On Bees and Being: Easy Home Garden Beekeeping

Chances are, if you are reading this you are a gardener, plant lover or amateur naturalist of some variety. And chances are, as one of these, you are quite easily able to close your eyes and conjure the happy sound of a bee-filled flowering plant: a steady and peaceful hum of many, many bees at perfect work in one spot. Just this spring, I have stood beside a large flowering flannel bush (Fremontedendron californicum), nestled into a mature coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica), and stood in loud-quiet beneath a small-flowered non-native persimmon, and enjoyed this lively, soothing sound. Photo: A honeybee headed in for the nectar and pollen provided by a California fuchsia (Epilobium canum) flower.

No matter how often I experience this unique perspective on another species’ life, it makes me pause – stop – consider – wonder.

In the steady drone of this wonderful bee-song are likely many, many non-native honeybees – a bee with such an iconic shape, size and color it is easily recognized by most people when they see it. The sound of honeybees at work has accompanied Fred Selby since he was born. Fred is a second generation beekeeper out of Forest Ranch, where he and his wife Melissa raise four young children and thousands of bees. For the past 5 years, Fred has been raising queen bees specifically. Photo: A honeybee in a squash flower.

If you live in the Chico/Paradise/Oroville/Forest Ranch areas, this past winter you may have seen at local nurseries a 1/4 page flyer that read: Live Bees – Selby Apiaries – Personally Help Save the Honeybees!! Pick up Live Miniature Beehives, attend Beekeeping Classes – Perfect for Backyard Gardens – No Equipment Required – Easy Installation – Safe to Transport in a Car – Save hundreds of Dollars Compared to Full Size Hives – Honey Can Be Extracted! Photo: Selby Apiaries logo.

It’s enough to make a gardener giddy with excitement at the prospect. Who among us has not had at least a fleeting – albeit romantic – thought that you might like to try your hand at keeping bees?

Honeybees are estimated to pollinate close to 1/3 of the plant crops in the US, a service valued at tens of billions of dollars. But, as most people know, since the mid-1990s, US honeybee keepers have been losing significant numbers of their hives annually to a syndrome known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). CCD is a devastating situation and while for a long time it was linked to a hive-infesting mite introduced to the US in the mid-1990s, scientists have recently reported a major cause of CCD to be the mid-1990s introduction of a now commonly used neonicitinoid pesticide, imidacloprid. For more information on this research, see ScienceDaily. According to a PBS special on the CCD situation, “In the winter of 2006/2007, more than a quarter of the country’s 2.4 million bee colonies — accounting for tens of billions of bees — were lost to CCD, Colony Collapse Disorder. This loss is projected have an $8 billion to $12 billion effect on America’s agricultural economy.” Which is a staggering thought. Suffice it to say, if you are interested in healthy pollinator populations in your home garden, pesticides are never recommended. Photo: A honeybee on lavender flower.

European honeybees (Apis mellifera) are not native to North America, but were brought to the east coast in the early 1600s by immigrants wanting to make sure that the seedlings and saplings they also brought with them would be successfully pollinated in the New World. It was not until the mid-1800s that honeybees reached the west coast and California. Now, they are a constant of our environment.

And Fred Selby is passionate about them, passionate about teaching you and me about them, and passionate about encouraging home gardeners to be part of the solution to supporting them and bolstering their populations in cultivation such as hives, and in naturalized wild hives such as those you might encounter in trees cavities as you walk or hike in wild areas. To this end, he has begun to offer what are known as ‘nuc’ mini-hives, for easy installation in home gardens from early spring through June. Photo: Fred Selby looking for the right spot in a blue oak to install a new nuc. He wants to ensure it is high enough to be out danger from skunks, and near a source of fresh water.

“Nucs are just like full-sized beehives, just in miniature – they are the nucleus of a full hive,” Fred explains to me. “They are used to raise queens for supplying to beekeepers who are replacing lost or building new – hives. Since the mid-1990s when CCD hive-loss levels skyrocketed from a steady 17% annually to more than 50% annually, the US has also gone from having 300,000 hobbyist beekeepers to about 5,000. In the same time period, more than 7,000 commercial beekeepers have also been lost. It is just too hard to lose 50% of your business each year.” Photo:The inner workings of the nuc.

“Getting these little mini-nucs out into the region in home gardens, introduces people to the idea of beekeeping with little cost or fuss.” (Each mini-nuc set up costs $60 from Fred). It also, he goes on to point out, introduces more bees into the region, and allows for the chance of these bees forming more wild hives in time. Regenerating strong wild colonies is high on Fred’s list of goals. “It promotes strong, independent populations that are genetically diverse.” While worker honeybees only live about 6 weeks in summer, a bit longer in winter, a good queen bee will live for 3 – 5 years, and in summer at her most active she can lay up to two thousand eggs a day.” Photo: Fred firmly wedges the little nuc in between several branches and then secures it with a bungee cord.

If people want to tend to the nuc they can, and attending a mini-beekeeping class at the same time they pick up their nuc will help to get them started. But if people want to just install it in a tree (off the ground so skunks and the like don’t try to forage in it), they can do that too. Just stand back a little, open the door and the bees will do the rest if there is some water source nearby and plenty of flowering food.” Photo: Fred stands back to gently lift the door to open the hive. The bees are cautious and slow in exploring their new spot.

Where a full-sized hive can have up to 70,000 insects, a nuc has about 2,000. This little nuc and its peaceful working population will easily pollinate a quarter acre or larger home garden. “I am rarely stung,” says Fred, only if I accidentally pinch an unsuspecting bee as I grasp or work with the hives. They are too busy to want to bother you, but the guard bees who protect the hives, will attack and warn you to stay away from the entrance to the hive.” So it is important that you are respectful, aware and calm. Photo: In one day, the bees are settled in and active by day going in and out of their hive. They put themselves to bed each night.

If the little nuc-hive does well, it will in time outgrow its bread-box-sized well-insulated styrofoam hive in a season and the bees will swarm off to set up a larger hive in the wild or be collected by a beekeeper. Sometimes, the bees will also finish their pollinating work season and the hive will die. If you ever have trouble or questions or want help tending to your mini-hive, Fred is happy to help. He is passionate about bees: his, yours and ours. Photo: A honeybee working a winter-blooming camellia blossom. Having year-round food sources in the form of flowering plants and the nectar and pollen they provide is important to supporting healthy honeybee and native bee populations. Honeybees do not compete with or negatively impact native bee populations.

Selby Apiaries can be reached at 530-566-4736. Fred will be conducting bee keeping classes at 10 am and 2 pm on May 26th at Mendons Nursery in Paradise. He will have nucs for sale at those times. For additional upcoming beekeeping classes in the area through the month of June, contact Fred or keep your eyes on the In a North State Garden calendar of North State gardening events.

For those interested in this kind of beekeeping information in your area, contact Fred and he will be able to schedule a visit your way, or point you in the direction of someone in your area doing similar work.

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To submit plant/gardening related events/classes to the Jewellgarden.com on-line Calendar of Regional Gardening Events, send the pertinent information to me at: Jennifer@jewellgarden.com
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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California. It is made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.

Jennifer Jewell
In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.
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