Napa Valley Bee Co.

It's not often that I have the pleasure of meeting true renaissance men. With a simple mission ("local people, local bees, local products"), Rob Keller and his business partner Jason Grace operate Napa Valley Bee Co., a sustainable honeybee organization that recognizes the importance of strong genetics in our local bees. I was introduced to Rob and Jason through a mutual friend after a casual discussion about many Napa residents keeping backyard bees. I was curious to find out more about issues like colony collapse disorder, as well as the basic process of apiculture. Advocates and educators, Rob and Jason were eager to share the intricacies and struggles involved in modern beekeeping. 

Photo by Meg Smith.

Photo by Meg Smith.

Aside from fighting for the well-being of our local bees, Rob is a husband and father who enjoys tending to his chickens and canning vegetables. He's also a professional photographer and artist that has exhibited across the nation and even constructed observation hives for a handful of galleries. He has a vivid memory of shipping his artwork to a gallery in New York City two days before the 9/11 tragedy — he actually pinpoints this experience as a time when everything changed for him, including his career direction. Jason joined Rob when the business was growing quickly and needed a hand with hive management, but also someone who could get involved with the financial and organizational aspects of the company. The Bee Co. opportunity allowed Jason to take a much-needed hiatus from his former work in the banking industry where he focused on lending to wineries and vineyards.

Napa Valley Bee Co. currently manages about 100 bee colonies. They are considered trailblazers of the local apiculturist movement where they focus efforts on learning and sharing their knowledge with other sustainable beekeepers. With a deep respect for bees, Rob and Jason aim to communicate to the public how important honeybees and humans are to one another. But there's a dark side to this progressive movement: they've seen an estimated 80% loss in the past year alone amongst their new colonies. Though bees have been on earth since prehistoric times, there's a very real possibility that our honeybees could evolve into something with more aggressive tendencies or cease to exist completely. With the an ever-growing list of threats to colonies — hive beetles, globalization, poor hive practices, and global warming just to name a few — Rob and Jason's extensive body of knowledge and lust for educating the masses is vital in the quest to maintain our local honeybee health and vitality. Here's more from my time interviewing the boys.

Jason in the field. Photo by Rob Keller.

Jason in the field. Photo by Rob Keller.

What inspired you to get into apiary work?

R: I’m absolutely enthralled with the social complexity of the hive. How all the bees work together for the common good, how they delegate responsibility, and how the queen is running the show yet the colony is functioning in full democracy. I love the Italian truism “Uno Apis e´no Apis,” which translates to “one bee is no bee.” This basically means that the queen can’t live on her own, the workers can’t live on their own, and drones can’t live on their own either. Teamwork is essential for survival.

J: My journey with bees sprang from another passion of mine — fermented beverages. As an avid home brewer, I became interested in making mead (honey wine) and became curious about various types of varietal honeys (lavender, orange blossom, clover, etc). In 2008, I saw a beekeeping class advertised in Napa, and Rob was teaching the class. Straight away we developed a great friendship, and he really brought enthusiasm and passion to the subject. He sold me my first colony and then allowed me to tag along on random hive inspections — an apprenticeship of sorts. During the last five years, interest in bees has been surging — perhaps the result of Americans rediscovering better quality food or the well-publicized decline of bee colonies. Whatever the reason, this has brought about a great increase in individuals and businesses willing to purchase bees and have their hives managed.

So my work with bees has been an indirect path — a combined result of pursuing an interest, a strong friendship, and my desire to work with a small local business with some contact to nature.

Rob at work in the vineyard.

Rob at work in the vineyard.

Growing up, what did you think you wanted to do?

R: From a very young age I worked at my mom’s veterinary clinics and quickly learned the trade. I was particularly drawn to exotic animals which may or may not have given me a greater foundation of understanding honeybee husbandry. That said, I thought I was going to become a photographer or at least an artist of some sort. I grew up a military brat — my dad was a commander in the Navy, so we moved every three years. Almost every military base we lived at had an amazing darkroom so my dad and I spent hours developing and printing black & white film. I ended up shooting for all my school newspapers and yearbooks and eventually getting a master’s degree in the field from UC Davis. For my thesis show I incorporated bees and have been deeply involved with them ever since.

What's the most rewarding aspect of the job?

J: Working with bees allows me to have a relationship with nature. When you think about a bee hive, you must consider many variables such as the weather, the amount of light and shade, the local vegetation, and the specific geography of a site. You also have the human element — what does the owner desire from the bees, how will they be managed, and whether people are concerned by or afraid of the bees. I like that the job is half science and half art.

