UC Davis alumnus and bee expert Elizabeth Frost, a technical specialist for bees with the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries, sadly knows the fire scene well.
Frost, a 13-year beekeeper, recently authored "24 Million Acres: Reports from Australia's Massive Fire Scar," published in the quarterly magazine, 2 Million Blossoms. The informative piece tackles the subject of Australian bushfires and it provides insight into the kind of scorched path lying ahead for California beekeepers.
"Bees don't abscond but stay with the hives as far as I can tell from beekeeper anecdotal evidence," Frost told us this week. "Where a 'cool' burn runs quickly through the bee yard, hives generally suffer from radiant heat. Post-fire, they should should be fed supplementally if there are no natural food sources where they can be moved to, and requeened. Otherwise, ongoing queen/productivity issues result."
At UC Davis, Frost worked with bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey (now at Washington State University) at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility. The two colleagues are closely following the California wildfire disaster. "This is devastating--it will take years to recover," Cobey said.
An integral part of what's occurring both here and Australia, the colleagues said, is climate change. "Prolonged and potentially extreme bushfire seasons in Australia due to climate change is our present reality, not our future," wrote Frost in 2 Million Blossoms.
Meanwhile, the Australian Honey Bee Industry Council is keying on rebuilding the bushfire-devastated honey bee and pollination industry.
Frost described the 2019-20 bush fires in 2 Million Blossoms: "24 million acres were burnt in Australia's 2019-2020 bushfire season. In Australia's biggest beekeeping state, New South Wales (NSW), the 2019-20 bush-fires burnt through 13 million acres, 7% of the state's area, including 37% of NSW National Parks and 50% of State forests. NSW Apiarists' Association President Stephen Targett noted, “NSW Bushfires have burnt over 9,809 hives and wiped out the field of over 88,094 hives and burnt just over 5 million hectares of forests. With minimal autumn prospects, a small percentage of these affected hives will be suitable for almond pollination. While the mature almond orchards in Australia don't cover anywhere near as much land as in the United States, they still require around 220,000 hives in August, when mass bloom occurs in the Southern Hemisphere."
"This bushfire disaster was unprecedented in its impact on the Australian beekeeping industry which relies on native tall timber forests of nectar and pollen yielding trees to produce 30,000 tons of honey in a good year," Frost wrote. "Most of these species flower once every 3 to 4 years, unless soil moisture is below average for extended periods in which case some trees may not flower for up to 10 years. Australia's unique flora and dispersed bloom times means beekeepers must pay keen attention to botanical detail in order to effectively migrate to nectar flows that are not annual or even biannual. Australia lost vast swathes of vital natural sources of nutrition, species that provide car- bohydrates, proteins, amino and fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals. The bushfires destroyed prime habitat that functioned as a safe haven far from the threat of pesticides to honey bees and native pollinators alike."
Frost called attention to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), a leading Australian federal government scientific agency, that has been conducting bushfire research for almost 70 years. "Bushfires are a natural part of the Australian landscape, necessary for the regeneration of many endemic plant species that evolved with the harsh climatic conditions of the world's lowest, flattest and (apart from Antarctica) driest continents," Frost pointed out. CSIRO reports that “bushfires are the result of a combination of weather and vegetation (which acts as a fuel for the fire), together with a way for the fire to begin – most commonly due to a lightning strike and sometimes human-influences (mostly accidental such as the use of machinery which produces a spark).”
The impact of climate change has led to longer, more intense fire seasons, Frost related, and an increase in the average number of elevated fire weather days, as measured by the Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI). Last year saw the highest annual accumulated FFDI on record.
"Climate change doesn't cause fires directly, but has caused an increase in the occurrence of extreme fire weather and in the length of the fire season across large parts of Australia since the 1950s," Frost wrote. "In addition to 2019 being the driest year since records began in 1900, it was Australia's warmest year. In 2019 the annual mean temperature was 1.52 °C above average.”
Frost asked: "In the short term, how will the beekeeping industry evolve to cope with millions of acres of its floral resource burnt and unproductive, providing no bee forage for at least the next few years? Supplemental feeding, previously practiced sparingly in Australia, will have to become the norm for the country if beekeepers hope to bring colonies up to required colony strength as agreed in their almond pollination contracts."
Sadly, it's a long singed recovery as well for the California beekeepers victimized by the wildfires. (To offer financial support for Caroline Yelle, owner of Pope Canyon Queens, access the Gofundme account.)
