learn about it now!hive tab


combDid you know that the honey in a typical 16-ounce jar might represent as many as 112,000 bee-miles traveled as the busy critters visit as many as 4.5 million flowers? Unlike the orange blossom or buckwheat honey you might find at the supermarket, honey from East Bay beekeepers is likely to be from many flower sources. Bees often have preferences, but they’ll visit various trees and plants in bloom, so the resulting honey will be a complex mix of all those flavors. The honey our local bees make in winter is likely to be dark and strong due to an abundance of nectar and pollen gathered from eucalyptus trees. In spring, the honey may be very light as a result of all the fruit trees in bloom. In summer, bees will visit wildflowers, such as those of the wild fennel that grows so well around here. The Alameda Beekeeping Association has put together samplers that allow you to compare three different East Bay honeys.

When bees collect nectar from flowers, they regurgitate it in and out of their honey stomachs multiple times. Enzymes in the stomach break down the nectar’s complex sugars into the simple sugars, glucose and fructose, which the bees deposit into their honeycomb. At night, they fan their wings to create air currents that cause water to evaporate out of the honey until it reaches about 80 percent sugar. Then the bees cap the cells with wax, sealing the honey in place.

The high concentration of sugar in honey keeps it from developing bacteria or mold. You can apply honey (and a bandage) to an open wound as an alternative to antibiotic salve, which is being reported as a contributor to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The more complex the honey (as in, collected from a wide variety of blossoms) the more effective it will be against bacteria. Hospitals worldwide, dealing with resistant bacteria, are having success using honey on surgical wounds.

Many people use local honey to help with their allergies to pollen. The minute quantities of pollen they ingest with the honey can give their immune systems a chance to adjust to the pollen and reduce their reactions when there is a large amount of pollen in the air. Honey also contains flavonoids, which have been shown to offer anti-inflammatory and anti-allergy reactions in the body. For allergy symptoms, drink tea with honey and lemon juice. The honey soothes your throat and the lemon juice cuts phlegm.

Honey, our local sugar source, is also nutritious. Unlike table sugar (sucrose), honey contains small amounts of protein, vitamins, and minerals. With its high amounts of the simple sugars glucose and fructose, honey offers similar nutrition to what you get in athletic drinks and chews recommended for extended exercise. You can make your own sports drink by combining a quart of water with 4 tablespoons of honey, ½ cup of lemon juice, and ⅛ teaspoon salt.

Make sure you know the source of your honey. Recent reports have revealed a huge honey-fraud network worldwide that has been putting cheap corn-syrup-laced brands of honey on grocery store shelves. If you buy raw, unfiltered honey from a local producer, you can be sure you’re getting the real thing. At the BioFuel Oasis, we sell local raw honey, which mostly comes from beekeepers that maintain just a few hives in their backyards. Buy honey directly from the beekeeper at your local farmers’ market and you’ll be supporting his or her important work in helping our local bees survive. •

Supplies & Instruction: BioFuel Oasis Urban Farm Store in Berkeley offers classes covering such topics as beginning and intermediate beekeeping, hive building, and managing swarms and varroa mites. biofueloasis.com

Beekeeping Associations: We have three very active local beekeeping associations. The Alameda and Mt. Diablo associations have monthly meetings and run bee chat sites. The Marin group brings renowned bee researchers from around the country to speak at their monthly meetings.


Many thanks to Clara French for testing this recipe and photographing the cake in the garden.


Flourless Chocolate Honey Cake

Using a local East Bay honey will give this cake a complex taste that you’ll never get with sugar.

4 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate
½ cup butter
¾ cup honey
¼ cup cocoa powder
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
Whipped cream
Sliced seasonal fruit

Preheat oven to 375˚ and grease an 8-inch spring-form pan with butter.

Melt chocolate and butter over boiling water in the top part of a double boiler, let cool slightly, and then whisk in the honey, cocoa powder, eggs, and vanilla until smooth. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top with a spatula.

Bake for 25–30 minutes until the center is firm. Allow to cool completely before serving. Top with whipped cream and fruit.