R: The most rewarding thing to me is being able to make an impact on our local environment. It feels great to be able to work outside year-round doing something positive for the natural world. My hope is that Bee Co. could potentially be a job that our kids step into someday. We try to stay at the forefront of sustainable beekeeping by closely watching the bee’s clues — recognizing their signs enables us to best respond to their needs. We do our best to steer clear of natural selection and are extremely focused on propagating the strongest genetics we can acquire locally. It’s not always easy, in light of the current bee decline, to start every year from a deficit, but I’m proud to have built a business where we are still able to follow our original mission and lead by example. That’s incredibly rewarding to me.

A healthy colony.

A healthy colony.

Hive beetles. What's up with them and how did they get to the Napa Valley? Anything we can do to stop them from getting a foothold in our area?

J: Hive beetles are native to sub-Saharan Africa, where they descended from beetles which feed on tree sap and decaying fruit. They are co-evolved with the African honeybee (aka “killer bee”), which is notoriously aggressive and frequently swarms. As a result of globalization, the beetle has spread to other regions, including the continental US, Australia, and the Hawaiian Islands. The beetle harms the colony by consuming the pollen stores and defecating in the honey. In small numbers they are a nuisance, but in large numbers they can overwhelm a colony and form a collapse.

The beetles were first found in apiaries in Florida in 1998. From there, they rapidly dispersed throughout the Southeast, Texas, and the Midwest. Due to migratory beekeeping, a pest in one part of the country may be trucked to another location, as the beekeepers follow the bloom of various crops. The biggest pollination event is the almond bloom in California each February — something like 60% of the nation's managed bee colonies come to this state to pollinate this valuable cash crop. The beetle was undoubtedly brought into California for this reason. Agricultural inspectors were (partially) aware of the issue, but did not deny entry to affected bee colonies since this would have meant the financial ruin of a number of beekeeping operations and a smaller yielding almond crop.

As for their appearance in Napa, we first noticed them in the spring of 2012. How they got to our area is a matter of speculation, but they either jumped from a commercial operation or were brought in by a careless hobbyist. The beetles are strong flyers and can travel up to ten miles. My hives never left my backyard and the beetles still showed up.

There are a number of controls for the beetle, which range from vegetable oil-based traps to chemical treatments to certain mechanical-type innovations and even biological controls. None of these can be expected to eliminate the beetle, but their number can perhaps be kept manageable through some forms of control. At this point, we are trapping to assess the spread of the pest and to evaluate what can be done with more serious infestations.

In the end, the bees will have to form their own genetic resistance to keep the beetle in check. Might this mean more aggressive traits such as the ones exhibited by their African brethren? Some beekeepers have indicated this may well be the case.

A perished hive.

A perished hive.

What are the other major threats to hive colonies currently?

J: There are many ways to address this question. We could talk about acute paralysis syndrome, pesticide use, pollution, habitat loss, Africanized bees, or globalization and global warming. We could talk about poor management practices, decreasing genetic diversity, or treatments which weaken the species. All the problems faced by bees are ultimately a result of man.

The big themes that constantly emerge for me are the following:

1.) The globalized economy where bees and bee parasites are moved around the world rapidly.

2.) Our mechanized system of agriculture, which demands bees be moved around the country for purposes of pollination.

3.) Keeping bees under constant pressure as a result of items 1 and 2.

R: It’s depressing, but what I feel is one of the biggest threats to the European Honeybee is the general lack of unity between beekeepers. If everyone including hobbyists, large-scale beekeepers, honey producers, migratory beekeepers, and educators, all got on the same page we might survive the species. Mechanized agriculture is a whole separate issue that is much bigger than just the bees, but we as beekeepers can do our part by looking at the longterm effects of our management on the species. We need to stop propping bees up and sustaining them through artificial means. We are crushing them by moving colonies around on a large scale, throwing an arsenal of chemicals at them to protect our bottom line. We need to spend more time concentrating on local genetics until we stabilize the health of the bees.

Have you seen a shift in people's way of thinking surrounding the importance of bees and hives in the past few years?

J: I think most people are aware of the general decline of bees, due to the headlines in the newspapers and magazines — particularly the well-publicized issue of colony collapse disorder (CCD). More specifically, there's a growing subset of people who are interested in consuming and producing local foods. Such subjects as backyard gardening, chickens, canning, cheese making, etc. have also experienced an explosive growth in popularity. This interest has cast a light on bees, both in the production of honey and their important role as pollinators of most fruit, nut, and vegetable crops. This is where we're seeing the biggest change in the awareness of bees. As anecdotal evidence, my mother-in-law informed me that Williams-Sonoma is now selling beehive kits, which suggests that beekeeping has become trendy and has at least somewhat entered mainstream consciousness.

For a much smaller group of the population, the plight of the honeybee has brought about an examination of the current agricultural system (based on petroleum, chemical agents, and mono-culture). This brings into discussion man's relationship with bees and ethical questions about using a living organisms as a cog in a mechanistic system of food production.

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