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Monthly Archives: March 2017

  • The Music of Spring

    written by Keith Roberts, Head Beekeeper at The Valley Hive

    “Winter’s on the wing, here’s a fine spring morn

    Coming clear thru the night, from the May I say…”

    -Dickon  from The Secret Garden

    Here’s a little known fact about the beekeeper at The Valley Hive….. I have a soft spot for musicals.  One that is especially relevant at the moment is The Secret Garden, and a particular song, “Winter’s  On The Wing” has been on loop for the last two weeks as I’ve made my rounds working bees.  The character, Dickon, senses winter losing its icy grip and he summons the spring to overcome the cold and bleak.

    There is an energy permeating across Southern California, and I am not talking about some abstract, New Age mystical concept.   When I have opened hives during the last two weeks, I see brand new wax; what my mentor referred to as “the icing on the cake,” being made by young bees encouraged by the nutrient rich nectar they have been receiving from their sisters coming back from the fields.  They are finding food, and a lot of it.  It takes some 2 million visits to flowers to make a pound of honey, but it takes an astounding equivalent of nine pounds of honey to produce a single pound of wax.  So when I see it being built, I start paying very close attention.

    Queens are now being fed in full and they are laying at high speed, nearly 2,000 eggs a day.  The population of a hive can expand rapidly to capitalize on the banquet that is being prepared for them by nature.  Some of this is normal for this time of year, but this time, it just feels… different.

    “And now the sun is climbin’ high, risin’ fast on fire

    Glarin’ down through the gloom, gone the gray, I say

    The sun spells the doom, Of the winter’s reign

    Ice and chill must retire, From the May I say”

    After one such day of working bees, my restlessness gets the best of me and I find myself walking around my neighborhood.  It is about an hour from twilight, and I hear the bees above me working the white blossoms of the flowering pear trees standing proudly in the middle of the sidewalk.

    Ornamental Pear Ornamental Pear                                                                                                           photograph by Keith Roberts

    As I round the corner, I catch a scent that takes me back to one of my favorite places; my grandparents’ house in Granada Hills.  It is the unmistakable aroma of orange blossoms, and soon I see them peeking over someone’s white fence on the other side of the block.  The bees tumble over themselves trying to secure themselves to the coveted flowers.  Further down, a hedge of rosemary is in full bloom and judging from the action of the bees, there are hives, somewhere close, that have locked this location down with waggle dances.

    Mustard Fields in Bloom Mustard Fields in Bloom                                                                                               Photograph by Keith Roberts

    The next day I find myself at one of my apiaries in Simi Valley.  It is hardly recognizable.  A month ago, one would find nothing but barren mud along the hills.  Now, mustard grows as tall as my shoulders, and I take a few pictures of the massive bloom as I catch the unmistakable scent of nectar being cured coming from the hives behind me.

    “And now the mist is liftin' high, leavin' bright blue air

    Rollin' clean 'cross the Moor, from the May, I say

    The storm'll soon be by, leavin' clear blue sky

    Soon the sun will shine

    From the day, say I”

    As always, I remember my mentor, Walt, as the tells of spring radiate throughout the city.  Occasionally, when he was a passenger as I drove us to the next job, his normal subdued demeanor would break into a near hysteria, almost always when I was on a busy street or highway.

    “Pull over, pull over!” Walt shouted above the radio.

    I would deftly move across the lanes and throw on the hazards before coming to a full stop on the shoulder.  My pulse was pounding in my head and I was thinking how I could have possibly set the truck bed on fire.  I knew I put that damn smoker out.

    “What’s wrong?” I asked, convinced there was a fire somewhere despite not seeing any smoke from glancing in the rear view mirror.

    He was already out of the truck.  I watched him pluck a flower from the roadside and bring it back to the cabin.

    “Take a look at this.  This is  salvia leucophylla, also known as purple sage,” Walt began to lively discuss the parts of the plant the way a gearhead might talk about the inner workings of an upgraded engine with a super charger.   After the lecture, I let the silence take hold of the cabin as cars whizzed by us to our left.

    “I thought the truck was on fire,” I said, as calmly as possible. “You made me pull over for a plant?”

    “Well, this is important,” he said.

    “Can I continue driving now?”


    I merged back on the highway with Walt continuing on about major nectar producers versus minor producers and what bloomed when and where while I breathed deeply, resolving myself not to lose my cool.