No, the bees do not abscond with their queen and relocate, says Norman Gary, emeritus professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis.
Gary, known as "The Bee Man," has kept bees for more than seven decades. He's a bee scientist lauded for his research, his writings (his latest book is The Honey Bee Hobbyist: The Care and Keeping of Bees), his professional bee wrangling, and his work with Hollywood movie producers, documentaries, and talk shows. He's also a musician known for donning a full-length "bee suit" while playing the B-flat clarinet. (See more information on his career)
We asked "The Bee Man" to comment on what bee colonies do during a fire. He broke it down like this:
"Bees react to smoke by fanning, motion, flight, and immediately ingesting nectar and honey," he says. "Smoke disrupts their defensive behavior. That is why beekeepers smoke bees when manipulating and inspecting bee colonies. Some have speculated that feeding behavior, gorging on honey and nectar in response to smoke, would enable colonies to take honey during migrating from the fire area. I have smoked thousands of hives during my career. There was never any indication that bees left the hive area in response to smoke. Migration of the colony away from the fire and smoke would be impossible because the queen is full of eggs and much too heavy to fly. Consequently a colony that migrated from a fire could not survive without the queen. Wild colonies that nest inside of large tree trunks high above ground level may initially survive the fire. But they may eventually starve if all of the vegetation with their flight range has been destroyed."
However, the Aug. 19th fire occurred at night. All of the bees, including the foragers, were inside. "That did not leave any chance for the colonies," Yelle said.
"Everything burned to the ground with no signs of life or even wood left when the fire reached a pallet (4 hives). I have been finding only cleats and nails in a pile of ash. That gives you an idea on how strong was that fire."
"I did have one pallet of hives that the boxes didn't burn all down, but the bees died and brood is dying," she said.
Surviving Bees in Jeopardy
In the few surviving hives, the blazing heat killed the capped brood but some adult bees are still alive. "The colonies are low on population, and the queen has just started laying again. It will be a challenge for all beekeepers with surviving hives to restock the resources and rebuild the brood, meaning the bees are still in jeopardy."
Yelle credits a Bodega firefighter with saving her hives at another location--in Pope Valley. "He's a real hero and his name is Boone Vale, a volunteer fire captain with the Bodega Bay Fire Department and a bulldozer operator," she said. "We did lose about 60 hives," she said, but Vale saved 70 when he "pushed the hives away from the burning ones. He was on his way home after who knows how many hours of battling the fire and still stopped to save the hives."
"Bee Man" Norm Gary called the fire "an absolute disaster."
"This was an absolute disaster," said Gary. "Rick provided packaged bees for almost all of my TV shows and movies during the past 30 plus years," he said. "Rick has always been close to UC Davis beekeeping activities. He was the only commercial beekeeper who frequently attended our Bee Biology Group meetings at the Bee Biology Facility. His sister worked for me one summer. He is a fine gentlemen as well as an outstanding professional beekeeper!"
"I hope they can find some support from the industry or some other source, such as a Go Fund Me project," Gary said. "My daughter recently bought a country home west of Winters near Rick's property. The night that fire burned Rick's home, my daughter and husband were celebrating their first night at their new home. But they were evacuated in the middle of the night! Their property was saved only because another local fire a few weeks earlier had burned enough in a nearby area to provide a partial fire break!"
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/popecanyonqueens
- Email: email@example.com
- Go Fund Me Account (shared by Pope Valley Queens and Rick Schubert): https://gf.me/u/ys2vtw
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/popecanyonqueens/?hl=en
Caroline Yelle, 28, owner of Pope Canyon Queens (PCQ) at 8307 Quail Canyon Road Quail Canyon Road, Vacaville, lost her business when the lightning-sparked Hennessey Fire, part of the LNU Lightning Complex Fire, swept through rural Vacaville on Aug. 19 from Napa County.
The raging wall of flame "destroyed everything."
She has nothing left but hope.
Pope Valley Queens is one of the nation's few women-owned queen bee breeder businesses. Yelle breeds bees for "a better tomorrow" and now "tomorrow" and "better" are almost singed from her vocabulary.
She lost 500 hives.
Her mentor, best friend and business partner Rick Schubert (who recently sold his business, Bee Happy Apiary, Vacaville), lost everything in the Hennessey Fire, including his newly remodeled home at 8307 Quail Canyon Road--and where the PCQ office was.
