“It was about how to cook with honey and how to keep good quality honey without destroying it,” she related. “Then I took my real retirement trip—an Alaskan cruise with my sister.”
Today Amina Harris is no longer the "queen bee” of the Honey and Pollination Center but she continues to be the “queen bee” of the family-owned, family-operated gourmet food business, Z Specialty Food LLC, Woodland, that her late husband, Ishai Zeldner founded in 1979.
Accolades about her work flow like the honey she loves. "Amina has been key to promoting and developing regional and national interest in honey and mead,“ said nematologist Steve Nadler, professor and former chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.
Her accomplishments include:
- Founded the Center in the fall of 2012 and served as the founding director until June 30, 2023
- Co-founder of the California Honey Festival with the City of Woodland and Z Specialty Food, 2016
- Developed the UC Davis Honey Aroma and Flavor Wheel, 2013-14
- Offered several UC Davis Bee Symposia in concert with the Department of Entomology and Nematology to help educate California beekeepers at all levels, starting in 2015
- Established “The Feast: A Celebration with Mead and Honey,” formerly known as “The Mid-Winter Beekeepers' Feast,” pairing food influenced by honey, starting in 2014
- Helped develop and fund the California Master Beekeeper Program (which replaced the Bee Symposia), 2016
- Developed, with the UC Davis Department of Viticulture, the first short course on mead, 2014. Subsequent short courses ranged from “Introduction to Making Mead” to “Advanced Mead Making.”
- Developed the Honey Exploration Series, which began in 2016 and included both a professional focus (“Honey Sensory”) and a public focus (“World of Honey”).
- Delivered presentations at various programs and events throughout the United States and Canada from 2012 to 2023.
“It has been a great pleasure to collaborate with Amina as she always brought a fresh perspective to pollinator education discussions," Niño added. "We will miss her in her capacity as the HPC director, but I am sure that we will continue to interact in the future and utilize her expansive knowledge of all things honey!"
Said Wendy Mather, co-program manager of CAMBP: “Whenever I've needed assistance with about anything honey-related, Amina has generously offered her time and wisdom. She has served on the CAMBP Advisory Board since the program's inception in 2016. Her experience and wisdom are valued as she continues to offer excellent programmatic design suggestions to help strengthen our staff-member communication. Amina was also instrumental in designing, hosting and facilitating an introduction and overview to honey, honey processing and honey tasting. And she connected us to Suzanne Teuber, a UC Davis physician and professor specializing in allergy and clinical immunologic disorders so we could learn more about the science behind anaphylactic responses to bee stings.”
Energy of a Worker Bee. “We also couldn't have asked for a better partner to set up beside at the California Honey Festival over the past few years!” Mather said. “The Honey Wheel tasting table draws crowds curious about exploring the sensory elements of honey and our adjacent CAMBP booth benefits from that sweet attraction. If you've even seen Amina in action, you'll know she has the purposeful energy of a worker bee.”
Amina, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y, received her undergraduate degrees--double major in English and the history of art--from the University of Michigan and her graduate degree in special education from Buffalo State College. She met beekeeper/entrepreneur Ishai Zeldner, also a native of Buffalo, in Yolo County. They married in 1982 and together they raised their two children, Shoshana “Shoshi” and Joshua.
Ishai and Amina created a line of internationally recognized award-winning specialty food products, including the Moon Shine Trading Company. They began providing more than 30 honey varietals, including star thistle honey, the first honey to capture Ishai's imagination and palate.
A Dream Fulfilled. Ishai, who died in 2018 at age 71, always dreamed of expanding the family business from a processing plant into what it is today, a 20,000-square-foot facility that includes The HIVE tasting room for honey and mead, a gift shop, a kitchen featuring sustainable pollinator-themed dishes, a conference room, an outdoor courtyard and a two-acre pollinator garden.
The facility, which opened in 2021, houses Moon Apiaries and the Moon Shine Trading Company, as well as The HIVE. Located at 1221 Harter Way, Woodland, it is described as a sustainable educational learning center; a landmark community gathering spot featuring honey, mead, and sustainable pollinator-themed dishes; and a place that offers the largest selection of honey and mead in California. Ishai's bee boxes grace a wall of the tasting room.
“We, our family, are all the co-owners of this venture,” Amina says. Josh describes himself as “the nectar director”; Amina, “the queen bee”; and Shoshi, the marketing director.
How It Began. What sparked Amina's interest in honey? Creating honey-influenced recipes. “Back in 1970s when everyone was getting into whole foods, I wanted to create more holistic recipes, so I started making jams and jellies and pies, adding honey for the sweetener instead of sugar. I was making pies for families when I was in the seventh grade! Honey selection was not good in New York State, and I didn't know the science then.”
