• From the Ground Up: Beekeeping — wings at work

    by Ann M. Evans & Georgeanne Brennan

    Michael McDonald and his bees in Brooks, California, on September 6, 2011. He sells his honey at the Davis Farmers Market.

    Here’s what I know about honeybees. They are more complicated to care for than chickens. Inside the hive, the characters are more complex than inside the coop. A year into a dream come true, I’ve still got a lot to learn about the most important pollinators of plants, the bee.

    Georgeanne has many beehives on her property, kept there by a local beekeeper that provides her with gracious amounts of honey. Her large, year-round kitchen garden, as well as her fruit trees and the orchards surrounding Winters provide a diverse diet for the bees.

    I share one hive on two cinder blocks with a board between the blocks and the hive. Just this can hold several hundred pounds of hive and honey by the end of the season, and one healthy colony contains around 60,000 bees. This, along with my six chickens, constitutes the livestock portion of the imaginary farm I cultivate on my suburban lot.

    Oddly, it was my backyard chickens that led me to the bees. I first knew I wanted to raise bees during my Aggie days at UC Davis, which in its Department of Entomology has an important bee biology program named after the late, “father of honey bee genetics,” Professor Harry Laidlaw. That program is working hard to promote the health of the honeybees in the face of colony collapse disorder, a disease devastating home and commercial hives a like since late 2006.

    At one point well after college graduation, I surprised myself and acquired all the beekeeping essentials except the hive and the bees at a garage sale. They sat unused in my garden shed until I recycled them in a fit of spring-cleaning fit.

    Unlike beekeeping, chicken keeping is easy which is probably why I was able to easily manifest backyard chickens only several years after dreaming of the idea. One Easter morning, I simply surprised our daughter with baby chicks, and proceeded to build a coop. Little did I know then that those hens would lead me to my bees.

    The opportunity arose at a brunch with my fellow chicken “coopsters,” as those of us who display our coops for the annual Tour de Cluck of Davis Farm to School are called (May 26 this year). There I tasted a coopsters honeycomb, so delicious I exclaimed I wanted to keep bees. My neighbor, Steve Stombler, long time bee and chicken keeper, proposed we do so together.

    Over the next year, we geared up, starting with choosing a hive location. Sunlight needs to fall on the entrance in the morning and the hives need a bit of shade and fresh air circulation. Water needs to be nearby, and though the bees will forage from one to five miles away from the hive, they prefer flowers close by. My garden became the site and my garden shed once more the home of a veil, smoker, gloves and a hive tool.

    I learned more from Steve showing me than from my books, but I recommend both. Our queen, who at one point we thought we lost, was hard to spot, the drones easy. They are larger than workers and raised in larger cells. The few a hive needs give their lives for the chance to fertilize the queen on her maiden flight. The hive is 99 percent female, with one queen or more, but that is too complicated for now. I have however seen a queen cell, which reminded me a bit of a temple on Crete.

    I read “The Backyard Beekeeper” by Kim Flottum, and Georgeanne surprised me with a gift of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Beekeeping” by Dean Stiglitz and Laurie Herboldsheimer. Finally spring came; Steve caught a swarm and poured them into the hive body. We had one super, a box that holds frames for honey production by the bees and we were ready.

    I take heart knowing that the queen, but for her maiden flight, lives her whole life inside the darkness of the hive. I still feel I know so little of their ancient ways, their highly ordered, female-controlled society. Sometimes at night, I walk outside under the stars and put my head to the hive to hear the sound of wings at work, and a dream come true.


    ~ Beekeeping Supplies in Yolo County – Mann Lake, 1250 Harter Ave. Woodland, phone – 530-662-0899.
    ~ Bee Clubs – Davis Bee Collective. Contact Derek Downey, (davisbeecharmers@gmail.com)
    ~ Learn More About Bees – Tour McDonald Orchards in Brooks by appointment 796-3821; Visit Haagen-Dazs Honey Bee haven on Bee Biology Road, UC Davis campus, open year round, self guided tours at no charge; Visit Slow Food Yolo website to learn about a spring “Introduction to Beekeeping” class (www.slowfoodyolo.com.)

    Old-Fashioned Butter Cookies with Pistachios and Honey

    This recipe is from our new book, “The Davis Farmers Market Cookbook,” and can be made with Mr. MacDonald’s honey from the market, or any other of your choice.

    The ingredients
    2 cups all-purpose flour
    ¼ teaspoon sea or kosher salt
    1 cup (2 cubes) unsalted butter, at room temperature
    1 cup sugar
    1 teaspoon almond or vanilla extract
    1 teaspoon minced lemon zest
    2 teaspoons honey
    1 egg
    1 cup chopped pistachio nuts, plus about 1/3 cup whole nuts

    Putting it together

    Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

    In a bowl, stir together the flour and salt and reserve. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or in a bowl with an electric mixer, cream together the butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, two to three minutes. Add the almond extract, lemon zest, and honey and beat until combined, then add the egg and beat until combined. On low speed, add the flour mixture and mix just until thoroughly incorporated, about 1 minute. Add the chopped pistachios and stir with a wooden spoon until evenly distributed throughout the dough.

    Scoop up nuggets of the dough, roll between your palms into 1-inch balls, and place on the prepared baking sheet, spacing them about one and a half inches apart. When all of the dough has been shaped, using a wooden spoon, flatten each ball to about one-half inch thin. Place a whole pistachio in the center of each cookie.

    Bake the cookies until the edges are lightly browned, 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer to a rack and let cool completely. The cookies will keep in an airtight container at room temperature for up to one week or in the freezer for two months. Makes about 36 cookies.

    (Ann M. Evans and Georgeanne Brennan are coauthors of “The Davis Farmers Market Cookbook, Tasting California’s Small Farms,” (2012.) Co-leaders of Slow Food Yolo, they have a consultancy, Evans & Brennan, LLC, specializing in farm fresh food in school lunch. Reach them at info@evansandbrennan.com.)

    • Sounds good. Might have to bake these. I once had a beehive in my backyard in an old wooden barrel (decorative). Called the bee man and he came and took it all away and said I could come get my honey but I never did. He asked if I wanted to be a beekeeper in my backyard as my honey was fabulous. Not for me. Too urban but it provided entertainment for the kids in the neighborhood when he took the hive and queen away in his truck. Beekeeper outfit and all. A great experience for Urban children.

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