I have to share an amazing experience I had. In addition to writing for Sunday Dish, I also write for a small local newspaper called The Sun Community Newspaper. I've been writing restaurant reviews and other food related articles for them, for about a year now. I love it, I'm a journalist at heart, and I'm sure you've figured out by now, I love food!
I had a chance recently to visit a local bee keeper working here in the San Fernando Valley - which for those of you outside of LA may not know, is a local suburb of Los Angeles. Bill works at the far reaches of the Valley in Lake View Terrace. It about as rural as you can get here in LA, and it's beautiful.
Bill took me on a personal tour of the bee farm (as I learned, it's called an apiary) and was just about the friendliest, easy going guy I've met in awhile. I learned so much that day and have been telling everyone I know what I found out about bees that day. The story ran today in the paper, and I'm reprinting it here along with some of the photos I took on my tour. I hope you enjoy the story, as much as I enjoyed spending the morning with Bill Lewis and his bees.
The Bee Keeper of the Valley:
Bill Lewis spends his days with his head stuck in a beehive. It's the unusual nature of working with bees that's drawn this beekeeper to the job he's doing doing for close to 20 years.
"Not everyone would do this kind of work; I guess that's part of what attracts me."
This affable beekeeper, owner of Bill's Bees in Lake View Terrace, got his start in apiculture, that's the formal name for beekeeping, growing up in Wisconsin while working towards a Boy Scouts merit badge. His neighbor, who kept bees, agreed to teach Bill. "I thought it was something different that most guys wouldn't do. I kept the bees for a season, and earned my badge."
That was 40 years ago and Lewis has been fascinated by bees ever since.
On the day I visited Lewis, he was busy working with new queen bees. The first order of business? Marking the queens to keep track of when they were introduced to a colony. Wearing no gloves, he gently removed the queen from a small wooden container and placed a tiny dot of paint on her head. "Each year has a color, 2008 is red, " Lewis told me. He uses the queen to establish new colonies or when a colony loses its queen. That can happen for a variety of reasons including illness and old age.
I was struck at how relaxed Lewis was with the bees. It put me immediately at ease. "I've always been comfortable around bees, probably because I was introduced to them fairly young" he said, "I did get stung but it was usually because of something stupid I did."
Locally, he's been keeping bees since 1991. After moving in he found a colony of bees living in the walls of his new house. Upon further investigation, he discovered several abandoned hives on a neighboring property. Lewis adopted the bees, about 11 hives in all, and moved them to his land. Since then, the number of hives he tends to has grown from 11 to about 180.
After marking the queens, Lewis and I headed down the road to the apiary, or bee yard.
The Apiary. Each white box contains a colony.
We stopped along the road, so he could point out some of the local plants which the bees like to gather nectar and pollen from. I realized that keeping bees also requires him to be an amateur botanist. "I definitely study the plants in the area. I better know something about which ones make honey and which don't."
Lewis wasn't always a beekeeper or and amateur botanist. For years he worked as an engineer, but found he wasn't cut out for sitting behind a desk every day. "I spend most of my time trying not to fall asleep, " he admitted.
These days, he makes his own hours, and though he may work 12 hours a day, Lewis says "the only one I have to answer to now, is me, and the bees."
Once we arrived at the apiary, Bill gathered his supplies, along with the new queens, and then helped me into my bee suit, complete with helmet, veil and elbow length gloves.
Me in my bee suit. Now that's alot of bees!
As I was being suited up, I noticed a strange noise coming from the boxes containing the queens. I crouched down, putting my ear close to the box. The sound was beautiful and melodic, like no sound I'd ever heard a bee make before.
Look closely, the queen is the largest bee with the red mark on her head.
"They're piping" Lewis told me in regards to the sound the queens were making. "Queens are pretty territorial When you get a bunch of them that close to one another, that's how they let the others know they're there. They're 'squaring off' so to speak." It was one of the many fascinating things I would learn about bees that day.
Another thing I learned, and something Lewis is passionate about, is how vital the bee community is to our local habitat. "As the bee population dwindles, prices on all the food we eat will go up. If the bees don't pollinate, the plants, fruits and vegetables don't grow as well. It would affect up to 70 percent of all the food we eat, in some way."
As I stood, protectively ensconced in my bee suit, I learned something even more interesting. Bees are not the aggressive insects some think they are. In fact, as Lewis worked with the hives, I was within four feet of thousands of bees. In that time, only one bee landed on me.
"She's just resting," Lewis told me, "if you leave her alone she won't try to sting you."
Most of the bees you see at the park or in your backyard are worker bees, all of them female, out collecting nectar and pollen. The male bees, or drones, exist solely to mate with the queen.
Lewis told me that these worker bees are at their least aggressive when away from the hive. "There is no queen and no babies to protect, so they are pretty relaxed."
While in the bee yard, he showed me how the colony tends to the eggs and how they make honey.
"Bees have two parts to their stomach, one for pollen and one for nectar. The nectar mixes with the enzymes in the bees stomach and is then deposited into the cells of the hive.
When it's deposited it's watery, so the bees bring air into the hive and drive the moisture down which thickens the honey up. "
Lewis's bees produce about 15 to 20 thousand bottles of honey a year. To put that in context, a commercial honey maker may make up to 2 million bottles a year.
But there are a few things that set this beekeeper's honey apart from the kind you'll find in the plastic bear sitting on your grocers shelf.
For one thing, raw honey, the kind Lewis sells, has not been heated or filtered. It's full of live enzymes that the bees naturally put in the honey, along with tiny grains of pollen. The enzymes, according to Lewis, are good for your digestive system. Some feel that pollen is good for people suffering from allergies to local pollen. "The theory is that by eating locally harvested honey, you can build a tolerance to pollens in your area."
Commercial honey is heated to extremely high temperatures so that it will stay clear on the shelf for a long time. The down side? This very process destroys all the things that make raw honey so good for you.
Another good thing about raw honey is that the consumer gets a bigger variety. Lewis sells Black Sage, Buckwheat and Orange Blossom varieties, among others.
Each takes on a different color and flavor depending on which flowers the bees are attracted to. "You won't get that with commercial honey because producers mix all the honeys together, so they all taste the same." says Lewis.
Bill Lewis sells his honey, along with things his wife makes from the beeswax, like candles, soap and lip balm, directly to consumers at local farmers markets.
It's this part of his job that Lewis finds the easiest and most enjoyable. "People have alot of questions about the bees and the honey, and I don't mind answering them."
The most difficult part of his job is finding enough land to expand the number of hives. "People don't want the bees near the city, they are fearful of them. But we need them; we need them for our food supply."
Eventually, he'd like to buy some land where he can keep his bees and build a honey processing and packaging plant. In the meantime he'll spend his days with his head in a hive and as he says: "letting the bees drive my schedule."