Long before we got here, bees have been a part of the landscape at Patton Valley. The moderate weather patterns and plant diversity of the Willamette Valley favored many varieties of bee habitats for thousands of years. Before falling fallow, our estate had been planted to plums and cherries, both relying on bee pollination for fruit set. Many of these trees remain. With the addition of blackberry, dandelion, and clover producing an abundance of both nectar and pollen, Patton Valley is a prime bee habitat.
Over the last three years, we have made a more concerted effort to integrate bees into our farm. We think it’s the right thing to do, plus it’s just plain fun! Conventional agricultural practices and many other environmental factors have had a devastating effect on bee populations within the last few decades; we want to do our part to rehabilitate this important piece of our local ecosystem.
Keeping bees is a labor of love, and every beekeeper has tales of successes and failures. Our spring hive inspection this year revealed one of our two hives to be empty. This was very disheartening. How did this happen? How can we prevent it from happening again? Not having the answers to these vital questions forced us to search for someone who did. Enter Tom Bandy…
I met Tom Bandy (TB) a few years ago; he is the type of person you just don’t forget. TB is an eccentric, sweet, loveable, bearded, bee-loving wild man that you instantly fall in love with. He keeps around 10 hives in a wide range of locations in the valley, and pulls knowledge from many successes and failures throughout his beekeeping days. He has agreed to mentor us on the particulars of apiary management (apiary is the correct term for a place where bees are kept) and is a proponent of keeping bees in a more natural way without the use of pest treatments or other interventions that can harm the bees. Honey productivity is not as important to him as having a healthy and happy hive, and we feel that way too.
This past Thursday, TB paid us a visit. Lee and I were both excited to have him here, anxiously anticipating the professional assistance as we checked on the hives. The first hive was buzzing–an efficient machine. With this warm spring weather, the bees had quickly filled one of the boxes with honey. They were looking to add another room to their crowded house, so we added another empty box (Honey Super). We searched for any signs that the hive would be looking to swarm, but they looked to be sticking around for a while. Sweet! (Pun intended).
Now with a high five and sweat already flowing under my heavy cotton suit (TB wears nothing in terms of protective gear but a fishing hat and some peppermint oil), we walked down to the deserted hive, hoping to solve the puzzle of why they left. The upper cover to our hive had been left askew, and the resulting crack was abuzz with bee activity. A wild colony of bees had taken up residence in our deserted two story bee mansion! This is called a swarm–a natural form of reproduction and a bee colony survival instinct. A colony will make a new queen and split, resulting in potentially thousands of bees on the move, searching for a new residence. We assessed the health of the new colony: the numbers weren’t as high as the other hive, but they had everything they needed to have a good season in their new home.
All in all a great afternoon! We were excited to have two healthy hives, and learned a few things to look for in keeping them that way. While eating one of Lee’s famous sandwiches, we made a list of next steps and started a bee journal to record and keep track of what we did. TB was just getting ready to leave when Chuy came running up to tell us that while moving catch-wires in the vineyard the crew had just stumbled upon a wild swarm of honeybees. What a stroke of luck!!! And most amazingly, TB was here and knew just what to do!
The next half hour was a blur of excitement as we threw together a new hive with some pieces we had and some TB keeps in his truck just for that occasion. Following TB’s leadership and infectious excitement, we gently swept (using a feather!) the thousands of bees from the swarm into their new hive. They quickly started housekeeping activities, sending pheromones to the rest of the colony that their search for a new residence was over. The new hive sat next to
the swarm site in the 10 acre block overnight, and Lee came early the next morning to move it when they were all inside. Next time you come up the hill, take a look up at the center gully at the bottom of our newer planting and you will see the latest exciting addition to our apiary!
So why does any of this matter? Grape vines are self-pollinated by the wind and don’t need the bees to produce fruit. Our interest in bees is more about helping to propagate a struggling species, and to pollinate our many flowering cover crops, along with the other plant diversity, in and around our vineyard. We hope in the next few growing seasons to increase our plant diversity, focusing on native species that would support beneficial insects (Including, obviously, bees). Our primary focus as stewards of our property is to build and maintain a thriving healthy farm ecosystem, where plants and bugs live happily. Fricking cool, right?
We don’t expect all of our efforts to be as exciting as the bee events this past week, but we look forward to keeping you all informed on what we are up to.