Sonoma County Bees: Where’d They all Go?

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Sonoma County Bees: Where’d They All Go?

By Jackson Wyatt Raffety

My grandfather was a Korean War veteran, a drunk, a green thumb, and – most importantly to childhood me– a beekeeper. Once mulled with enough rye and Sinatra, he’d tromp out the front door onto his Petaluma acreage, adjacent to the famous Pumpkin Patch, and I’d toddle off after his musky wake. Every day seemed like Sunday to me, whether or not it actually was, on those bee-filled afternoons. Something to the easiness of the day made it feel that way, hearing my grandfather curse at bugs that didn’t know the meaning. His beekeeper’s suit was patched roughly, and a bee would inevitably finagle its way in there to sting him. When one would, I’d laugh, and the eucalyptus trees amongst which the hives stood strong would sway in a windy laugh alongside me. What I remember best is the hum of the hives, a hum that seemed to predicate the swearing and the laughing and the wind.

It was on a Sunday, many years later, that I returned from the military and visited the acreage. I walked to where the hives had once been, and though the eucalyptus were still there, something was missing: the hum of the bees. My grandfather had died years back, and at some point the bees had either abandoned their hives or died themselves. Driven by this silence, I visited other places around Sonoma County that had bee-related memories attached to them –Coffee Park, where I was stung during a soccer game, and Sugarloaf Mountain, where I had lain on a sun-warmed boulder among buzzing bees pollinating golden poppies– and the hum was gone from those places, too. The bees were gone.

Pesticide misuse, global warming, and invasive parasites have decimated our California bee population over the past two decades. California honey production is declining at an alarming rate; 16 years ago California produced nearly 18,675 tons of honey for the year, hefty enough to be the greatest honey producer in the U.S. Now, for 2016, California has produced just a third of that, following a downward trend that started as bee populations plummeted statewide. The death of bee colonies doesn’t only affect our honey production, it affects all produce that requires pollination: strawberries, almonds, apples, you name it. California’s agricultural output is worth over 20 billion dollars annually, and bees are vital in pollinating many of California’s crops. This decline, if it continues, will be a disaster.

Bees and other such pollinators are critical to our agricultural community; many almond farmers have adjusted to decreasing bee populations by renting bees from beekeepers, as there aren’t enough bees locally to pollinate their trees, and thus grow their almonds. Yet as important as bees are to our agricultural economy, in the honey they produce and in the crops they pollinate, what we also lose are the bees themselves: bees mean more to the world, at least to me, than simply what they produce. Those bumbling, fluffy, stinging things are progenitors of many childhood memories for me; those now-nostalgic run-ins with bees taught me the beauty, complexity, and dangers of nature better than any parent (or drunk grandfather) could. If not for my grandfather’s hives, and the bees that lived in them, I wouldn’t have felt so close to nature. I fear children today won’t be exposed to nature as I was; I fear this lack of exposure will weaken their connection to the natural world.

Beekeeping is a dwindling yet vital profession, and now more than ever beekeepers need our support, in their support, for bees. It’s the Giving Season; give bee-charity a shake. Visit: http://www.sonomabees.org to donate to their organization; plant bee-friendly flowers in your garden once spring rolls around; or more immediately, purchase some locally produced jars of honey as stocking stuffers. Avoid harmful pesticides if you use them, and make sure to report, rather than kill, a swarm (which you can do at the previously listed website.) They are these little acts, acts no larger than bees themselves, that will help save the little workers that have always, and will always, continue to do so much for us.

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