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Busy Bees : Being a Beekeeper Takes Hard Work and Skill but It’s Still a Honey of a Job

Times Staff Writer

Between here and Borrego Springs, on a wind-swept, barren hillside remarkable only for its boulders, buckwheat and sagebrush, literally millions of migrant workers spread out over several square miles to harvest their spring crop.

They are . . . well, busy as bees.

At this particular site, there are 120 separate beehives inside stacks of white wooden boxes that buzz ominously. Each colony has 80,000 to 100,000 bees. And under ideal conditions--including little wind, high humidity, recent rains and flowers in bloom, a single hive may produce between six and eight pounds of honey daily.

Bob Von Gunden rattles off the figures and statistics like the expert he is; county agriculture experts refer questions on bees to Von Gunden, who lives in an attractive ranch home here, just north of the desert recreation hamlet of Warner Springs in the wide-open, sprawling midsection of northern San Diego County.

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Von Gunden is widely considered the dean of San Diego County’s beekeepers; he and his wife, Edith, have traveled to Venezuela to personally study the sensational Africanized strain of honey bee, and recently returned from China and Japan, where they attended an international beekeepers’ convention.

He has gotten stung more times than he can count--including 500 times in one instance alone, when a hive being transported to Northern California fell off a truck in a vehicle accident and the furious bees took out their anger on him. These days, he doesn’t so much as flinch when he’s stung. Such is the life of a beekeeper, he shrugs.

Is it worth it? He answers by dipping his finger into a glass container of gooey, sticky honey, touching it to his tongue and grinning from ear to ear.

Von Gunden was born in El Cajon in 1919--during the heyday of beekeeping in San Diego County, what with its abundance of flowering, undeveloped agricultural lands--and got smitten by bees in 1935 when he was offered 10 cents to clear a swarm of bees out of a Hillcrest house.

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“I got them out of the house and kept them for myself,” he said. “I was extremely allergic to them, though, and my eyes would shut close when I got bit by them. But eventually I built up antibodies to them, and it doesn’t bother me too much anymore.”

Bees were an attractive hobby for the Von Gundens, he said, “because we thoroughly enjoyed the honey and we were making some money along the way.” In 1941, Von Gunden made bees his permanent work, not only for the honey but because the beeswax was an important commodity during World War II, used as a protective covering during those pre-plastic days to keep war machinery and parts from rusting.

At times, Von Gunden has controlled more than 2,000 hives, making him one of the larger beekeepers in the region, although in past years some beekeepers have boasted upward of 20,000 hives.

The bees produce honey locally between April and September, and generally go semi-dormant during the winter months when the beekeeper has to supply them with honey or corn syrup for them to feed on until the following spring.

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In any given year, a hive may be moved as many as five times around San Diego County, from one bioclimatic region to another, in search of blooming flowers at various elevations and locations.

Many beehives are shipped to Northern California or elsewhere during non-honey months, literally hired to help cross-pollenate entire fields of crops such as almonds, cantaloupes and other melons, and alfalfa seeds.

“Fourteen billion dollars of foodstuffs annually are dependent on honey bees,” he says matter-of-factly, just one more fact about bees that he has stored away.

Locally, honey production is only about 20% what it was during the first two or three decades of this century when there were more than 60,000 bee colonies in the county. Today, he figures, there are about 500 beekeepers in the county, but only about 15 commercial honey producers.

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“Beekeeping is intriguing and extremely fascinating,” he says. “Bees are easy to manipulate, but the fact they can be dangerous makes it a challenge. And everyone likes producing their own honey.”

For those who sell it, honey is worth about 50 cents a pound to the Sioux Honey Assn., the Sioux City, Iowa-based cooperative of commercial beekeepers who market their honey under the “Sue Bee” brand name. Von Gunden is a director of the association.

The federal Department of Agriculture buys honey at about 65 cents a pound, then gives it away in a variety of food-giveaway programs. That fact infuriates Von Gunden and others who resist making more money by selling to the government because it is contrary to their philosophy of private enterprise. “The government won’t always be around to buy honey and, when that ends, at least the Sioux Honey Assn. will be in place to market our honey,” he said.

