Ojai Valley Bee Club on Nature's Sweetest Insect
If you’ve ever had a fascination with bees or just love your local honey, you’ll be glad to know the Ojai Valley Bee Club is busy as, well, a bee. I met with a few founders to find out how they got started and just what they do.
“We’re here to provide support and community for those out there who want to keep bees,” says Glenn Perry, a local beekeeper transplanted from the East Coast.
They’re also there for the love of bees.
Club members say that the beauty of bees keeps them in touch with nature in profound ways, reminding them daily of bees’ role in pollination and the cycle of life. The more they become involved with bees, any fear they may have had decreases while their respect for bees increases, as does the bees’ mystery.
“With bees you’re not only dealing with wildlife,” says club member Katie Metzger, “you’re dealing with the nest, an intimate look at wildness.”
The club, which has about 15 to 20 core members, was conceived after the 2010 Ojai Playhouse screening of the bee documentary Queen of the Sun—What are the Bees Telling Us? This sweet film, sponsored by Transition to Organics and the Ojai Valley Green Coalition, brought bee lovers out of the woodwork.
“That movie really moved us,” says Metzger. “People stood around afterwards outside the theater just talking, novices like me, and a few others like Glenn and Alan Thornhill, who had been beekeeping for a while. We were all so thankful that Glenn agreed to start the club and spearhead it,” says the stay-at-home-mom. These days, if she’s not with her kids, she’s surfing or hanging out with her bees, she says.
“People should know that the club is not just for trained beekeepers,” adds Metzger. “We have bee enthusiasts and bee lovers learning about bees and beekeeping until they are comfortable enough to keep bees themselves.” This is why it’s called a bee club instead of a beekeepers club, adds Perry.
He was a member of a similar, though much larger, group back east called The Backyard Beekeepers. “I would not be involved with bees today if not for the support I received from that group. The Ojai Bee Club is one way I can pay back that support.”
A fascination led Perry to become involved with bees around 1998. He has since made them his livelihood, selling the propolis (a resin) bees produce all over the world through his business, GlenHeaven Propolis (WholePropolis.com). (Some bees make propolis to seal their hives; the propolis has many medicinal uses.)
“Beekeeping used to be different,” he says. “Used to be every rural farmer kept a few bees, but by the time I got started it was beginning to be a real challenge… I got into this on the heels of huge losses due to the varroa mite. People were losing 30%–50% of their bees every year.”
Interest in backyard beekeeping has been expanding, says Perry, thanks to the sustainability movement, documentaries and the 2002 book The Secret Life of Bees, about a teen in the racially charged South and her discoveries through bees, which was made into a popular 2008 film.
“The decriminalization of backyard beekeeping has also contributed,” says beekeeper Richard Kline, who’s retired and mentors many of the club’s new beekeepers. “Before that, you couldn’t even have bees in urban areas.”
Bees swarm in the spring when hives become too crowded; the surplus bees separate from the original hive with the old queen, flying together in search of a new location. (The next queen is already being developed in the original hive.)
When they move to a location where they pose a danger to people or animals, or are where they’re not wanted, the club’s members relocate them, if possible.
Metzger, Thornhill and Kline were called to Meiners Oaks Elementary School two years ago to move unwanted swarming bees.
Club member Dávid Sipos, who is on a national bee rescue list, was called out to an Oxnard home with a “bee disturbance.” Across the street, in an abandoned cemetery, Sipos found 22 cardboard cartons filled with abandoned hives. No one knows who owned them or why they were there.
Thankfully, the club found homes for the bees.
Like anything tied to nature, the bee club is dealing with new challenges. Climate change is taking a toll, with the state’s multi-year drought.
“If you have this sunshine with no water,” says Sipos, “the bees will suffer. The bees know what’s best for them. If there is a problem they are ready to leave.”
Another new challenge is the state-mandated, and Ventura County enforced, use of chemical agents to eradicate the Asian psyllid, a pest threatening the citrus crops. According to the club, the insect has been found in trees around Rice and Fairview roads and spraying has taken place in Santa Barbara, Santa Paula and Fillmore.
The pesticide being used needs to permeate the ground for 400 feet around the trees where the pests are found, and that pesticide will also permeate the tree, its flowers and fruit. Pesticides can remain in the ground and plant tissue for nearly four years, Perry says.
“That’s huge,” he adds. “You are killing the entire insect world in that area when you drench the ground.”
In terms of combatting the Asian psyllid, Ojai’s organic ranchers haven’t had to use the proposed pesticides that are being applied in other parts of the state, says Metzger. However, there is concern that this will change, she adds.
“The silver lining in all this,” she adds, “is that this threat may raise awareness about the pesticides people are using in their own yard.”
The club is also interested in launching pesticide education programs and getting voluntary removal of neonicotinoids (a category of pesticides that has been linked to bee loss) from local retail shelves, as well as encouraging commercial and residential tree owners to use benign alternative methods of control.
The European Commission has adopted a proposal to restrict the use of three pesticides belonging to the neonicotinoid family (clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam) for a period of two years. Neonicotinoids have been indicated in bee colony collapse syndrome.
In February, Assemblyman Das Williams, whose Santa Barbara district includes parts of Ventura County, introduced legislation that would set a timeline for the Department of Pesticide Regulation to determine if neonicotinoids are driving bee die-offs across the nation.
“The first five years I kept bees I was trying to rescue the bee,” says Kline. “Then I came to the realization that the only thing I can do is provide them with a safe clean place to live. They’ll work it out. Maybe a virus comes along and kills 90% of them off but the other 10% get bigger ‘muscles’ and fight it off .”
The club welcomes newcomers at its meetings, held at 6pm the second Thursday of every month at Farmer and the Cook, 339 W. El Roblar. Look for them on Facebook and at their Earth Day booth at Oak Grove School in Ojai. To learn more about propolis, visit WholePropolis.com.
For more info about bees and their plight, visit ARS.USDA.gov.