Bees continue to fascinate her. “People have no idea how emotionally attached we are to bees. There's this huge, wonderful group of people who just love bees because they're so cute and endearing. But we need to be more curious and inquisitive as to how wonderful bees are, and how they benefit us as pollinators. And the honey. We should appreciate bees more than we do.”
Meanwhile, Amina's family, friends and colleagues are gearing up for an August retirement party, to be held at The HIVE.
The California Honey Festival, set Saturday, May 7 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in downtown Woodland, will focus on honey, bees, plants and pollination.
"UC Davis will have a slimmed down version this year," said Amina Harris, director of the UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center at the Robert Mondavi Institute, and a co-founder of the event. Launched in 2017, the Honey Festival hasn't been held since 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the events on tap Saturday:
- The UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center will showcase its honey tasting wheel and offer free honey tasting.
- The California Master Beekeeper Program will staff two educational booths. Visitors can examine a bee observation hive, check out the beekeeping equipment and peer through microscopes. Kids' activities are also planned.
- The Bohart Museum of Entomology of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematolgoy will showcase bee diversity in its specimen drawers. Its live "petting zoo" will include Madagascar hissing cockroaches and stick insects (walking sticks) that folks can hold, said Tabatha Yang, education and outreach coordinator.
- The UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden will address pollinator needs and gardening.
- The Woodland Public Library will offer a children's reading hour.
- Uncle Jer's Traveling Bee Show will provide educational performances.
- The UC Davis Bookstores booth will contain honey, books, and other gifts for sale.
- Visitors can don a bee costume and get their picture taken in the UC Davis Pollination Park, a collaboration with the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden.
Harris said the festival will include live music, a beer and mead garden, and about 100 vendors selling everything from food to plants to arts and crafts. Admission to the festival is free. The first festival drew some 30,000 visitors.
An after-party is planned at The Hive, owned by Z Specialty Food, Woodland. Advance registration is required. Access https://zspecialtyfood.com/event/california-honey-festival-after-party/
(Note: This year the UC Davis Bee Haven, operated by the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, won't be able to participate due to scheduling conflicts, said academic program management manager Christine Casey.)
The third annual California Honey Festival, sponsored by the City of Woodland and the UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center, will take place from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday, May 4 in downtown Woodland. It's free and family friendly.
Amina Harris, director of the Honey and Pollination Center, says the event will include a cooking stage, a UC Davis educational stage, a kids' zone, a refreshment zone (beer and wine) and live entertainment.
Among the featured attractions will be a screened bee tent, where festival-goers can see beekeeper Bernardo Niño, staff research associate III in the Elina Niño lab in the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, open the hive and point out the queen, worker bees and drones. Bernardo is the educational supervisor of the California Master Beekeeper Program, directed by Extension apiculturist Elina Niño and operated by the Niño lab.
"Bernardo will be taking the girls through their paces three times during the day," Harris quipping, referring to the worker bees. This will be at 11 a.m., 1:15 and 3:30 p.m.
Kitty Bolte from the Xerces Society of Invertebrate Conservation, the first speaker on the UC Davis Educational Stage at 10:15, will welcome Woodand as a "Bee City." Plans also call for UC Davis to be named "Bee University" on Saturday, Harris said. "Rachel Davis, director of the Gateway Gardens, Arboretum has been spearheading this designation."
Pollination ecologist and professor Neal Williams of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, will speak on "The Huge Impact of Native Bees" at 12:30 p.m. on the UC Davis Educational Stage.
The UC Davis Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven will feature a pollinator garden installation highlighting what and how to plant for pollinators, along with displays about common bees found in gardens, said Christine Casey, academic program management officer and manager of the half-acre garden, located on Bee Biology Road. She also will be speaking on bee gardening at 2:45 p.m. on the UC Davis Educational Stage.
The UC Davis area, located in the Woodland Opera House Plaza, in the middle of the festival activities, will be abuzz with new additions, Harris said. Newcomers to the festival include the World Food Center Plant Breeders, UC Davis entomology students. (See schedule.)
California Master Beekeepers will be teaching on the educational platforms at the festival. The Pollinator Posse of the Bay Area, headed by Tora Rocha and Terry Smith, will be on hand to explain the importance of pollinators and what everyone can do to help them.
Live entertainment will include Jayson Angove, Jessica Malone, Big Sticky Mess, Bocado Rio, Case Lipka, David Jacobin, Katgruvs, accordionist Jared Johnson, The City of Trees Brass Band and Double X Brass Band. Other live entertainment includes Space Walker and the Hand Stand Nation.
The festival, launched in 2017, aims to cultivate an interest in beekeeping, and to educate the public in support of bees and their keepers, according to Amina Harris, director of the UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center. Last year's festival drew 30,000 people and some 16 California honey companies.
