Backyard Beekeeping Gains Fans

Bees and honey-lovers benefit from cooperative at-home hives.


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LORI EANES

On one warm January day in a Berkeley backyard, Rokas Armonas opened Dan Cook’s beehive with his bare hands.

When it comes to bees, Armonas is efficient and fearless, and, as he lifted each frame from its place to look at its comb and eggs, he was happy to see the bees doing well, whizzing around his face.

Cook, meanwhile, stood off to the side, ready to ward off any bees with a puff of smoke from the smoker. He loves the honey—and the mead he gets to make from it—but smartly keeps a safe distance from the hive.

Armonas and his wife, Kelli, run Bay Area Bee Company (www.BayAreBeeCompany.com), maintaining hives in backyards throughout the Bay Area. The people who own the hives receive a portion of the honey, and Armonas sells the rest.

It’s not an uncommon relationship. Other small local honey companies, like Rockridge Honey and Queen of Sheba, have similar arrangements. And it’s a win-win for all concerned.

Bay Area residents who house the hives bypass the time and commitment it takes to learn to keep bees but still get the raw, unfiltered honey, with all its benefits. Besides the honey, they get bigger garden harvests, since having more pollinators around changes the bounty of local gardens. Before Rockridge Honey’s Christina Carter and Mark Hogenson had a hive, “we thought our apple tree was just old,” said Carter. It used to produce four or five apples. But with the bees, she and Hogenson gave away bags and bags of apples and made cider to use up the rest. Surprisingly, with five hives so close to their former home in Oakland, the couple rarely got stung, unless they were inspecting a hive. “The dog would,” said Carter. “But he was trying to eat them [the bees]. So he deserved it.”

For the bees, backyards mean riches. While bees kept by large commercial operations are given a narrow diet with only a few varieties of nut and fruit to choose from, backyard bees have a smorgasbord of choices—which leads to healthier hives, a more diversified bee population, and more nuanced honey.

Each small harvest is unique, with its own particular flavor. “It’s like a vintage,” said Cook, whose company, The Mead Kitchen (www.TheMeadKitchen.com), makes dry, effervescent meads. Each batch captures the subtle characteristics of honey as it changes throughout the year.

In winter, when eucalyptus trees flower, its resinous savor is detectable in East Bay honey—such was the case with Queen of Sheeba’s winter harvest. Its hives in the Berkeley hills are above eucalyptus-lined Highway 13.

But Rockridge Honey’s last Berkeley harvest, from the fall, tasted of raspberry, because of the raspberry vines that grew over the backyard beehive from which the honey came. This spring, the honey might take on a hint of plum blossom, and in midsummer, perhaps an inkling of jasmine.

It’s a sugary distillation of the East Bay’s character. Its terroir, from the bees’ perspective, is sweet and oftentimes spicy—something like the East Bay itself.

A Beeline to Honey

Tracking down a backyard beekeeper to buy from can take a little effort, as many of them rely on word of mouth to sell their products, but there are a few places to find honey reliably. Bee Healthy Honey Shop (2950 Telegraph Ave., Oakland) sells Queen of Sheba honey, which comes mainly from the Berkeley and Oakland hills. Sacred Wheel Cheese Shop (4935 Shattuck Ave., Oakland ) carries Bay Area Bee’s products, with blends specific to Marin, San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley. Biofuel Oasis carries honey from many small local beekeepers.

Smaller producers frequently sell out—check their websites or contact them personally to see what they’re currently carrying. Rockridge Honey, with hives in Berkeley and Hayward, can be contacted through Facebook. Bubble Farm Soap Company (www.BubbleFarmSoapCo.com) sells honey from hives in Alameda and El Cerrito through it website as well as at Piedmont Grocery (4038 Piedmont Ave, Oakland).

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