"I bought the company in 2017 from my mentor," said Yelle, who began working there in 2012. "This year, 2020 is my seventh year in producing queens."
"I was studying to be a lawyer in Canada," she related. "After I got my degree, I decided to move here and left everything behind to follow my dream with the bees and helping them."
Veteran beekeeper Schubert, who has kept bees for some four decades, is well known in the bee industry and agricultural world. He helped her settle in California and build the company, offering contacts and expertise. "Rick had just remodeled his house and that (the fire) happened," Yelle said. "He lost everything." Schubert's only surviving bees are the 100 hives he keeps in Dixon.
"Basically after selling Bee Happy, he invested in my company, Pope Canyon Queens," she said. "We lost everything together on different levels."
We Lost the Farm
"We (Rick Schubert and her) lost the farm, the house, the garage, the bees," Yelle said. "We have the majority of our bees on another property up in Pope Canyon Valley that also burned. We lost around 500 hives or $100,000 in livestock--minimum--that is not covered...and another $100,000 of benefits out of these hives. We are back to ground zero."
Yelle mainly breeds Carniolans, Apis mellifera carnica, a subspecies of the western honey bee and "a hybrid that we selected in Canada and we reproduce here in California for stronger genes."
"The Canadian beekeeping industry needs tons of early queens in the spring," she said. "We decided seven years ago to bring our northern and robust queen bee genetics, selected over more than 20 years, to produce here." She has an isolated mating station in Napa Valley (Pope Canyon Valley).
"Our goal was not to compete with the big queen guys that already export massive amount of queens but try to increase the level of quality standard into the queen importation issue in Canada and the United States," Yelle said. Over the years, they reached their goal of quality standard.
"However," she said, "we are still working to improve our genetics and to expand our production year after year."
Bee Source published this about the business in 2017: "Pope Canyon Queens LLC (PCQ) want and choose to be at the forefront breeding genetics to help bee populations to better defend themselves against mites, viruses, bacteria, pollination and commercial beekeeping stresses, pollution, depleting floral diversity and ever changing ecosystems. By confronting these challenges head on, PCQ will come to represent a turning point in the strengthening of bee populations. Its 'raison d'etre' is rooted in the urgency of grafting solid apicultural know-how onto strong genetics to meet today's challenge of breeding a better tomorrow."
'It Will Take Years to Recover'
Bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey of Washington State University, a former manager of the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at UC Davis, called the fire "devastating." She knows of several beekeepers, including the Yelle-Schubert team, who lost everything in the tragic fire. "It will take years to recover."
"The story needs to be told," said Cobey, who breeds Carniolans. "These beekeepers work so hard. The impact of California agriculture will be huge, our breadbasket. It's about climate change, too."
"Sue is part of our family group," Yelle said. "We had programs on breeding stock and selection of genes." Yelle also works closely with bee breeder-geneticist Kim Fondrk, of the Laidlaw facility. For decades, Fondrk managed research bee colonies at the Laidlaw facility for Robert Page Jr., former chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology who recently retired as provost at Arizona State University. Together Page and Fondrk wrote landmark research articles.
"Kim worked with and for us for us over the past years," Yelle recalled. Schubert also worked with bee scientist Norm Gary, emeritus professor, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, also known as an author, bee wrangler and musician. "We provided bees for Norm's research," Yelle related. Schubert provided bees for Gary's bee wrangling projects.
Now Yelle, who is accustomed to helping others, needs others' help.
"We need help with the bees that burned to be able to keep breeding them and bring back our livestock for next year pollination and to keep feeding the nation," Yelle said.
Yelle has set up a gofundme account, "Help Us Rebuild to Save the Bees," at https://gf.me/u/ys2vtw
"The help and support we are getting is really heartwarming," Yelle wrote on on the gofundme support page. "Thank you for the messages, the calls, the shares, the donations, the thoughts and everything. I see every single of your names and have such strong emotions about how much people care about us, about the bees and about their community. Some really good news so far: a bee company contacted us to help us rebuild the materials for lowest cost possible, my California family offered me a part of their barn for me to have a start before rebuilding."
Yelle is grateful that "someone saved a bee yard that was literally in the middle of one of the worst part of the fire," and she and a neighbor helped saved a mini farm from the fire. "Community is strong."
Strong...and from heartbreaking to heartwarming...