Napa’s most vibrant residents aren’t oenophiles, they’re bees

Drop the corkscrew and get away from the bottle of Georges de Latour Private Reserve – there’s a better way to buzz in Napa.

Lord knows that Northern California’s prosperous wine country is teeming with wasps, but are you familiar with the real honeybees?

It’s crawling.

Close your eyes for a meditative moment, activate your inner bee mode and transform into one of nature’s most curious creatures (if Seinfeld can do it, so can you).

Fly around Grapelandia’s beautiful peaks, valleys, and over 400 insanely landscaped (and controversially well-watered, damn drought) wineries. Enjoy the beautiful scenery with your five – yes, five! – eyes. Feel the warm Napa air beneath your four wings. Crave all that jaw-watering flora, because you’re a sucker for nectar (because, literally, your tongue-like trunk sucks it up from flowers, Dyson-style).

Swollen Combs: Rob Keller is the bee whisperer of the Napa Valley thanks to his slow, respectful and gentle approach.
Thanks to VAWA

Okay, but back to reality.

The next best thing about being a bee is helping them thrive, even learning how to raise them in your own backyard. Around these parts, bees are rescue animals and Rob Keller is their rescuer, providing visitors with beekeeping experiences.

As a 58-year-old regenerative aculturist in downtown Napa (that’s a nice pair of pants that speaks for an eco-friendly beekeeper), the UC Davis MFA holder — and stand-alone beekeeper at Napa Valley Adult School and St. Helena Montessor — is the manager of approximately 100 colonies spread across 45 different apiaries in Napa Valley, Sonoma and beyond.

Exterior of Keller at one of his beehives.
Hives Outbreak: Keller oversees about 100 colonies spread across 45 apiaries in the area — with up to 60,000 bees per colony, he is the proud adoptive father of millions.

With up to 60,000 bees per hive, that means millions, dwarfing the human population of 138,000 that call Napa County home.

Keller – aka just “Rob;” aka “Kells;” also known as “Beeco” (Napa Valley Bee Co. is his company, which claims the French laundry among its many illustrious customers) – recently partnered with VAWAA, a “world school” founded by wanderluster Geetika Agrawal in 2015.

That tongue twister stands for Vacation With an Artist and connects anyone interested in every art form imaginable – from leather and dance to floral design and metalwork – with masters around the world (116 in 26 countries, to be exact).

Keller with a veiled partner checks his bees.
To veil or not to veil? The dress code here is yours – Keller, left, is on one end of the spectrum, his cloaked sidekick, the other.

In Keller’s case, his fully customized three-day beekeeping internships begin with a short seminar at Keller’s farm, most importantly with safety precautions (you’ll get stung no matter how veiled and moon-capable you are, so if you’re allergic, or never stung before – with peace and love – buzz away; Keller has EpiPens at the ready when things go sideways).

Then for six hours of those days you live the life of a beekeeper, learn about bee biology and life in colonies, visit restaurants after managing their bees, hunt swarms, safely and humanely remove hives from trees. and homes where they’re not really welcome, replace queens and “just slow down a bit to listen to what the bees want to teach us.”

It is never the same day twice.

Close up of a honey bee.
Black and Yellow, Black and Yellow: Honeybees don’t look as scary as their aposematic cousin the wasp, but they sure as hell can clear a room of panicked, screaming people with just a single flight.
NurPhoto via Getty Images

You’ll be proud to get your hands sticky, your clothes stained with propolis (beehive sealant) and you’ll probably smell like smoke the entire trip (because Keller’s bees are super chill Apis mellifera variety – European bees, for friends – he judiciously uses smoke as a last resort when a fussy colony needs softening; like the grapes in the area, European bees are well-suited to Napa’s arid Mediterranean climate.)

It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it (even in Manhattan, it’s an industry that has made its way into the world of luxury real estate).

Keller promises you “eat, drink and live bees,” both figuratively and literally with honey tastings (and hopefully wine pairings) galore. Don’t worry, there will be plenty of downtime for that snack grind too.

Rob Keller checks his bees in a vineyard.
European bees, like European grapes, are all about that arid Mediterranean climate that Napa offers, where they both thrive.

Keller’s art is a kinder, gentler approach to beekeeping, as opposed to the more corporate, factory farm-like honey operators. “I’m taking the Tiny Tim approach, I’m on tiptoe through it,” he joked. “It’s not my bees, not your bees, they are” U.S bees.”

If you have a chance to choose Keller’s brain, please do.

A vet techie turned sculptor turned photographer, turned animal mummifying artist (which eventually led to his apiphilia; I’ll let him expand on that), he’s beyond passionate about his furry, six-legged stinging friends and insists that they can be as individualized and unique personalities as cats, despite having a hive (“If you only have one bee, you have zero bees,” he explained), who collectively serve their queen.

Bee deployment over the Napa Valley.
Swiller Bees: Become an apprentice to beekeeping Keller for a few days in boozy Shangri-la that is the Napa Valley. He will teach you fun facts like how the ancient Egyptians considered bees sacred because they both worship the sun god Ra.

Speaking of the HBIC, there is no such thing as a peaceful transition of power within hives. Once a queen grows too old, releases fewer pheromones, or otherwise no longer rules effectively, the Marie Antoinette colony will anoint her in an instant and anoint a younger, more viable queen. “Off with her head,” Keller said.

As if that wasn’t enough drama in those hexagonal honey factories, there’s still Colony Collapse Disorder and massive environmental stress on the outside to worry about.

As Albert Einstein said, “If the bee disappears from the face of the earth, man will have no more than four years to live.” No pressure or anything, Rob – but it sure would be nice to see 2027!

VAWAA’s three-day “Art of Regenerative Beekeeping with Rob” year-round costs $1530 for one guest and $575 for additional guests (up to four, max). Price includes snacks, coffee and tea; accommodation is not included.

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