A cup of coffee in one hand, David Blair rolls up the garage door to his warehouse and points out a few remaining 55-gallon barrels filled with honey.
“We send it off to Sue Bee as soon as we can. We don’t really store it here,” says the third generation beekeeper from Kerman.
Fall is honey harvesting season. Each summer, Blair, 61, hauls truckloads of bees to various spots in the state to shield them from the Valley heat. This year, he and his father, also a beekeeper, brought about 1500 hives up to the forests in the Sierra Nevada.
After Labor Day, Blair typically removes the honey from the hives before he brings the bees back to the Valley. But this year, the Creek Fire erupted before he could get to them. He and his father lost about 540 hives; that’s more than a third of what they had in the mountains.
Blair says he couldn’t help but cry after witnessing the devastation.
“Yeah a little bit,” he says. “Because it’s just a loss, the work you put into them. The way of life. It’s just hard to take something like that.”
Cal Fire escorted Blair up to see two of his locations near Mammoth Pool last week. This week he saw where another load of hives had burned. It was all just ash, he says.
“Just devastated. Nothing left. It’s just a mess. Nails, staples,” he says. “It’s demoralizing to see as a beekeeper.”
The California State Beekeepers Association says it doesn’t keep track of the number of hives lost to wildfires each year but Associate Director Brooke Palmer says she’s heard from several beekeepers who have suffered recent losses. She encourages all beekeepers to register their hives with their county and the USDA.
“So when this happens they have the opportunity to apply for programs available for natural disasters,” she says.
But Blair’s wife Vicki, also a beekeeper, says it’s not just about losing honeybee hives. As she sorts through before and after photos of the bee locations that burned up, she says she worries about the future of beekeeping in the state.
“Every year we find that we either lose a location because of development, or a fire or this drought. It’s harder and harder for beekeepers to run businesses in California,” she says.
And each time there’s a wildfire, it takes several years before the vegetation grows back and the area can be used as a bee location again, she says.
Blair worries too. He says the drought has been particularly hard on bees. It’s one reason why he and his father brought so many hives up into the mountains this year; other places were just too dry.
Blair lives with his family on a farm surrounded by almond trees. Not far from his warehouse are several bee boxes with bees flying around.
“I call them my pet hives,” he says smiling. “Only a beekeeper would do that.”
Right now he feeds them a pollen substitute because they can’t find enough food on their own.
He’ll use his “pet bees” to pollinate his 16 acres of almond trees in February. As a beekeeper, he also contracts with many other almond growers. This year, he says, he’ll have to make up for his losses by renting some bees.
“We’ll get bees to cover our contracts this year until we rebuild,” he says.
Rebuilding the hives takes time, he says, and that won’t happen until next Spring.