David Rojas was originally hired to work in the garden at Knorr Candle Shop, which is located near Fairbanks Ranch. This was 14 years ago, when he was 30 years old and a recent arrival from Mexico City. Eventually, the man who then managed the beekeeping supplies invited him to help extract honey. Rojas remembered, "The next day was Saturday, and he came by my home and picked me up, and we went to the special place to extract. I never imagined he had, like, 80 boxes. The boxes hold between 90 and 100 pounds of honey. Each box, so very heavy. It was the first time I saw the industrial part of the bee-and-honey business. I was so surprised when we took the honey from the first frames. I never saw that much honey in my life. Then I started asking all kinds of questions about bees. I was so interested in it.
"Soon after, that guy quit to raise bees, and then I started working in the bee supplies. I am a very curious guy. I asked all the old people about bees. I read a lot on bees. Then I got my own bees. Somebody sold me ten hives. I had those ten hives, and I talked to my boss about it. He said, 'Everything you need, just let me know. You can have all the material you need, and you can pay me as much as you can out of every paycheck.' I put my hives up in Pala. Of course, all the beekeepers say they have the best bees in the world. Their bees produce more than anybody else's. Always they have caught the biggest swarm in all the county. It was the same with me.
"The next year in the spring I was ready to get the honey," Rojas continued. "I got a lot of honey. My wife said, 'What are you going to do with all that honey?' I said, 'You know what, if I don't sell it, I'm going to eat it.' I love honey. I started working, and I remember it very well -- six o'clock in the morning on the Fourth of July, extracting on a hand-crank extractor. My brother came and helped me out a little bit. My wife. My brother-in-law. Everybody was helping me out, but they quit. It was very hot. The honey was coming out very easily because it was hot. I finished around nine or ten o'clock that night. All day long. I had about 900 pounds of honey that first year."
The European honeybee, Apis mellifera, has provided people with honey for millennia. Cave paintings in Spain dating back to 6000 B.C.E. depict people gathering honey from hives. Honey was used to embalm Egyptian pharaohs. Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans made honey wine called mead. Even beer was made from honey.
Aristotle studied bees, theorizing correctly and incorrectly about their behavior. He accurately reported on the social caste system and that bees live in large colonies. He also recognized the queen bees, but he mistakenly called them king bees.
A colony -- a hive -- in California can have from 8000 bees, at the end of winter, to 45,000. The queen leaves the hive for only two reasons, to mate and to accompany a swarm to a new hive. Mating occurs when the queen is seven to ten days old and takes place in the air. The 12 to 20 drones she mates with die during the process. She begins to lay eggs two or three days later and can lay as many as 2000 in one day. During mating, she receives millions of sperm. They will last her her lifetime, which is usually two years but may be as long as six. She stores the sperm in a receptacle called a spermatheca.
The queen is cared for by worker bees, who lick her, groom her, and feed her. Worker bees do all the work of the colony; the drones, the males, exist only to inseminate the queen. The workers gather nectar, pollen, and propolis, a plant resin used to seal cracks in the hive. They build and repair the honeycomb, clean and defend the hive, make the honey, and raise the young bees. There is never a time when the entire colony sleeps.
Sue Hubbell, in A Book of Bees: And How to Keep Them, gives an example of the workers' determination as foragers. "One bee would have to fly the equivalent of three orbits around the earth in her foraging flights (using one ounce of honey as fuel for each orbit) in order to produce a single pound of honey."
"The bees have to fly 10,000 times to the same spot to collect a little tiny drop of honey," Rojas said. "One bee is going to be able to produce one teaspoon and a half of honey in all its life. Bees are very, very intelligent. They go and look for the source of the food. They have very good communication. When they come back with a new nectar, they share it with the other bees. Then they start a little dance and let them know how far and in what direction the nectar is. And what kind of flower and how the flower looks."
In the well-documented bee dance, a worker acts out an intricate roadmap for other bees in the colony to follow to a specific source of nectar.
The workers provide temperature control for the hive. According to Chuck Nichols of San Luis Rey Apiaries, "The bees have to control the temperature inside their hive very, very accurately because of the baby bees that are being produced. They usually control it within about three degrees, and it's right around 94. If it gets real hot, they have to have more bees passing air through the hive to keep the temperature down. When it gets cold they eat honey, because when they eat, their bodies put out heat. That's why if a beekeeper takes too much honey away from them, they die." In general a worker bee lives for six weeks in the summer and six months in the winter.