Honey on the hands

Los Altos resident shares the tactile, tasty rewards of beekeeping

In the airy space of Hidden Villa's Dana Center, beekeeper Kendal Sager stood before a semicircle of listeners who had gathered to absorb her wisdom. Though there wasn't a single bee in sight, a few white, wooden boxes rested conspicuously on a table, offering the distinct promise of the bees' handiwork: honey.

The late May "Hands-on Honey Harvest" in Los Altos Hills offered a bounty of information for interested laypeople and established beekeepers -- both of whom were in attendance. Over the course of three hours, participants became acquainted with the structure of beekeeping hives, practiced extracting honey from them and tasted a suite of honey varieties collected by Sager and other local beekeepers.

A 29-year-old Los Altos native and a former technical employee for DreamWorks Animation, Sager was first introduced to beekeeping when she assisted a friend's father in inspecting a hive. Some initial fears dispelled, her curiosity for bees grew, and she joked that one day when her husband turned his back, she purchased a hive. She found the "low-key agriculture-related hobby" appealing, she explained.

"(Bees) just do their thing," Sager said. "You can leave them for a month and they're fine."

Now, after five years of pursuing it as a hobby, beekeeping has become her livelihood. Sager keeps five permanent hives in Los Altos that produce about 300 pounds or 25 gallons of honey a year, which she sells at fairs and specialty events and to bulk buyers. She also sells beehives and helps with installations. Recently, she helped a friend in Petaluma place a hive on top of a brewery that plans to use the honey in some of its beers.

Sager's real passion, though, is bee education. She was recently involved with bringing a giant "learning hive" to the San Mateo County Fair; she visits classes to teach children ages 4 to 6 about bee basics; and she holds workshops like this one to introduce what she calls "new-bees" to beekeeping.

The hands-on portion of the workshop at Hidden Villa began with Sager explaining the main structural component of a hive: long rectangular frames with plastic foundations upon which the bees construct hexagonal honeycombs and fill them with honey. Hives typically consist of a stack of shallow boxes, each of which can house several frames.

Sager brought with her a handful of frames, hefty with honey, which she had removed from a hive earlier that day. She then demonstrated how to remove the capping -- a layer of beeswax -- from each side of the frame using a heated knife. Each participant was invited to try the technique, sawing the wax with a motion like that of a cellist wielding a bow. Sager saved the discarded beeswax in a tub; she typically uses it to make lip balm.

On a few irregular frames, some protruding honeycomb had to be removed as well, and the severed pieces were passed around for people to taste. Consuming raw honeycomb is an unusual sensory experience that begins with a crunch, continues with overpowering sweetness and chewing, and concludes with the taster spitting out a piece of wax. Perhaps it's nature's chewing gum.

After a few frames were freed of their wax coverings, Sager led her students over to an extractor: a metal centrifuge that can suspend two frames inside. The user then turns a crank, transforming the frames into a blurry fan that empties the honey cells onto the extractor's inside walls.

The golden ooze collects at the bottom of the centrifuge, where it is then released by tap into a gauntlet of strainers and cheesecloth. Once fully filtered, the viscous liquid is released into jars and voila! -- organic honey.

Workshop participant Julia Lovin watched and tried out each step of the process with careful consideration. A Los Altos resident, Lovin took up backyard beekeeping about three years ago and has stuck to it, despite some setbacks.

"I've had more successes than failures. ... I've lost three hives," she said.

Lovin decided to attend Sager's honey-harvesting workshop to see if the equipment was something she wanted to invest in. Currently, she does much of the process by hand, crushing the honeycomb when she wants to harvest it. Using a centrifuge allows the beekeeper to preserve the honeycomb, which the bees can then refill rather than using energy to reconstruct it, Sager explained.

The workshop leader also spoke about how bees serve different roles: the "queen" produces eggs, the "nurse bee" takes care of the young, the "forager" goes out into the world to search for nectar and the "house bee" processes the incoming liquid.

Though Sager prefers to let her bees have free run of the area's wildflowers, she brought a few different types of honey to share, including a sage varietal and a blackberry one, which had a darker hue. Each had subtle but identifiable differences in taste.

With its specialized equipment and training, beekeeping does have some setup costs. Sager estimated that an average price for the basics, including the hive and protective suit, can be around $500, with additional expenses for honey-harvesting and other equipment.

However, Sager said that the barrier to entry can be mitigated by joining some local bee groups, like the Santa Clara Valley Beekeepers Guild and Beekeepers' Guild of San Mateo County, which she became involved in when she was a "new-bee." Guild members can assist with acquiring bees and offer other advice. The San Mateo County guild also has equipment that members can borrow free of charge.

In addition to bringing its practitioners closer to nature, backyard beekeeping circumvents some of the threats facing bee populations, sometimes referred to as Colony Collapse, Sager said. She noted that commercial honey producers drive hives around the country, increasing their exposure to pesticides and diseases, whereas home beekeeping enables populations to adapt to the local environment. The variety of flowers blooming at different times in suburban areas also gives bees a more stable food source, in contrast to the monoculture of farmland.

Though Sager greatly enjoys her organic honey, referring to some store-bought products as "not actually honey," what keeps her interested is a fascination with bees and the never-ending stream of things to learn about them and the art of beekeeping.

"I didn't do it for the honey; I did it for the bees," she said.

For more about Sager and her business, visit kendalsbees.com. Editorial Assistant Sam Sciolla can be emailed at ssciolla@paweekly.com.

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