I call my husband Patrick "Renaissance man." Five years ago he discovered his tenor voice while singing along with a Three Tenors CD I bought him on a whim. He started taking lessons, won an award at the local Metropolitan Opera auditions, and joined the San Diego Opera chorus. The next year it was woodworking. He spent an hour a day carving and whittling away chunks of wood. Last year he dug deep into gardening. Then shortly after the New Year, he read an article on beekeeping. Eve knew what was coming. "Let's keep bees," he said over his morning coffee. "Wouldn't that be fun?" I couldn't honestly say "Yes, honey," but I offered to find out what that would entail. I spoke with Al Goulart, owner of A-Action Bee Removal (619-444-9292) who has been keeping bees for 40 years. "My father had bees when I was about seven years old," he explained, "so that is how I learned beekeeping. I keep European honeybees out here in East County, in empty areas. We don't have African bees in this county," he added.
"We put them in bee boxes which are square boxes, 12-by-10 inches with wax frames in there, so it gives them something to get them started. You can have up to three pounds of bees in one of the boxes and there are around 19,000 to a pound."
When a customer needs bees removed, Goulart removes the swarm with "a very low suction vacuum system that I designed myself, which does not damage the bees. As soon as I get them I medicate them. And then I know they are healthy bees when I get them in the box. I mix an antibiotic with shortening and powdered sugar to make a flat pancake that I squish down underneath the lid of the box. The bees will eat that, and as they eat that, it medicates them. The problem that we have now is with a mite that eats on the bee larvae. But I treat my boxes with an insecticide that doesn't hurt the bees but gets rid of the insects.
"When I turn the bees loose, some go away and find another place to live, a tree for example. But a lot of them will go to the boxes." Currently Goulart has about 12 hives.
The bees live four to six weeks, the queen up to six years.
"When there isn't anything blooming," he explained, "when we're having a dry season, we feed them sugar water in a jar right in the front entrance to the bee box."
Are bees low maintenance, can you leave them for a few days?
"Bees are low maintenance," he said, "and you can leave them and they will do their thing. The only time we have to work with them is usually around February, when we divide the hives up so that we don't get a lot of swarming problems. When the hive gets too full, the queen will usually take off with half of the colony. And there is a new queen there due to hatch within four to five days. I don't want that to happen, so I usually separate the old queen with part of the bees and let them hatch a new one. And when you get too many males -- the larger, fatter, blackish bee -- you have to get rid of a lot of them because that causes swarming."
How do you tell which one is the queen bee?
"She has a pretty body, and she is much longer."
What supplies do you need for beekeeping?
"You just need a smoker, a hat, and a veil. But I am not like the average beekeeper. I just use a smoker. I process smoke into the hive and they think the house is on fire and they ingest honey. They get to where they are so full of honey, they can't bend their tail over to sting you. I do that whenever I am working with hives, I smoke the bees."
Are there different types of honey?
"Yes, there is avocado, citrus, alfalfa, clovers...it just depends on what fields they are in. We make what is called nondescript honey or wild honey; it is off of everything."
Are there a lot of beekeepers in Southern California?
"Most of the beekeepers are out of state now, in different areas where they have a lot of produce. If you are around a lot of agriculture, beekeeping is very productive. There are some beekeepers in the San Joaquin Valley. In Southern California, most of them are going out of business. A friend of mine is trying to sell his 150 hives because he has had to feed them tons of sugar. We have had three to four dry years now."
Goulart avoids that problem because "when I remove honey out of structures, I don't use chemicals. And that honey I use to feed my bees. So I have a good honey source to feed my bees."
Goulart warned of taking on beekeeping without serious interest. "You can keep bees anywhere in [rural] East County, but elsewhere there are many restrictions. There have been many people that have tried to raise them but they didn't know what they were doing with them, didn't know how to maintain their boxes or control their bees. It takes a bit of time to learn all about beekeeping."
Beekeeping is also not for the faint of heart. "I was stung 174 times on one occasion," he says. "Another time, I got stung 42 times in the neck. I took antihistamine, lay down on the roof, waited for the medicine to circulate into my system, got up, and finished the job."
Goulart says all beekeeping supplies can be bought at Knorr Candle Shop in Del Mar (858-755-2051).