The Nature of the Bees

It isnít yet, but hereís to beekeeping becoming the next yoga. Thereís reason for hope, given the raft of books and articles that have appeared lately: "Robbing the Bees" by Holley Bishop and "The Secret Live of Bees" by Susan Kidd, just two examples of many. Bees are essential to the pollination of many of Californiaís key crops. Without them, agriculture, never mind our quality of life, would be devastated.

An interview with Serge Labesque, Beekeeper

By Bobby Winston, Editor  
Published: July, 2005

It isn’t yet, but here’s to beekeeping becoming the next yoga. There’s reason for hope, given the raft of books and articles that have appeared lately: "Robbing the Bees" by Holley Bishop and "The Secret Live of Bees" by Susan Kidd, just two examples of many. Bees are essential to the pollination of many of California’s key crops. Without them, agriculture, never mind our quality of life, would be devastated.


To encourage urban beekeeping, Bay Crossings will soon be offering beekeeping equipment in our Ferry Building store. We keep up with the Jones’ in the über-stylish Ferry Building, so we won’t be offering just any beekeeping equipment; we’ll be featuring the rarified line of equipment, custom-made by Serge Labesque.


Labesque is a beekeepers’ guru in Napa and Sonoma counties — teaching classes at Santa Rosa Junior College and keeping 50 hives of his own at that citadel for foodies, Oak Hill Farm in Glen Ellen. He designed and built his line of beekeeping equipment, drawing on his experience as a beekeeper, and as a craftsman with the high-end architectural and high-art fabricator Kreysler and Associates of American Canyon (While at Kreysler, Labesque also worked on the architectural trim used in the Ferry Building’s restoration.)



I am 54 years old. I was born in a small town of Southwest France. I have lived in the U.S. for twenty-five years. I started keeping bees approximately eight or nine years ago.

When you love something or somebody, you do not have to have reasons. You may find reasons to try to explain or justify your passion to other people, but they are always short of the reality that prompts your feelings. Yet, I can say that bees never cease to amaze me through their remarkably organized social life, the ways they communicate between each other, their biology and their wonderful products.

When I go work my hives, it is like going into another world. Nothing else counts. Managing an apiary, a place where hives are kept, provides you with direct, physical contact with Nature, at least with one of its best creatures. This also presents you with decisions to make, just like in a chess game. You plan, you try, you see the results of your interactions with the bees.

Einstein said "If bees were to disappear from the surface of the Earth, Man would only have four years to live."

Bees, through their pollination work, provide us with 35 percent of what is on our dinner tables. Eighty percent of what is on the grocery store shelves is there because, at some point in time, the bees intervened. Even meat! Think about it: no bees to pollinate clover or alfalfa, ergo no beef. No bees to pollinate flowers, ergo no seed to plant vegetables next season. No bees to pollinate plants that require cross-pollination, ergo no fruit from them.

Bees are also a gauge of the quality of our environment. Bees suffer from poisoning before humans become affected. Right now bees are suffering and we should be taking notice, and make corrections for our own sake if not theirs. We are using all sorts of pesticides, in huge quantities, in and around our homes, gardens and farms, in order to control our surroundings. We are also moving plant and animal species all over the world, introducing them where they have no natural controlling enemy, which turns them into invasive organisms.

Fifty years ago, a scientist moved some bees from Africa to Brazil. Now the Africanized bees are at our doors. Over the past 30 years, several bee pests and diseases have been introduced to the U.S.: chalkbrood, tracheal mites, varroa mites, small hive beetles... More are on their way.

We are also genetically engineering plants so that they produce toxins against their parasites. But the bees that collect the nectar and pollen of such plants are also disabled or killed. Sooner or later these chemicals, these newly introduced pests and diseases, these genetically engineered plants are going to also affect us, humans, directly or indirectly.

I currently have approximately 50 bee colonies. This is the peak of the season. Their number will be reduced to 30 or 35, going into winter. I keep the majority of my hives on the land of Oak Hill Farm, in Glen Ellen, a wonderful place, where most of the land is native, natural vegetation, with only a small proportion of it farmed organically, or better. I also keep several hives around our home and a few on a small farm in the northwest of Petaluma.

My beekeeping method, in a nutshell, is that I refuse to use any chemical compound or antibiotics in and around my hives. This would be interfering with the process of natural selection by artificially sustaining strains of bees that have no natural defense against diseases and pests. The bee colonies have to be kept naturally strong and healthy.

A beekeeper must provide good shelters, good hives for the bees, and be sensitive to the needs of the colonies, reduce the stresses they are subjected to.

Reasonably, you should allow some time to learn about the biology of the bee, and how they may be managed. There are books, videos, classes, associations of beekeepers, etc...

One should have at least two hives, not one. To manage them will take about an average total of one hour per month. In the spring, it will take a little more than this, in the winter almost none at all. Still, just going to see the hives brings immense pleasure, and the smell of nectar being dehydrated is out of this world.

The cost of the first hive, with the tools and protective equipment, may reach $250 - $350. You may also spend a lot less or a lot more, depending on how you choose to get started.

Is it possible to bee keep in an urban setting? The answer is a definite, yes. Actually, there are quite a few people who maintain beehives in San Francisco, in New York City, and in most cities of the world. There are hives on the roof of the Opera, in Paris, France. And the honey they produce is not only very prized, but it is also very expensive.

San Francisco has a very active and friendly association of beekeepers. Unfortunately, there are a few communities that forbid maintaining hives within their limits. This is the result of disproportionate phobia towards bees, and ignorance of the tremendous benefits we draw from these insects. Regardless, as long as we will be keeping plants and flowers around us, we will be attracting bees. City ordinances will not stop them. These might as well be managed rather than wild.

It takes very little space to set a hive. Balconies are most commonly used, but rooftops, as well as courtyards, or any 10 square-foot area you may think of. In cities, honeyflows are long, sustained and dependable, because of all the ornamental plants that are found there, the parks and their frequent irrigation."