SPECIAL SERIES : [X]Press Magazine Issue One: Reproduction
Sweet City Bees
San Francisco Honey is as Varied as its Neighborhoods
September 26, 2005 9:53 AM
Bees crawl all over Philip Gerrie’s hands. He pours a cough-sized cloud of smoke on them and immediately they become more agitated, more focused on their honey and less on him. President of the San Francisco Beekeepers' Association, Gerrie keeps four hives in his neighbor's yard, 10 feet from his own fence, in brightly painted bee boxes of rose, pink, blue and white. “Animals are sort of neat how they don’t have any hidden agenda,” he says. “They have certain behavior that lets you know how they’re feeling.”
San Francisco beekeepers face the same challenges confronting guardians of bees all over the world, but they harvest some unusual rewards. Unlike in areas with harsher weather, even 10 miles off the Bay, they are able to harvest honey year-round. San Francisco’s unique weather and climate allow keepers to collect distinct flavors of honey from the different neighborhoods of San Francisco.
Robert MacKimmie has been keeping bees in San Francisco for eight years. After seeing a class taught by the local Beekeepers' Association, he became enchanted with the insects. Within two years, his collection grew from just two hives to 33 hives. He speaks about bees with a well-researched passion. “Bees are very intelligent,” MacKimmie says. “They’re thinking, living, very loving creatures. There are all these things you can produce from them and there’s nothing negative about them.”
MacKimmie has narrowed his broods down to only 15 hives, which he keeps in other peoples' backyards all over the city. He sells the honey produced by each neighborhood on his Web site, citybees.com.
San Francisco has a climate unlike anywhere else in the world. Its infamously hilly terrain creates valleys of microclimates that can be very different only a few miles apart. Varied weather means different plants thrive in different parts of the city. "Mission is probably the warmest part of the city so you have much more of a fragrant, floral honey," MacKimmie says.
Near Candlestick Park, the bees feast on the wild fennel and eucalyptus that flourish there. These plants infuse the honey with distinct flavors. "It's very cinnamony and spicy and very unique," MacKimmie says.
In addition to the microclimates, the fact that San Francisco rests on a peninsula and is surrounded by water on three sides ensures that it hardly ever freezes over. The importation of plants from all over the world guarantees there will always be something in bloom.
Bees stay close to home when gathering honey and nectar. “If the food is abundant, they’ll travel three-fourths of a mile. If they’re pushed, they’ll travel up to four miles,” explains Dr. Eric Mussen, an extension apiculturist at UC Davis. This makes it possible to know what types of flowers the bees have been drinking from.
The different nectars that each flower secretes to attract bees are what give the different neighborhood honeys their distinct flavors. Honey is made when bees drink nectar and mix it with enzymes from their mouths. They store the mixture in honeycombs and fan the liquid with their wings within a hive they keep at a precise 95 degrees.
Despite their efficient and time-tested methods, the honeybees and their habits are currently at risk. Once abundant in the wild, a hardy and voracious little pest known as the varroa mite has decimated honeybee colonies across the globe and has farmers, scientists and beekeepers alike scrambling to save them.
Farmers are dependant on communal honeybees to pollinate crops, but what makes the honeybee so convenient to farmers also makes them weaker to the mite; it spreads rapidly within the close-quartered colony. Rampant since 1995, the mite has made the once-familiar buzz of spring increasingly scarce. Now, almost every honeybee you see is a kept bee. “When the mites infect the colony, it makes them weaker," Mussen says. "Viruses that wouldn’t normally affect them end up wiping out the whole colony.”
“One-third of everything we eat is pollinated by bees,” MacKimmie says, “But they can no longer survive on their own. It really does take a beetender to keep them alive, so it’s a very powerful, life-affirming experience to work with the bees. You’re touching that many flowers ... and letting nature be fully orchestrated. It’s really a powerful thing.”
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