Keeping Honey Bees in Santa Barbara County

Photography by Fran Collin

If you’ve ever thought about keeping bees this would be the year to start, says Paul Cronshaw, a local beekeeper, swarm catcher and educator. “I keep track of the bees in the backcountry when I go backpacking,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of bees back there post-fire. After the January rains, the hillsides will be covered with wildflowers.”

Flowers keep our local bees active and strong. The bee population grows or shrinks depending on the available nectar and pollen. Nectar and pollen feed the colony in the brood boxes.

If there are lots of blooms the honey flow is good, and the bees bring in far more nectar than they need. Excess nectar is stored in the upper boxes of the hive beekeepers call supers. Beekeepers prefer to harvest the honey from the supers and leave the honey in the brood boxes for the bee population.

Kim Crane has a hive that needs to be divided. She has seen drones flying around in her bee yard. On sunny days she sits on the step near the bee yard to drink her morning coffee and watch the bees. She listens to the increase in hive activity as the sun begins to warm the air. She sees forager bees fly out to gather nectar from newly opened flowers, returning with golden balls of pollen attached to their legs.

“Male drone bees are bigger, fuzzier, louder and a bit clumsier than female worker bees,” Kim says. Seeing drones at this time of year means the hive may be getting too crowded. The nurse bees are probably raising new queens and more drones in anticipation of a swarm. A strong, healthy hive contains 40,000 to 45,000 bees. About half the bees in the hive will leave with the old queen in search of a new location when the hive gets too full.

Paul Cronshaw is Kim Crane’s mentor. Kim took a class in beekeeping from Paul about 7 years ago. She was the only woman in a class of eight students.

Kim first became interested in bees as a child, working in the garden with her grandfather. He showed her the bees pollinating his flowers and peaches. That stimulated her lifelong interest in bees. Kim told Paul she was ready to get started, she just needed the bees.

Paul keeps his own bees, but he removes more swarms from chimneys, trees, walls, fences and compost bins than he can keep, so he’s always looking for places to relocate them. It wasn’t long before he called Kim to report that he’d captured a swarm at Crane School.

It’s no coincidence that Kim’s last name is Crane. Her husband’s grandfather founded Crane School. Did she want them? You bet! She put the Crane bees in her hive and divided the colony as it grew. She has never needed another swarm to keep her hives filled.

But on the day I met her she was down to the one hive, the one that needed dividing. Her hives survived the last two fires, but she lost a hive to a wax moth infestation last August. Most urban beekeepers keep at least two hives so they have a backup if one fails.

Dividing the Hive

Kim invited me to observe the hive splitting. Paul stopped by on his way home from work. The three of us suited up in white beekeeper suits, complete with hats and veils. I made sure my pant legs were securely sealed and put on the pair of gloves that went up to my elbows. Paul chose not to wear gloves.

Kim filled the bellows-type smoker with shredded paper and began to puff smoke around the hive to make the bees more docile. Paul quickly began prying the hive open with his hive tool. Kim worked on the other side of the hive helping to break the lid free. The workers bees seal the hive with propolis, a resinous substance they gather from tree sap.

Meanwhile bees were streaming in and out of the entrance at the bottom. I stayed clear of their flight path, but close enough to look inside the top super. The box was full to overflowing with honey. Kim had guessed right.

Nine or 10 frames hang in each box like hanging files. The bees build brood cells and honey storage cells on a pre-made beeswax foundation. Paul pried a frame loose and pulled it up with the hook at the end of his hive tool. Both sides of the frame were filled with honey. The bees had even begun to add cells to the tops of the frames and the underside of the lid.

The queen lays eggs for the nurse bees to tend and feed in the two brood boxes located at the bottom of the hive. A queen excluder is placed on top of the second brood box so that she will not venture up into the supers to lay eggs in the cells where the surplus honey is stored. Worker bees fit through the grid so they can store honey in the upper boxes when the bottom boxes are full. All the frames in the top box were full of honey.

Paul pried off the two supers and set them aside. The queen excluder was sealed to the top brood box and bees had built honeycomb (known as burr comb) on top of the grid. Paul used his hive tool to scrape off the extra honeycomb. Kim gave me her hive tool to help. I barely noticed the bees landing on my sleeves. A few bees bumped into my veil. I was happy they were outside the veil, not inside. Paul scraped away a stinger from the back of his hand as he removed the excluder. He lifted out a frame to check for queen cells at the bottom. There they were, the elongated cups! We peeked inside to see if the queen had laid eggs in them.

Then we put a screened division board between the two brood boxes. The queen will be in one of the two boxes. In the box without the queen, the nurse bees will raise a new queen. If more than one queen emerges, the strongest queen will kill the other candidates.

That’s it. We put the supers back on top of the hive. Our job for today was done. In a couple of weeks they will open up the hives to see if the bees are adapting. The brood boxes will be separated to create two hives and an empty brood box added to each so the colony can expand without swarming to another location.

We moved out of the bee yard and waited for the bees on our suits to find their way back to the hive. Kim asked Paul how many stings he got. The answer was about five—two on his hand and three on his head. His hat and veil don’t seal that well anymore. I thought back to the three stings I’ve had in a lifetime and wondered how long it would take to become that comfortable with being stung. Kim and I were both sting-free this day.

Choosing To Keep Bees

Kim and Paul are not the only urban beekeepers in our area. When Paul gave a talk on beekeeping at the public library last year, about a hundred potential beekeepers showed up.

There are several reasons people become interested in keeping bees. The most universal is a passion for watching and learning about these industrious garden dwellers. For some, honey is the bonus, while others want bees to pollinate their gardens or fruit trees.