    Grape Soda Lupine Grape Soda Lupine                                                                                                Photograph by Keith Roberts

    But as the years have gone by, I have my blinders off; if I miss the blossoms and the bees don’t, I will see that energy represented in that colony.  I will see the brood chamber rapidly expand, beautiful new wax, fresh nectar being stored.  And now the curiosity gets the best of me and I find myself pulling off the road to take a quick picture of lavender in full bloom, or the playfully named grape soda lupine growing wild alongside Topanga Canyon Blvd.  If I can’t recognize it, I will take a small sample of it into the truck with me and have a nursery identify it.

    This rain we have had this season was nearly record breaking.  Our hills are cloaked in green and the beginning of an immense nectar flow that we haven’t enjoyed in the last decade is foretold with colonies swarming, desert wildflowers enjoying a record bloom, and the bees are telling the beginning of a story that you can share if you just take a moment and look around you.

    I write this on March 20; the first day of spring.  If you have bees, right now, you might have heard the girls foretelling you of the inevitability of this season, just as Dickon does in Secret Garden.

    “And you’ll be here to see it, stand and breathe it all the day

    Stop and feel it, Stop and hear it

    Spring, I say”

    Spring is the perfect time to start a backyard hive! Learn more at our classes at or check out our website for more information at




  • Almond Pollination -- A Day in the Life of a Beekeeper

    A Beekeepers' Christmas A Beekeepers' Christmas

    written by Keith Roberts, Head Beekeeper at The Valley Hive


    February is the Super Bowl for U.S beekeepers, and California is the perpetual stadium.  More bees are in this state at the moment than anywhere else on the planet.  The almonds provide a very nutritious pollen and they expand in population rather rapidly as they kick their queen into high gear, and it is not unusual for them to run out of space in their two box format.  Today’s mission is to ensure that doesn’t happen, so the truck is piled high with empty boxes just in case.


    I wake at 4:29 a.m., one minute before my alarm.  I turn it off before it has a chance to pierce the silence and I check the weather in Hanford, my destination today.  As I hear the rain plinking outside my bedroom window in Canoga Park, I force myself to believe the weather prophets’ forecast for clear and sunny skies today in the almond orchards. For most people, the weather influences attire.  With the uncharacteristically wet weather of late, being a beekeeper in the almonds can be tricky. Getting stuck in the mud, among stinging insects without cell service is definitely a concern.

    Coffee and lunchbox in hand, I head to The Valley Hive in Chatsworth to pick up the bee truck, affectionately nicknamed “Chelsea”.

    It is still early: 5:15.  My joints creak, and I am reminded that, although in my thirties, I do not feel like a young man anymore. My previous career of delivering packages has added a bit more mileage on the odometer than normal. As the tendinitis in my right hand hisses its presence, I wonder if I will even make it to the average age of the commercial beekeeper.  Sixty years old seems a lifetime away.  As I cinch the loads tight, cold rain permeates the green straps, steel ratchets, and my sore knuckles, and I can’t help but think that all of my experience at this young age is a good thing.

    The GMC 6500 Flatbed has two stacks of 80 medium boxes.  As I step out of my pickup in the rain, I look at the tall stacks and anticipate the jarring terrain and potholes of the 5 freeway before the grapevine. I am no longer content with the load. I loosen the straps, climb onto the truck, and restack the boxes into three rows instead of two to lessen the chance of losing a box on the Grapevine.

    I realize I forgot a lid for one of the boxes, and go to climb off the truck by way of the ball hitch, which provides a convenient step off the back of the trailer.  As I go to brace myself on the hitch, I find nothing but an empty space.  It is gone.  I flash back to leaving the truck at a shop the other night due to the water pump succumbing on Friday on the way out to do what I am doing now, and I conclude immediately that it must have been stolen.

    My anger rises, and I let it pass.  Today is for the bees.  The hitch will be a problem to solve tomorrow.

    I climb into the cabin, turn the key, and the 454 engine roars to life, seemingly eager to battle the distance, road, and elements.

    Snow on The Grapevine Snow on The Grapevine


    The rain pounds the truck as the grapevine provides snow and beautiful scenery.  I stop to take a quick bathroom break in the wet and cold at a rest stop and check the load.  Everything is holding tight, and I start the truck and head back on the road, thinking about the work ahead.

    The 5 Freeway splits into the 99, and I make the move.  I am in farm country now, and the almond orchards I pass appear to be in full bloom.

