Crouching into the cab of her beat-up yellow truck, beekeeper Ann Bennett performed the meticulous task of transferring pinhead-size queen bee larvae into new hives.
As she carried out this yearly ritual, deep within an orange grove, Bennett comforted the tiny insects.
“Don’t worry,” she said softly. “There are good things in store for you. Soon you’ll be a queen.”
Although Bennett could speak with confidence about the bees’ future, she and her husband, Red Bennett, are more wary about their own.
As the year’s prime honey season rolls around again, the financial and physical perils of the bee business are becoming so numerous that local beekeepers are souring on life amid the sweet smells of orange blossoms and honey.
“The way the conditions are changing, I think a lot of people aren’t getting the enjoyment out of beekeeping that they once did,” said Red Bennett, who has been a commercial beekeeper for more than a decade. “The industry has definitely hit a rough patch.”
In the last few years, the number of commercial beekeepers in Ventura County has dropped from more than a dozen to about five, Bennett said.
Commercially owned hives in Piru, Ojai and Ventura and hives farmed by hobbyists in Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks are being sold, given away or intentionally poisoned as the industry falls prey to a host of problems.
Local beekeepers blame the decline in part on a glut of imported honey from China, which has sent prices through the floor.
But even those who have been able to endure the drop in honey prices are questioning whether they can survive a recent surge in bee parasites and the impending arrival of more aggressive, Africanized honeybees.
That combination, they said, could spell doom for local beekeepers.
Ventura County has had a bee industry for years, Bennett said, because many local farmers prefer to use bees to pollinate their crops rather than leave the process to chance.
Owners of avocado groves and flower farms call on beekeepers to bring in their hives every year for pollination, according to Ben Faber, a Ventura-based farm adviser from the University of California.
In recent years, Faber said, the decline of local beekeepers has forced Ventura County growers to turn to beekeepers as far as Florida to help pollinate their crops.
“I just spoke to a grower last week who had been using the same local beekeeper for the past five years,” Faber said. “When he dialed the guy up this year, there was no one at the end of the line.”
In spite of the need for bees, nearly every commercial beekeeper in Ventura County has hives on the selling block.
The keepers make $15 to $20 per hive by renting them to farmers, but the bulk of the income from keeping bees comes from honey sales.
Since a peak in the 1970s of about 65 cents per pound, Bennett said, the wholesale price of honey has dipped to a rate of about 45 cents.
“We can’t even get the wholesalers to talk to us anymore,” said veteran beekeeper William E. Farlow of Ventura.
“It’s sad to see this happening to such a wonderful business.”
Farlow’s apiary, like most of those around Ventura County, is a family-run enterprise driven by the allure of self-employment and the chance to work outdoors.
“Being a beekeeper is like being an alcoholic,” said 65-year-old Farlow, who has been in the business for 40 years. “Once it gets in your system, you can’t get rid of it.”
Farlow, whose small Ventura business produced 50 tons of honey last year, is now worried that the job that has supported him will not survive to support his son, David.
In addition to the problems of falling honey prices, bee farmers like Farlow have fought off attacks by two types of parasitic mites, which can ravage hives.
Now, Farlow is gearing up for the long-ballyhooed arrival of aggressive Africanized honey bees, which have moved from Brazil as far north as Texas, Baja California and Arizona.
Although there is some hope that these bees can invigorate the industry because they are prolific honey producers, beekeepers fear the fierce bees will create a host of new hassles and expenses.
“The African bees are ferocious,” Farlow said, not only because it takes little more than the vibrations of a tractor to provoke them, but because farmers are afraid beehives will pose a liability threat.
“The insurance people won’t let people keep bees on their ranch because they’re afraid the bees will seriously hurt someone,” Farlow said.
Beekeepers--commercial operations and hobbyists alike--have long relied on the farmers to allow them to keep hives out on ranches so the bees could pollinate the crops.
As the growing seasons shift, most beekeepers travel with truckloads of beehives to farms where they are needed.
Farlow recently returned to Ventura from Bakersfield, where almond growers used his bees for pollination.
The beekeepers maintain the hives, breed new colonies and collect the honey, which forms in gobs along wood panels filled with wax honeycombs.
In the groves of Piru, commercial beekeeper Bennett’s bees whiz freely through the orange blossoms, returning by instinct to the white wooden boxes so they can begin converting orange pollen into some of the finest quality honey.
In groves in Simi Valley, hobbyist Len Bellenson used to keep as many as 100 hives without fear of upsetting neighbors.
But now, Bellenson said, he has only a handful of hives and he, too, is getting out of beekeeping.
“I loved doing it,” Bellenson said. “It was wonderful relaxation, but now I’m too concerned about getting sued.”
Bellenson said that as the Africanized bees are found closer and closer to Ventura County, the price for insurance rises, and the threat of a lawsuit becomes more real. He said he is one of the last hobbyists in east Ventura County, and he will soon give his handful of hives away.
Worst of all, said Red Bennett, is that the aggressive bees may take the joy out of beekeeping.
Red and Ann Bennett both feel completely at ease around the bees. They are able to judge the bees’ moods by the weather, choosing to skip work on days when it is cold and gray and the bees are more volatile.
They are comfortable working around hives amid virtual clouds of bees with little more than a screen over their faces.
“That’s not to say we don’t get stung,” Ann Bennett said after working barehanded with the bees for five hours one day this month.
“Look at my hands,” she said, scanning her callused skin for evidence of a new sting. “These are not beautiful hands anymore.”
But the Bennetts said that the pleasure of working without thick gloves and body armor protection will disappear when the aggressive bees arrive.
“We’ll have to wear 50% more gear, and we’ll still get stung 50% more of the time,” Red Bennett said. “Nobody looks forward to that.”
But that will be the price to stay in the business, he said.
The only hope for area beekeepers to make a living will come if they learn to work with the Africanized bees, Faber said.
The aggressive bees, he said, are more vigorous workers and will produce more honey. If they can be bred with the less harmful bees, there is some hope the industry will survive.
“There’s certainly the chance beekeepers will be able to work with these bees,” Faber said. “But even if they can solve that problem, it’s not the only one they face. We’re still quite concerned about the future.”