A lot of people today are worried about the potential loss of our honeybee population through colony collapse disorder (CCD). Paul points out that when you think about how many items on your plate rely on bee pollination for growth (fruits, vegetables, grains), you realize what a devastating loss we will face if we don’t keep our bees healthy.

Agriculture depends heavily on bees. In fact, in February when the almond trees blossom in California, beehives are trucked in from all over the country to ensure that the trees are successfully pollinated.

In Santa Barbara County, avocado and citrus growers rent bees for pollination. Mary Louise Sanchez and her husband, Richard, rent about 160 hives a year to pollinate their 75 acres of avocado and citrus trees.

Inspired by her grandmother in Kansas who managed her own hives, Mary Louise also keeps a few of her own hives near the house.

Things To Know

Paul says it’s important to find a mentor. Mary Louise and Kim agree. They suggest attending a class and talking with beekeepers to find an experienced local mentor. Kim notes that books are helpful, but are usually written by people who live and raise bees in other parts of the country.

Mary Louise found out the hard way that it’s important to have a good mentor. She bought her first hive from a beekeeper who had stuffed a rag into the entrance to the hive and forgot to warn her to arrive early. When she arrived with her husband to pick up the hive the sun was out and the bees were quite upset not to be out gathering nectar. Her husband dislodged the rag as he put the beehive onto the truck—a memorable learning experience.

Both Kim and Mary Louise point out that hives filled with honey are very heavy. A super can yield 25 to 100 pounds of honey. Brood boxes are deeper than supers and weigh more. When not working with a mentor, it’s wise to ask another person to help you tend the hive.

Bee allergies are a big concern. Paul says some people become more immune to bee stings over time while others become more sensitive. Mary Louise often gets stung when working without a suit. She adds, “The bees are more grumpy on a cold day or when the hive isn’t doing well.” Kim says she gets stung occasionally when she grabs something without her gloves or stands in a pile of bees. Both women say that they feel a Zen-like calmness when working with the bees in spite of the risk of stings.

Hive Location

Three sets of regulations—city, county and state—govern beekeeping. All are enforced by the county Agriculture Commissioner’s Office. Each city has its own regulations.

The County of Santa Barbara does not allow hives within 300 feet of the property line or closer than 600 feet to a dwelling without permission from the occupant. The City of Santa Barbara does not allow hives within 20 feet of a sidewalk, public street or public thoroughfare.

Finding Bees

You can buy bees by mail order, but local bees are better adapted to our area (and your mailman will be happier too). The best time of year to find someone relocating a swarm is March through October. You can also look for someone selling a beehive.

Our local beekeepers share information with each other, so contacting any of them will help you find someone who might have bees available. If you want hives but don’t want to maintain them, you might also find someone to tend bees on your property for a portion of the honey.

Harvesting the Honey

You will need an uncapping knife to cut the tops off the sealed honeycomb cells. The caps drop into a tub where the residual honey drains out of the beeswax caps for easy retrieval. A honey extractor is used to spin the honey out of the frames. Many beekeepers loan their extractors out to beginning beekeepers.

The flavor of fresh honey is astonishing. Each batch tastes different, based on the flowers that bloom near a particular hive. Some beekeepers filter their honey more than others and some honeys crystallize faster. Tasting the finished product is a lovely bonus to interviewing beekeepers.

A bee in flight. Photo by Fran Collin.

A bee in flight. Photo by Fran Collin.

Backyard Bee Farm

While I don’t have room in my backyard for hives, my yard buzzes with bees on sunny days. My ground cover, fruit trees and vegetables are favorite stops on the flight path for bees living nearby, perhaps in that dying tree off in the distance. Knowing more about bees and what they do for my vegetable garden has convinced me to let my lettuce plants flower and to make sure that I have plants that bloom during the winter. I even leave a gravel-filled bowl of water in my garden for bees to drink during the dry season.

Paul says that it’s our job to protect the pollinators. I agree. Maybe someday I’ll have the chance to keep my own bees. In the meantime, I’m learning more about bees and buying honey from our local beekeepers to help guarantee the ongoing health of our honeybee population.

Nancy Oster lives in a Santa Barbara bee corridor and loves to eat honey. She now has a cautious new appreciation for the bees in her yard and supports the beekeepers who tend and protect those bees.

Beekeeping Equipment

To get started, you’ll need two brood boxes filled with frames, a queen excluder, two or three supers, a bottom board, a lid and a hive tool. You will also want a smoker and a bee suit with hat, veil and gloves.

8 Meader Road
Greenwich, NY 12834
800 632-3379
921 Gravenstein Hwy. So.
Sebastopol, CA 95472
707 824-2905
Brushy Mountain Bee
610 Bethany Church Road
Moravian Falls, NC 28654
(800 233-7929)
Dadant and Sons, Inc.
51 S. Second
Hamilton, IL 62341
888 922-1293

Santa Barbara Beekeepers

Here is a list of people to contact if you are looking for bees or for a mentor.

Don Cole, San Marcos Farms: 681-0312

Paul Cronshaw: 453-7863 (Montecito to San Marcos area)

Debbie Daily: 245-0568 (North County)

Jim Dale: 679-3274

Antonio Diloreto, Hope Bee: 896-4804

J.P. Bee Rescue: 708-2995

Brenton Kelly: 722-2523 (Goleta)

Elisa Robles, the Worm Girl: 815-7233

Jacob Rodrique: 570-4749

Charlie Vines: 967-6442

Regulations and Registration

Each city in our county has different regulations on beekeeping. All regulations are enforced by the county Agriculture Commissioner. Beekeepers are required to register their hives yearly with the commissioner.

Santa Barbara County Agriculture

Commissioner’s Office

Guy Tingos, Deputy Commissioner

Categories Spring 2010