Local grocer abuzz with bees

Local grocer abuzz with bees

Michele Ellson
Alameda Natural Grocery bees

When Alameda Natural Grocery owner Donna Layburn was growing up in Moss Beach in the 1970s, she had bees in her coastside yard. So when she learned that honeybee populations were dwindling due to a mysterious malady, she decided to do something about it.

Two weekends ago, a professional beekeeper installed a half dozen hives containing 7,000 bees each on the roof of the Alameda Marketplace, which houses the grocery. Another half dozen have been placed around the Island – in spots that include Layburn’s house and an employee’s, a nearby veterinary clinic and an Alameda plant nursery.

The grocery is kicking off its bee program with a showing of “Queen of the Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us?” a film documenting the plight of the honeybee and the bees’ importance to our survival, this Thursday at Rhythmix Cultural Works. And the grocery’s managers plan to sell the honey harvested from the hives at the store.

“If we have local honey people buy it, and we can’t keep it on the shelf,” Alameda Natural Grocery manager Randy Owczarzak said.

Interest in backyard beekeeping has skyrocketed in recent years as bee populations have seen dramatic declines as a result of what’s being called colony collapse disorder. A local beekeeper group the Alameda Backyard Beekeepers, boasts nearly three dozen members to its Yahoo group; other local beekeepers belong to an Alameda County group.

Scientists have been working since 2006 to try to determine a cause for the bee deaths, which have claimed close to a third of the nation’s managed bee populations in the years the disorder has been tracked. Newly released research claims a commonly used insecticide that targets the nervous systems of insects is the culprit.

University at California, Davis honeybee expert Eric Mussen said the resurgence in backyard beekeeping prompted by news of the disorder may not play a large role in combating its impacts. But he said the bees perform other important tasks, and that they can thrive in urban and suburban environments. Bees pollinate gardens and fruit trees, improving gardens and bolstering local fruit crops.

“In an urban or suburban area, there’s always almost something for them to eat in bloom,” said Mussen, who said the bees’ range can extend for 50 square miles.

Mike Vigo, owner of The Bee Ranchers, the Orinda beekeeping outfit that placed and is managing the grocery’s hives, said urban and suburban environments are ideal for honeybees because homeowners use fewer pesticides on their yards. And he said the hives don’t need much space – the footprint for a single hive is 17 inches by 22 inches, and hives need a few feet of space around them, he said.

Vigo, who sells beekeeping kits and will maintain backyard hives, for a monthly fee, said backyard hives typically produce between 25 pounds and 50 pounds of honey per hive per season, though some hives can produce much more. Those hosting Alameda Natural Grocery’s hives will each get two pounds of honey when it is harvested in the fall.

“It all depends on the season, the climate and the location,” Vigo said of the honey harvest.

At least one local beekeeper is concerned about the grocery’s bees, though. Jack Mingo, who set up his first backyard hive in 2004, is worried that swarming bees in an area as populated as Park Street could create a panic that would lead local lawmakers to place restrictions on backyard beekeepers.

Mingo and others interviewed that the bees are docile – Mussen, who said now is prime swarm time for bees, called Northern California’s honeybees “pretty darn mellow” – but said that a lack of education about bees and their habits could create fear.

“We don’t want people terrified of the fact that we have bees,” said Mingo, who said he has taped off his street in the past when his own bees have swarmed and that this year has been a “huge swarm year,” prompting several calls to the local beekeeping group.

Mingo, who sells his honey at the grocery, said he and other local beekeepers are hoping to work with grocery managers to ensure the bees are properly managed.

Mussen said the concern is legitimate but that swarms can be controlled by an experienced beekeeper.

“If they’re kept properly, they won’t be any more of a problem than any other bees being kept in town,” Mussen said.

IF YOU GO

”Queen of the Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us?” is screening at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 26 at Rhythmix Cultural Works, 2513 Blanding Avenue. Admission is on a sliding scale of $5-$15, and tickets can be purchased at Alameda Natural Grocery; online, at Brown Paper Tickets; or at the door, and proceeds will benefit the Alameda County Beekeepers Association. The grocery will offer The Bee Ranchers’ hives for purchase, and its managers have plans to bottle and sell the honey their hives produce.

Comments

Submitted by jboeger on Tue, May 15, 2012

I think it's cool to know that our local pest control company is also interested in helping the bees and setting them up to flourish. Check out this bee hive removal story we made for their website (with pictures.)