Dwindling bee populations have keepers buzzing

Rich Mockabee looks over one of his frames in search of the queen bee, which makes the hive run and make the honey.

When wind blows across Aromas resident Rich Mockabee’s backyard, it buzzes with life. That’s because Mockabee owns dozens of pale, yellow crates holding millions of bees.
While the “colony collapse disorder” has long described the national phenomenon of declining honeybee numbers, Mockabee, 68, of San Benito County, is part of a growing number of regional beekeepers.
“The colony collapse disorder is the title they give to the decline of the bees and there’s a lot of factors that contribute to that,” said Mike Sanchez, 62, a beekeeper living on the outskirts of Hollister. “It’s not one thing.”
The drought, lack of vegetation, insect mites, monoculture crops and pesticides are on the list of contributing factors, Sanchez said. And then there is the stress that commercial beekeepers put on their hives when they transport them cross-country to pollinate highly lucrative California crops such as almonds, he said.
Sanchez has been managing bees for just about five years, but he can already see that regional interest in the insects is humming. Sanchez has watched membership in the Gilroy Beekeepers Association—which includes residents of Aromas and Hollister—grow from “maybe 20 or so people” to “way past 50,” he said.
“I think people are into sustainable farming and bees are just another phase of that,” said Sanchez. “And I think maybe the fact of the decline of the bees, people want to somehow help that out by raising bees themselves.”
Sanchez could count at least six beekeepers in San Benito County, though it is hard to tally the exact numbers, he said.
“It’s kind of one of those things—‘don’t ask, don’t tell’—because a lot of people kind of freak out when they find you have hives right next to them,’” the beekeeper said.
A retired water district employee, Sanchez calls himself a “backyard beekeeper” who manages a few hives from his home so he can supply family and friends with locally produced honey.
“The actual honey is kind of a side commodity,” he said. “The actual money is the pollinating. Those guys make real good money renting their bees to farmers.”
Mockabee, owner of MockaBees Apiary, is one of “those guys.” The beekeeper travels as far as Modesto, where he drops off his bees during the pollination period for almonds, and takes home about $150 to $200 per hive, while other crops such as cherries yield just $30 for the same service. Because the pollination period for almonds is just three to five weeks, and California is the top producer of the product, commercial beekeepers trek in from out of state to participate in the big money crop.
Mockabee, who retired from selling RVs and real estate, likes beekeeping because the work is constantly changing for him.
“It’s always different,” he said. “Every day is something different.”
On May 28, Mockabee took a truckload of hives to two remote yards. The plants the bees visit while they’re away from home will flavor their honey, which Mockabee markets in varieties that include clover, orange blossom and blackberry. Back at his home in Aromas, Mockabee lifted frames of wiggling bees out of yellow boxes stamped with his last name and scanned for the queens he introduced to the hives earlier that month.
“It’s just starting to warm up, so they’re starting to get active,” the beekeeper said as he used a smoker to calm the bees flying out as he checked their hive.
Mockabee sees the week in farmers’ markets days: Tuesday means a driving trip to Monterey. Wednesday is Hollister. Friday he’s in Watsonville. And Sunday it’s on to Marina. At the markets, he sells pollen, beeswax candles, soap and honey.
As for the causes of colony collapse disorder: “It’s numerous things,” he said, referencing monoculture crops, pesticides and insect mites.
In the most extreme cases, commercial beekeepers have lost between a third and half of their winged insects, Sanchez told the Free Lance.
“As a backyard beekeeper, if you lose one hive, (it’s) probably not so much as a concern as a half dozen or so,” Sanchez said. “But if you’re banking on an income—you’re livelihood—that could be very severe.”
Sanchez calls his beekeeping retirement project “rewarding.”
“It’s fun watching the bees and watching them work,” he said. “All you’re doing is providing them a home and they’re providing you with a valuable natural product: honey.”

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