International Pinot Noir Day today may be received with more enthusiastic engagement, but National Honeybee Day on Saturday deserves just as much celebration. The correlation between pollinators and fine wine quality may not be an obvious one, but we feel so passionately about the subject that we are committed to observing the role of honeybees in our own regenerative viticulture, focusing on beehives as a catalyst for fine wine.
Although vines are self-pollinating, research shows that the best wines are made from soils teeming with life. There is a lot of existing research showing how bees help cover crops (and vice versa), and how cover crops help the soil’s microbiome, and how the microbiome helps the vines and the taste of the wines. Cross-pollinated biodiversity and a nutrient-rich microbiome are defining contributors to long-term vine health and to the complexity of flavors in wine
During one of our recent hive checks, our estate beekeeper, Joy Wesley, took a minute to answer a few of our questions.
Joy, when and how did you become a beekeeper?
The truth is, I have been fascinated by bees for as long as I can remember. In the summer of 2013, my husband saw a book about beekeeping and without a second thought he bought it for me. Over the years he listened to me talk about my desire to keep bees and wanted to support my passion. When I found myself ready to put down roots, I chose beekeeping in Sonoma County. The bees have shaped my life in this amazing region of California. I am always grateful for the privilege to observe, learn, and love what they can provide me and this planet of ours.
Why are honeybees so important?
Ah! I love this question. The public is familiar with honeybees because, unlike the rest of the insect world, honeybees produce something that is sweet and delicious. They are the gateway to the larger conversation about pollinator health and habitat. Like the honeybees, pollinators such as wasps, beetles, butterflies, bats, moths, hummingbirds, and other bee species suffer from losses of habitat and frequent exposure to pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. When the honeybees are directly affected, humans feel a more immediate effect. Without the popularity of the honeybee, the struggles of other pollinators would go unnoticed.
How many honeybees typically live in a colony?
Depending on the kind of hive, at the peak of summer there may be upwards of 80,000 bees in a hive. In winter that number can drop to less than 10,000.
Currently, how large has our colony grown? And how many colonies do you think this estate can support?
The colony is rebounding after re-queening, and the new queen is doing her best to create a strong population going into winter. While it’s a small colony now, it is healthy. If this colony can successfully make it through winter, it may grow strong enough to complete the cycle and get split (which is a beekeeper-planned swarm) next spring.
Watching how this colony thrives, or doesn’t, and evaluating the landscape for the possibility of wild honeybee colonies in the local oak tree woodlands will help determine how many colonies can be introduced to the local ecosystem. We don’t want to displace any native pollinators and bee tree honeybees. Every property is different. But if we make decisions more aligned with how Mother Nature works, we are being stewards of the land. That that is what I think about when evaluating a property for honeybee colonies and for providing all pollinators with clean, healthy, abundant forage and habitat.
Is it true that most of the bees within a colony are female?
That is true. Female worker honeybees make up most of the bee population in a hive. They do all the hive maintenance including cleaning the hive, feeding the baby bees, guarding the hive from intruders, removing the sick and the dead from the hive, tending to the queen (feeding, cleaning, guiding), foraging for food, water, and sap, regulating the temperature of the hive, creating wax for building comb, locating a new home when it’s time to swarm, and many other amazing things!
How far do honeybees travel for food and what do they eat?
Honeybees can fly upwards of 5 miles in search of forage but average about 2-3 miles from the hive in search of food and water. Honeybees gather both nectar and pollen. Nectar is their energy source and pollen is their protein source. Adult and baby honeybees need both! So, if you have the space, even just enough for a few pots, plant a native garden that blooms at different months throughout the year.
What role can honeybees play in agriculture or even regenerative agriculture?
Agriculture and insects (including the honeybee) have been intertwined in a dance that allows both to thrive when they are in balance. Both can also fail if pushed too hard to work in an extractive system instead of a regenerative system. Bees are a keystone species. My vision for how best to tend to the pollinators in agricultural settings has been to benefit the planet by reintroducing a varied living landscape. This can promote a resurgence of insect and animal life, giving regenerative cycles of life and death the opportunity to provide a multitude of living beings with nourishment. That sounds a bit poetic, but essentially the honeybees (and other insects) contribute to the biodiversity above ground, so that cycle can contribute to the biodiversity below ground in the soil, so the soil can contribute to the biodiversity above ground. This is the dance.
When you look at this estate, what excites you about establishing honeybee colonies here?
The enthusiasm and curiosity of the people here is what excites me the most about moving forward with the pollinator program at this property. From the winemaker to the estate host, everyone is excited about the honeybees. Folks are equally excited about supporting the native pollinators as well, and even excited about the plants that support the whole system. When folks see how interconnected the plants, insects, and humans are they truly light up and want to contribute to the wellbeing of all that inhabits a place.
If someone wants to know more about the amazing things honeybees do, what book do you recommend they read?
I highly recommend The Lives of Bees by Dr. Thomas D. Seeley. His story is captivating. As a scientist, he shares what is being learned about the behavior, social life, and survival strategies of wild honeybees. And he offers the principles and vision for beekeeping in alignment with the natural habits of honeybees.