“Honeybees are a lot gentler than people give them credit for,” Rick Baxter says. “Most people get stung by wasps, but they blame it on bees.”
Baxter is a full-time beekeeper—or apiarist, if you want to get fancy—as well as the president of the Beekeepers Guild of San Mateo County, a club for local hobbyist beekeepers to share tips and resources and educate newbies.
Since 2006, honeybees in North America have been dying off in unprecedented numbers, and no one is quite sure why.
“The bees have been having a hard time, but they’re starting to come back,” Baxter says. “I attribute that to the enthusiasm of hobbyist beekeepers.”
The Benefits of Beekeeping
Why would you want to start tending to a hive in your backyard? For Baxter, beekeeping is a relaxing hobby that tunes him into his local environment: the weather, the microclimates and the plants.
Local honey has many environmental and health benefits. In addition to supporting local bee populations, eating local honey, just like eating local food, eliminates the pollution caused by shipping food across the country.
Raw honey, no matter where it’s from, is an excellent digestive aid and antiseptic for cuts and burns. But local raw honey, full of pollen spores from local plants, can help treat your hay fever, building up your body’s immunity to local allergens. Ninety percent of the raw honey Baxter sells is used to fight allergies.
Tips to Get Started
If you’re interested in getting started as a novice apiarist and—this is important—you’re not allergic to bee stings, first check to see if your city has an ordinance prohibiting or restricting beehives.
Even if there are no laws regulating beekeeping in your city, Baxter recommends being a good neighbor: check with your neighbors before setting up a hive and place the hive far from their property.
Although the Guild’s annual spring beginning beekeeping class has passed, Guild members are available year-round to provide advice and expertise. Email the Guild at firstname.lastname@example.org or attend their monthly meetings, held at 7:30 p.m. the first Thursday of each month at the Belmont Congregational Church, 751 Alameda de las Pulgas. The Guild also offers classes for intermediate and advanced beekeepers throughout the year.
Beekeeping isn’t a very time-consuming hobby, Baxter says. You’ll need to check your hive weekly after you first set it up, but after the hive is established, you’ll only need to spend 10 minutes checking it every few weeks.
Worried that your neighborhood is too cold, windy or foggy to raise healthy bees? Baxter has successfully raised bees all over the Peninsula: from San Mateo and Palo Alto to the coast in Moss Beach and Pescadero.
“Bees can survive all over the place. They aren’t adverse to a little cold weather,” he says. “It’s not a matter of the weather—it’s a matter of what’s in bloom, and how easily bees can get to it.”
Getting Local Honey without Tending the Hive
If beekeeping just isn’t for you, there are other ways to get local honey without the work. You can hire a local beekeeper to take care of a hive in your backyard; other beekeepers will place a hive in your backyard, sell the honey it produces and give you an allowance of honey in return for using your space.
You can also buy local honey through the Guild’s beekeepers or at farmers markets and local wine and art festivals. Baxter recommends you look for raw, unprocessed honey, to get the maximum health benefit, and always ask the vendor where the honey came from to make sure it’s local.