    As I take a sip of the black coffee, still scalding, I nearly burn my hand.  The excitement and apprehension of the day take turns rolling over in my gut like an apple coated in barbed wire.  My mind is on thoughts of the bees. They should be healthy; or they might be poisoned by pesticide; perhaps stolen. Colony thefts have skyrocketed in recent years.



    Three hours of driving finds me in Hanford.  The first drop of 20 hives is healthy. Begrudgingly, I take some ridiculous selfies, as requested for our social media accounts.  I place supers on the booming hives and let myself take in the beautiful white and gold blossoms on trees that were the definition of barren a mere week and change ago.

    Dead Bees in the Almonds Dead Bees in the Almonds

    Further along, I discover colonies with a few hundred dead bees on the ground in front of the landing board.  My heart aches at the sight.  My frustration simmers as the smoker churns on top of a cover.  The hive next to the compromised one shows no sign at all of being exposed to the same toxin, and I wonder what was sprayed.  Year after year, beekeepers are forced to witness their hives being poisoned by the very same folks who demand these six legged pollinators.  Is this ever going to end?

    Happy Bees Happy Bees

    Unaware of the fatalities, the bees seem to be in a fantastic mood.  I wear only a veil -- no gloves or suit today.  They seem almost happy to see me, and I as I carefully place a medium box with 10 frames above their existing box, I imagine they appreciate the expansion of the Langstroth mansions.

    I am alone, so perhaps I am even more attentive to the placement of the tires of my bee truck.  “Stay on the crown, Roberts,” I say to myself, referring to the top most part of the dirt road that tapers off along the sides that would spell a muddy ruin to an otherwise perfect day.  There is not a rain cloud in sight, and the sky is a deep blue; the weather people got it right today.

    Selfie Selfie

    I work the bees, I snap some photos (coerced, mind you), and I take in the beauty.  It is almost uncomfortable to take it in all alone, and I am not sure if my color-blind eyes can adequately comprehend the magnificence of the blooms. The bees provide amazing company, and I do not mind being by myself, typically. But these blossoms are a once in a year event, and perhaps my Super Bowl metaphor isn’t appropriate.  This is Christmas.  Yes.  This is the beekeeper Christmas.  The gift of the almonds that heralds the spring. I understand why the Japanese so appreciate the blooming of the cherry blossoms,

    It really is beautiful.

    The last box is placed on a hive, and I secure a handful of lids and head back on the road.  I have a quarter tank of gas left in the truck and I have a choice; 25 minutes out of the way to the east, or go back the way I came, a straight shot, with fuel 30 minutes in the distance.

    I choose the latter and cruise down the 43.


    Chelsea The Bee Truck Chelsea The Bee Truck

    I make a left on Pond Road, on my way to the 99.  The fuel gauge still shows a click above empty, and I am 4 minutes away from fuel.

    Suddenly the engine dies, and I use the momentum to safely get myself parked on the shoulder of the road.  I am out of gas.

    “This is all on you, Roberts,” I mutter.  “Real good. Seriously.”

    I call AAA and tell them of my idiocy. I am told someone will be out in about 45 minutes with fuel. As I end the call,  I notice a dozen bees or so resting on the windshield.  The truck had stopped at another almond orchard in full bloom with bee hives next to the road.

    Out of concern for the AAA driver coming to my rescue, I get out of my truck and walk near the hives to assess their temperament.  They ignore me, and I am satisfied that the driver will not be rewarded with bee stings for helping me.

    In 30 minutes a technician is filling my tank with five gallons of dino-juice.  As the fuel is heard raining inside the empty steel tank, the broad shouldered tech looks at me with a bit of concern.

    “So, um, these bees, they aren’t going to sting me right?” He asked.

    “Not unless I want them to,” I chuckle.

    He did not find me funny.

    “I’m allergic,” he asserted.

    “They won’t sting you.  They are nice bees.  I checked.”


    After a handshake and a turn of the key, I was on the road again.  I made it to the Chevron station, filled up the tank to the brim, and headed back home.

    As the sun moves to the west, I focus on navigating through the chaos of the Los Angeles freeway traffic and find some satisfaction in knowing that I am one of thousands of beekeepers travelling to and from the almonds today to work their bees.

    I was wrong earlier.  I wasn’t alone.

    I had company all along.




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Our address is 10538 Topanga Cyn Blvd. Chatsworth, CA 91311
(818) 280-6500


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