What's all the buzz about?

Biodynamics & The Honeybee Program at Joseph Phelps Vineyards

Spring 2006
By Sarah Black, Viticulturist

Honeybees (Apis mellifera), were introduced to California in the mid 19th century. They are beneficial insects and effective pollinators whose contribution to our food supply and to our environment is greatly underappreciated. The success or failure of many agricultural crops depends on pollination: bees add billions of dollars to the agroeconomy as they pollinate various crops.

The hive works as a whole organism. No honeybee can survive very long isolated from the others. These colonies of social insects consist mainly of workers, which make up 90-100% of the entire population and are all female. Each colony has (usually) one queen, also female, and between 1-2% male bees called drones. The worker bees basically work themselves to death: the average lifespan of a worker bee during the periods of the most intense activity (foraging and brood rearing) is about 4-6 weeks.

In a well-managed hive, a colony of honeybees contains from a few thousand to 60,000 or more bees. As you might imagine, things can get pretty crowded! Part of being a good beekeeper is keeping these lovely ladies comfortable. Many of the hive manipulations I perform are to expand or reduce space within the colony, depending on the time of year or condition of the hive. In addition to this task, I also monitor disease, ventilation, and pest pressures during a hive inspection.

A honeybee colony is an amazing self-sustaining model. Looking down from the tasting terrace, amidst the vineyard landscape, lies our small but growing apiary. [See photo above.] The importance of the honeybees to our farming operation is simple wholeness. Just as the hive acts as its own organism, our ranch is taking on the form of a single entity. This is occurring through our dedication to sustainable and biodynamic farming practices, of which the honeybee is a part by adding diversity to the farm organism.

Though the honeybee is not an important pollinator for self-pollinating grapevines, she is beneficial to many other plant species growing around us. We are currently in the process of growing our beneficial insect population (butterflies, ladybugs, lacewings, parasitic wasps. syrphids, spiders and flies) through inter-planting of flower corridors within the vine rows. The success of our insectary plantings are greatly increased and enhanced by the honeybees. These other insects also help provide biological control against common vineyard insect pests (sharpshooters, leafhoppers, mealybugs and certain spiders). Bees are also needed for the pollination of most fruits, many vegetables, alfalfa, vetch, seed crops and many other crops. They gather pollen, forming pellets on their hind legs, and also carry grains of pollen on their hairs from plant to plant (cross-pollination), contributing to a greater production of fruit and seeds. A honeybee will forage in a radius approximately 3 miles from its home.

Among the many treasures that can be harvested from the hive -- while always being mindful of the honeybee’s sting -- are wax, propolis, pollen and of course honey. All of these products carry with them an extensive list of health benefits.

I am personally grateful to the lessons the honeybees have taught me so far in my short time as a beekeeper. Also I want to thank Master Beekeeper, Serge Labesque. The bee facts in this article come from bits and pieces of Serge’s lectures and articles promoting natural beekeeping in Northern California.