A professional beekeeper can make a respectable living with 1,000 hives, Von Gunden said. A hive typically is from two to five boxes measuring about 20 inches by 16 inches by 10 inches, each fitted with nine honeycomb frames to give the bees a head start on housekeeping.

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Lord of each hive is the queen bee, whose sole job is to lay up to 2,000 eggs--literally her own body weight--daily inside tiny cells of beeswax. Three days later the eggs hatch and the larvae incubate for 18 days before emerging. Every day, then, about 2,000 bees emerge in the hive. (By the same token, nearly that many bees may die daily after a life span of from a month to a year. Bees do not reproduce their cells, and die after literally wearing out. Those born in the springtime work harder and thus die quicker.)

As long as the queen bee is laying a sufficient number of eggs, she is attended to by the worker bees who feed her. By the same token, nurse bees feed the larvae with royal jelly--a protein-rich mixture of pollen and honey. A modified diet is given to some larvae if the nurse bees determine it is time for a new queen bee; when those new queen bees emerge from their cells, they literally fight it out until only one survives and takes control of the hive.

The bees produce honey as their own source of food; a hive of bees will consume 200 pounds of honey in a year and, in a good year, produce another 200 pounds of surplus honey.

Each honeycomb can, at capacity, hold up to about five pounds of honey, or between 45 to 50 pounds of honey per box. The beekeeper uses smoke to move the bees to the lower two boxes, then takes the top boxes to be processed.

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A machine scrapes a thin layer of wax off the honeycomb, and the honeycomb frame is then put inside a centrifuge extractor which revolves at up to 240 revolutions per minute--enough force to extract the honey out of the wax honeycomb but not to damage the honeycomb itself. The honey then drains into a sump and is pumped to a large holding tank where, over the course of 48 hours, impurities float to the top and the honey is drained from the bottom and poured into 55-gallon barrels.

The honey is then shipped to another processing plant, where it is once again filtered before being packaged for sale.

The outer layer of beeswax that covers the honeycomb is itself processed and sold to cosmetic manufacturers, for use as a base in such products as rouge and lipstick.

Tony and Ron Oakley, whose Oakley Honey Farms recently purchased Von Gunden’s 2,200 hives, process about 200 boxes of honeycombs daily, producing as much as 10,000 pounds of honey every day during the peak summer season.

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Von Gunden said he is concerned about the prospect that the Africanized honey bee may make its way into the San Diego region by the year 1990 or 1991. While the bee produces honey and is no more toxic than the regular European honey bee, it is easily irritated, and entire swarms can be set off on stinging rampages, overpowering their victims.

Von Gunden said the Africanized bee probably would not survive a year in San Diego, because of the region’s relatively cold climate compared to the tropics from which it came, and because it does not tend to store up honey to see it through winter months.

But, he said, some Africanized bees might do somewhat better along the more temperate coastline, where the climate is more forgiving and where they could scavenge in trash cans for sweet products and in domestic flower gardens.

“I have the dubious distinction of having had the hell bitten out of me by Africanized bees when I was in Venezuela. It took me all of one and a half minutes to decide I didn’t want anything to do with them,” he said. “But, on the other hand, I saw them living on sides of buildings, not bothering anybody. You just don’t want to tinker with them.”

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The concern to beekeepers is that the assertive Africanized bee will kill the hybrid queen bee in the hive and, because of its dominant genes, take genetic charge of the hive, turning the entire colony into a hive too aggressive to handle for commercial purposes.

Beekeepers already are looking at such products as tiny entry doors that are too small to allow the Africanized queen bees or the large male drones to enter. In those beehives contaminated by an Africanized queen bee, that bee--or the entire hive--will literally have to be searched out and killed.

“It’s going to present some problems to us,” he said of the prospect of Africanized bees setting up housekeeping here. “But it won’t do us in.”


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