Jake Reisdorf of Carmel is sectioning off a spot in his yard for his special project. He’s done his homework and made it into a fifth-grade project on entrepreneurship as well. It’s a bit risky, but his parents agreed to let him go for it.
Reisdorf is getting two beehives next spring. He’d rather start beekeeping right now, but it’s too late in the season, so he’s using the time to prepare.
“We can get so much while helping them,” the 11-year-old says, brown eyes lighting up with excitement.
The seed was planted when Reisdorf and his family met Dale Hillard at the Monterey County Fair. Hillard had set up a demonstration hive to show the basics of beekeeping, and Reisdorf buzzed around it.
Hillard is a member of the Anarchist Beekeeping Collective, an informal gathering of beekeepers from around the county.
The group began in the late ’90s as two friends, J.R. Githens and Doug Westphal, met for breakfast at Sarita’s restaurant in Marina. Over the years, they started inviting friends and coworkers to join them. Word of mouth brought more beekeepers into the fold, and soon they had a name. The “anarchist” part is a joke, because Westpahl actually likes order – and beehives are monarchies, loyal to the death to their queens. But the group lacks an official leader or charter, and anyone’s welcome to drop in or drop out.
THE BIGGEST ISSUES ARE PESTS, PREDATORS AND DROUGHT.
During an October meeting, Reisdorf sat at the table in rapt attention. About 20 other beekeepers discussed their hives, passed around copies of American Bee Journal, worried about a black beetle invasion outside the county and struck up a lively debate over whether to feed bees supplemental pollen so late in the season.
In spring bees may swarm, following an old queen out of the original hive. The beekeeper places the queen into a new hive, lets a contingent of workers bees follow, then transports the whole setup to its new home. (This part’s not too treacherous – swarming bees are docile and can be gently handled.)
A new beekeeper’s other option is to order bees online, or pick them up at local supply stores. They come in mesh-screen crates that can be opened to pour the bees into the hive.
Anarchist Beekeepers hold harvest parties, sharing a centrifugal extractor that spins out the honey. But first, they have to apply smoke using a handheld smoker (shaped like a watering can with bellows) burning natural fibers to calm their bees, and then slowly and carefully reach in to remove the honey-filled frames. As soon as the smoke wears off, the bees feverishly search for their honey, so it is smart to harvest the honey somewhere or sometime else.
Juli Hofman, who keeps nine hives in Marina, says beekeeping is surprisingly easy. She wears a mesh hood and protective clothing to peek inside her hive, making sure it looks healthy. She also keeps a removable panel under the hive, which she occasionally pulls out to check for mites and other pests without disturbing the bees. Her bees support her native plant garden, which also attracts other native pollinators.
Tom Hughes keeps two hives in his bushy and well-cultivated Seaside backyard. Bees don’t need a lot of space, he says; 10-20 square feet is enough for a box hive with removable frames that hold honeycombs. He stacks boxes to make taller, roomier hives near his vegetable patches. “You could even do it on a balcony,” he says.
The biggest issues facing his backyard buzzers are pests, predators and drought. Both Hofman and Hughes have dealt with invasions of mites, which parasitize bees and carry viruses.
The record drought also weighs heavily because it impacts bees’ primary food source: pollen from flowering plants. Bees go hungry and depend on keepers for supplemental food, such as sugar water or nutrient-rich pollen substitute. Without abundant pollen, Hughes isn’t expecting to see much honey this year.
Bee societies sometimes fizzle out, and keepers don’t always know why. High on the suspect list is colony collapse disorder, when many adult bees suddenly abandon the hive and die.
Scientists don’t point to a single cause for colony collapse – they suspect a combination of pesticides, poor pollen quality, gut fungi and invasive Varroa mites.
But the backyard bee boom gives hope for the little pollinators. Hofman says the beekeeping community used to skew toward retirees, but new generations like Reisdorf’s are leading the charge.
He joins a movement that, through “anarchy,” creates a hive-like network of orderly cooperation.