If you’re an avid gardener, chances are you’re already familiar with the benefits that bees bring to your flowers and vegetable patch. For the rest of us, beekeepers like Mark Paterson exist to induct us into their magical universe.
In addition to managing 17 hives around the South Bay Area for a range of private customers, Mark is the apiary manager at Full Circle Farm, vice-president of Santa Clara County’s beekeepers’ guild, and the owner of Honey Of Distinction, where he sells the honey his hives produce — 2,000 pounds in 2011. And then there are his other hobbies, like medieval role-play, home-brewing, raising chickens, and, as of February 2012, raising pigs on their 2.5-acre plot in Campbell.
For the Santa Clara Beekeepers’ Guild, Mark serves on the monthly “Dr. Bee” panel, fielding questions about various aspects of beekeeping. He also conducts classes at Full Circle Farm in the spring and summer, educating the farm’s volunteers and members about what bees do, their importance for maintaining healthy garden eco-systems and consequently, for our food supply. It’s easy to see why Mark’s wife calls him “The Bee Whisperer.”
“I think my interest in beekeeping sprung out of my love of gardening,” Mark explains. “Flowers need bees to be pollinated and I love honey, so beekeeping was a natural step for me. I just love bees. I could sit all day just looking at them going in and out of their hives; I find it calming.“
On a recent visit, Mark gave me a quick look into the world of bees and beekeeping in North America. The average American consumes about a third of a pound of honey a year, and there are currently 330 different varieties of American honey, dependent on the type of flowers that bees feed on. While there are over 1,500 varieties of native bees in North America, the European honey bee is commonly used in commercial beekeeping and honey operations today.
“European bees are good pollinators, and unlike American varieties, which are solitary, they don’t die in the winter,” Mark said.
While it may seem that more and more people are taking up beekeeping these days, only a small handful – about 2,000, Mark estimates – actually make a living from beekeeping by providing pollinating services to farms and orchards.
According to Mark, “Keeping bees just to make honey is very labor-intensive for a relatively low-yield product. You’ve got to care for the hive, take care of pests and ensure that your bees are healthy, then there’s the work involved in harvesting and bottling the honey for market.”
He continued, “Most commercial beekeepers live a nomadic lifestyle, and the main event for them is the pollination of California’s almond crop. For three weeks in February, commercial beekeepers from California, Maine, Florida and North Dakota bring their hives to California’s Central Valley for the annual pollination of the almond crop. Eighty percent of the world’s almonds are produced in California, so it’s the largest, most coordinated commercial beekeeping event in the world.”
While profitable, it’s not a lifestyle Mark’s interested in, preferring instead to share his knowledge with his community while still balancing other aspects of his life, like family and his technology career. His consulting beekeeping services seem to provide the right fit, and with 17 hives under his belt, he’s looking to grow the business to 30 hives this year. Current private customers tend to be avid gardeners who recognize the importance of bees for their backyard, but who may not have the time for actively managing a hive.
“My goal is to find a way for bees and humans to happily co-exist, and to minimize the impacts of one on the other,” Mark shared. “When setting up a hive, I look at the best spot for the bees that would also allow my clients to observe them without getting uncomfortably close.”
Considering my irrational fear of getting a bee sting as a kid, I was surprisingly calm as Mark opened his hives for me to photograph. He was right; there is something relaxing about watching bees going about their work, and comforting too, knowing that their existence contributes to the health of our planet and the food system. With the onset of Colony Collapse Disorder in the past few years and the challenge of keeping hives healthy in farming environments laden with pesticides and chemicals, private beekeeping services like Mark’s will be even more important, helping to slow the problem of disappearing hives. Only time will tell.
Do you keep, or want to keep, bees?
About the author: Danielle Tsi grew up in Singapore, a tiny, food-obsessed island on the tip of the Malaysian Peninsula, where every waking minute was spent thinking about what her next meal was going to be. Landing in the United States with her well-traveled Nikon, she turned her lifelong love affair with food into images and words on her blog, Beyond the Plate. When not behind the lens or at the stove, Danielle can be found on her yoga mat perfecting the headstand.