I love honey. I love honey! Like the bears. All day long my coffee has honey instead of sugar. My cereal has honey. My toast, honey on it. Always honey." David Rojas of San Marcos has a thing for honey. It may explain why he works all day managing the beekeeping supplies at Knorr Candle Shop. And why he has kept his own bees over the years. It might also explain why from time to time he finds himself in one honey of a mess.
"I have been stung a lot of times. The worst that ever happened to me was one time when I went down to Chula Vista. Somebody asked me to move his bees from the old boxes to the new boxes that I had sold him. When I left my home, I was on my way to T.J., and I thought, 'Well, on my way back I will move the bees. Piece of cake.' Oh, big mistake. First of all, in San Marcos it was sunny, warm. I thought, 'It's going to be a very good day to move those bees.' When I got there, the weather was completely different than in San Marcos. It was breezy and cold. It was a very bad time to work with the bees. In that weather, they are all inside. I took my smoker, my bee suit, my veil, everything, but I forgot my gloves, and the kind of gloves the other beekeeper had were not appropriate. I knew they would sting and sting a lot. You are working in the nest, where the queen is, and they protect their mother.
"I decided, 'Well, I'm here, and I have to do this because I'm not going to drive again to come and do this. What I'm going to do is do it as quick as I can.' I did it. I did it as quick as I could, but it wasn't quick enough. I got, like, 60 stings in my hands. It was a lot. When I was driving back home, my hands were big, like Popeye. I couldn't hold the wheel right, but I had to drive. It was a very bad decision."
Rojas is one of an estimated 500 beekeepers in San Diego County. He considers himself a hobbyist, in it for the pleasure of working the bees, eating the honey, and sharing the honey with friends and family. Others are sideliners who keep bees to supplement their income. They run small operations and sell honey to regular local customers or at farmer's markets. A small portion of beekeepers are professionals who rely on the business of pollination and honey production for their livelihood.
Thirty years ago, Bob Madsen, who is now 64, began keeping bees for his health. "I first became interested in bees because I was very, very sick with allergies," Madsen said. "I was working for the utility company and for the sheriff's Search and Rescue at that time. I got real bad bronchitis and asthma, and I was going into emphysema. One morning I stopped and saw my doctor, and he checked me out and said, 'How much work do you have to do?' and I said I had about 12 hours' worth of work to do. He said, 'Well, take the work and give it back to whoever gave it to you. Go home and go to bed.' I said, 'I can't do that.' He said, 'Well, if you don't do that, you'll probably die today.'
"I took the work back, and the doctor came over and he took some tests. He took some blood. They found out after extensive testing that I had an allergy to rye grass. This was shortly after we had that firestorm in the county. It burned from Kitchen Creek all the way into the Bonita area. That, I believe, was '71, the early '70s.
"They came in and bombarded the backcountry with a hybrid rye grass from Australia, which grew, like, 36 inches tall. And here I'm out there looking for people -- doing search-and-rescue work in all the brush. I got weaker and weaker. My eyes were red, and my nose was running all the time.
"Anyway, I started giving myself injections in my legs every other day. I did that for about a year, and then shortly thereafter I went to once a week. It was a serum for allergies, to build up my immune system. It was household dusts and molds in one injection, and the other one was selected mixed pollens. I did that, and I was doing my job.
"One day I was working pulling electric meters and checking electric meters in a building. A fellow came out -- he wanted to know what all the noise was about. He ran a bio lab there. I asked him if he did serum analysis, and he said, 'Yeah, that's primarily what I do.' He asked if I had all my boxes of hypodermic needles, and I said, 'Yeah,' and he said, 'And you have all your serum and you keep that in your butter keeper in your refrigerator?' and I said, 'That's correct.' He said, 'What I suggest you do is you throw that all away and get yourself some honeycomb. Eat the honeycomb from your neighborhood. Get some from some of these old folks who keep bees in the neighborhood in their back yards. Just get some raw honey and honeycomb and chew that every day, and that'll immunize you. It's a natural immunization process.'
"I got to thinking about it, and I thought, there's plenty of guys that keep bees around here. You just have to find them. But you know, I couldn't really find any. I went up to Knorr Candle Shop and got a book on bees and all the paraphernalia and built myself some bee boxes. I read a book about bees, how to keep them and how to get bees. The book said to call the fire department and tell them you'll take swarms. That's what I did. I got the swarms. Within a month I had honeycomb, so I was eating it. I stopped taking my shots, and I stopped taking all the medications. I started just eating the honeycomb, but I was apprehensive about it. I kept all my shots and all the apparatus. After about six months I felt real good, so I just threw it all away. That was the end of that. That's how I got into bees."