How these Northern California beekeepers keep their hives up and running during the drought

More than just summer revelers will be buzzing at North Bay resorts in the coming months, with some hotels creating an oasis of habitat for honeybees trying to survive another year of drought.

For decades, it has been hard on the super pollinators who have faced parasites, pesticides, extreme weather and urbanization. But with the help of the finer digs in the Wine Country, such as the Fairmont Sonoma and Montage Healdsburg, the hope among North Bay beekeepers is that a record crop of honey awaits — even with fewer flowers expected to provide nectar and pollen.

“With drought, the blooms don’t sustain the blooms and it weakens (the bees’) collection (of nectar),” said beekeeper Candice Koseba in Sonoma County. “We don’t see that many. I think it’s harder for bees to get through the winter. We will see more colonies die from disease and other stressors.”

That also makes it harder for a beekeeper to maintain these small, special workhorses of the insect kingdom.

Beekeepers like Koseba — which is based in Healdsburg — have turned to luxury hotels as a means of protecting the pollinators from the elements by setting up beehives as hives in the rich flora found in larger resorts.

Wine country resorts use the honey in their restaurants, spas, and shops as a natural, farm-fresh ingredient to eat or heal. The beekeepers distribute the abundance of honey and often stay on the container to care for the beehives. Koseba charges a minimum of $200 per hive, with a minimum of two hives and an additional fee if the sites are difficult to reach. She catches up with bees locally by capturing wild swarms, such as a recent phone call from the owner of a horse farm in Windsor.

At the Montage resort, where the 130 bungalows’ rooms start at $1,345, “bee-feeding” has been added to the list of activities, along with biking, kayaking, and fitness sessions, as well as tours of wineries, museums, and art galleries. The Bee Educational Event features a beekeeping tour hosted by Koseba’s Sonoma County Bee Company. The Montage represents one of the 19 apiaries it serves. The chef turned bee whisperer started caring for the Montage hives in June 2019, the year she started her business venture.

As a final improvement, Koseba moved a colony of bees from one hive to a hollowed-out log last Friday to house the bees on the 258-acre site. Guests can walk along the trail and read a sign with an excerpt about the bee home.

The Montage uses the honey extracted from the combs at the spa, sells Sonoma County Bee Co. products in its store, and supplies the restaurant chef with the natural sweetener.

“I speak the chef’s language,” says Koseba, who hails from northwestern Indiana in a long line of canneries, picklers, and farmers. She made her mark as a trained chef at the Single Thread restaurant in Healdsburg, before transforming her position into culinary liaison and then ‘forager’ outsourcing food ingredients.

Gradually she became fascinated by the bee world and started her own beekeeping business. The company grew by 20% every year. She earns between $3,000 and $6,000 a month from the versatile brand that also includes honey tastings in a kit. They went virtual during the pandemic.

In general, Koseba is not afraid to reinvent herself or her business as she admits that she is constantly learning about the activity.

To expand her knowledge, Koseba took classes at the California School of Herbal Studies in Forestville. She even took a beekeeping trip to Kenya to learn the tricks of the trade from African beekeepers.

Spring is the busiest season for Koseba, tending the various bee colonies and getting calls about rogue hives. The responsibility is not so bad, but Koseba takes the burden.

“I just want them to survive,” she said. “Take care of their hives gives me great joy. I feel quite responsible.”

Koseba advocates for more public education about these extraordinary creatures who seem to have their own language. An example of this is the rarely seen ‘waddling’ dance where a honeybee can tell others where to find nectar, pollen or water.

Being alive in a rural and urban landscape

Honeybees have found friends in both low and high places.

More than a decade ago, the Fairmont San Francisco signed a contract with Marshall’s Farm of American Canyon to tend the grand hotel’s rooftop gardens as one in several global locations in its effort to support its dwindling population over the years. The hotel uses the hundreds of pounds of honey it produces from the beehives of its 1,000-square-foot culinary garden in the restaurant’s soups, salad dressings and pastries as part of its sustainable cuisine offering. It also uses the harvested honey for its guests to enjoy with afternoon tea and in recommended locally brewed beers.

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