The California Honey Festival's mission: to promote honey, honey bees and their products, and beekeeping. Through lectures and demonstrations, the crowd can learn about bees and how to keep them healthy. Issues facing the bees include pests, pesticides, diseases, malnutrition, and climate changes.
She is staffing one of five interactive learning stations assembled in the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology's bee garden, the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, to teach third-graders from Amador County the importance of bees and other pollinators.
Brutscher discusses the residents of the hive: the queen, worker bees (females) and drones (males). The third-graders, sitting, standing or kneeling in the garden, listen to her wide-eyed.
“Who knows what the job of a drone is?” Brutscher asks.
A hand shoots up. “The drones protect the queen!” a boy declares.
“The drone's only purpose is to mate with the queen,” Brutscher tells him. “The worker bees or females guard the hive.”
The students learn that the honey bee colony is a matriarchal society. The females do all the work, performing specific tasks with job titles such as nurse maids, nannies, royal attendants, builders, architects, foragers, dancers, honey tenders, pollen packers, propolis or "glue" specialists, air conditioning and heating technicians, guards, and undertakers. The queen can lay up to 2000 eggs a day during peak season.
The third graders then suit up, donning assorted beekeeper protective gear. They pose gleefully in oversized suits while adults on the tour--teachers, parents and mentors--photograph them.
Overall, it was a honey of a day at the haven, a half-acre public garden installed in 2009 on Bee Biology Road, west of the central campus. Divided into small groups, the students excitedly buzzed from one learning activity to another, not unlike bees buzzing from one flower to another.
Statewide Extension apiculturist Elina Lastro Niño of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology faculty and director of the California Master Beekeeper Program, explained pollination and how honey bees differ from such generalists as bumble bees and such specialists as squash bees. She invited the students to build their own bee, using pipe cleaners of various lengths to mimic how they are able to pollinate flowers. The youngsters also tasted apples, blueberries and almonds. Honey bees, she told them, pollinate one third of the food we eat.
Charley Nye, beekeeper and manager of the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility, zeroed in on the products of the hive. “When we see bees flying around, what are they doing there?” he asked.
“They're out gathering nectar and pollen,” responded one youngster.
The students and adults liked the meadowfoam the best. “It tastes like cotton candy!” one girl said, slowly savoring the flavor she found reminiscent of a county fair. Most considered the almond honey "a little bitter and acidic," Nye said, but a few favored it because "it's not so sweet."
Wendy Mather, California Master Beekeeper Program manager, showed the youngsters a bee vacuum device and how to catch and release bees. “They gently collected, viewed and released the bee specimens,” Mather related. The other half of her group crafted seed cookies, decorated pots, and planted seeds for pollinators. They also viewed the bee and syrphid (hover) fly specimens loaned by pollination ecologist Neal Williams, UC Davis professor of entomology. The hover fly, sometimes called a flower fly, is a major pollinator.
Another station focused on solitary bees: leafcutter bees and blue orchard bees. The students painted nest boxes and learned how the native bees differ from honey bees. Honey bees are not natives of America; European colonists brought them to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1622. Honey bees did not arrive in California until 1853, the year a beekeeper installed colonies near San Jose.
Marcel Ramos, lab assistant in the Elina Niño lab, opened a hive inside a netted enclosure and showed the students the queen bee, workers and drones and pulled out frames of honey.
The event received financial support from the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Programmatic Initiative Grant, the Scott and Liberty Munson Family, and matching funds from Microsoft.
“This program was developed to ensure that our young scientists and future voters are aware of the importance of pollinators to our food production and ecosystems," Niño said. "We are also very excited to partner with programs across the university to recruit and support UC Davis students in becoming interns and mentors for the program. This program has already generated so much excitement with the kids and we want to provide this opportunity to as many schools as possible.”
Ron Antone, chair of the Farms of Amador and an Amador County Master Gardener, coordinated the Amador County visit, which drew third-graders from four schools: 67 from Plymouth and Sutter Creek elementary and "about the same number" from Pioneer and Pine Grove elementary. “The tour was coordinated and funded by Farms of Amador,” he said. “We are also associated with the Amador County Farmers Market Association."
“The program presented by Elina and the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven team was an incredible experience for all involved: students, parents, teachers and mentors from Farms of Amador and Amador County Master Gardeners," Antone said. “I could not have imagined a more successful trip."
Neither could the students. It was all that it was cracked up to "bee"--and much more.
- Elina Lastro Niño website
- California Master Beekeeper Program
- E.L. Niño Bee Lab, Facebook
- Amador County Master Gardeners
- Farms of Amador
- Amador County Farmers Market Association