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Bee Here Now

Jim Nelson
Buzz Words: Bee farmer Jim Nelson and his family raise little stingers and produce delectable honey at his Boulder Creek farm, Camp Joy. The enterprise also is a leading purveyor of organic produce and fruit.

Photo by Robert Scheer

The buzzing, blooming profusion that is Camp Joy forms the natural backdrop for busy-as-a-bee Jim Nelson and his productive hives

By Christina Waters

THE VERY NAME, Camp Joy, creates an unconscious expectation of what will be found on this verdant four-plus-acre spread on the banks of the San Lorenzo River. At the turn of the century, a boys' camp near this spot gave Central Valley youngsters an outlet for their summertime energy. But for the past 25 years, master gardener Jim Nelson and his family have nurtured the wildness within their gracefully evolving creation, turning it into a slice of Eden that leaves a matchless sensory impression upon the fortunate visitor.

Camp Joy lives up to its name.

Heirloom apple trees huge with blossom unloose their petals in the warm breeze, making small pools of opalescence shimmer in the tall grass. Nelson, a lean, weathered man with silver hair and gentle eyes, walks with me on land where he's given countless classes in bee-keeping and organic gardening over the years.

In the late '60s, Nelson spent 2 1/2 years studying with legendary biodynamic guru Alan Chadwick. After a stint teaching and gardening in Canada, he returned to California to work the land we now stand on, as well as to teach apprentices at UCSC's Farm & Garden.

Expertly, he examines one of the empty honeycombs piled near a shed guarded by inquisitive goats and lazy cats. The scent of daphne is intoxicating. "Once a hive is established," he says, running his fingers over the interlocking hexagons, "the bees pretty much stay there. And if all goes well, a hive can last for many years."

Inside the containers we all recognize as beehives--white boxes stacked in odd corners of country lanes, gardens and orchards all over Santa Cruz County--vertical frames fit down the full length. The removable frames--like mother- boards inside a computer--are combs pre-printed with the bees' natural pattern of hexagons, which Nelson reminds me is the strongest geometrical shape.

"The imprinted pattern provides a foundation, and then the bees simply build up and fill those cells," he says.

A Case of Hives

NELSON PATIENTLY explains that the spaces between frames are exactly the thickness of three bees. Any smaller and they couldn't get in and out to maneuver honey. Any larger and they would be tempted to fill it, building more comb and, hence, clogging the whole hive. "As the hive population expands," Nelson continues, walking me through scented corridors of lilacs in full, shameless bloom, "more hive-boxes are added so that the hive builds upward. A collection of hives is called an apiary, or a bee yard."

The word apiary immediately produces a picture in my mind from Aesop's fables, way back when ancient Greeks and Romans donned veils and gloves and coaxed honey and pollinating skills from hives. The whole act has changed little in 2,500 years. When we see a stack of white boxes, we are looking at a large, flourishing colony. "A good hive, which would be a single stack, can contain 50,000 bees," Nelson grins.

Nelson is quick to point out that not only is Santa Cruz considered a hotbed of state-of-the-art beekeeping (thanks to climate, proximity to fields and natural botanical abundance) but that he, with only 100 hives, is one of the "small guys" of the artisanal industry.

"Most beekeepers move their bees around in trucks," he tells me abruptly, prompting me to immediately ask, "Why?" Are they bored only foraging around Boulder Creek? Do they enjoy freeway outings? Well, no.

"Each spring every beekeeper west of the Rockies trucks in bees to the almond orchards of the Central Valley," Nelson explains. California is a unique almond-producing area "and almonds really benefit from bee pollination. They produce lots more nuts."

What beekeepers like Nelson get out of the bargain--in which they are paid $30 per hive for a few weeks of almond orchard vacation--is the cash to buy equipment and supplies for the rest of the year.

"You keep them there during the bloom," Nelson says, "and then you move them on to other crops. Apples, cucumbers, melons, sunflowers, alfalfa--alfalfa is a big one." Beekeepers love it because they can be independent. "Beekeepers make their money leasing the hives for pollination and selling honey."

While commercial agriculture fuels some of the well-known honeys throughout the nation--clover and orange blossom--Nelson says the crème de la crème is always local, regional, wild honey. In such hand-gathered sweetness, aficionados swear they can detect the scent, flavor and tone of wild nectar, from delicate sage to menthol-infused eucalyptus. Among the "wonderful producers of honey," Nelson is partial to madrone, toyon, blackberry and mustard. "There's really a big demand for local honey--varietal honey, if you will--just like varietal wine. Some people even claim it helps their allergies."

Through the center of the garden, where classes are held in wisteria-shaded gazebos, we walk on toward the production shed. "It's almost magic how the bees actually produce the honey," Nelson admits, his eyes bright with admiration. Their enzymes change the nectar, giving it a sort of trans-species je ne sais quoi. "Then they concentrate it, evaporating its moisture, using their wings to circulate air" like chefs using heat to reduce a sauce.

Once gathered, nectar has transmuted into honey. It has a very low moisture content of 17 percent, rendering it virtually incorruptible. Honey is prized for its longevity and has been found in edible condition in the tombs of the pharaohs.

"Spring is the best time to make new hives," the beekeeper explains. Either the existing hive, grown to capacity, begins to swarm--a clear sign that it is ready to divide and find new territory for its immigrants--or the beekeeper can help encourage the process by using another, new queen as bait. "It takes a season to establish a new hive, and essentially you need to keep making them all during the year."

Nelson needs to add 20 to 30 new hives to his apiary each year just to stay at about 100 colonies.

Unstung Hero

IN THE SHED where honey is extracted from the combs, the air is faintly scented with honey, as are huge alabaster rounds of pure beeswax from which Nelson makes candles. "If you're going to be a beekeeper," Nelson explains, in response to my obvious question, "you have to get used to the idea of getting stung once in a while."

But experience, a gentle touch and the use of a smoker to "round up" the bees all prevent Nelson from being a target. "If you work on them while they're working, they are occupied and happy," he says.

Since bees die after stinging mammals, they tend to save this ultimate weapon for meaningful encounters, like protecting the hive.

"They're really very gentle," Nelson says, carefully opening up a hive warmed by the sun. An undulating blanket of velvety honey bees coats the top of the frames, humming at a low, soft pitch, very gently, just as he's described.

We step into a cool, dry room, where Leifin, Nelson's son, is skillfully scraping off waxy comb into a tub. This process exposes the liquid honey, which drips off and seeps into a main tank.

With the sealing wax removed, the honeycomb frames are placed into a centrifuge, where all the honey is spun out, then pumped into a tank. The heavy honey sinks, the wax floats to the top.

Using the ecologically correct bees as inspiration, the process wastes nothing. The reclaimed wax is saved, melted in a solar melter and used in candles or batiking.

Nelson estimates that for every 12 pounds of honey--each frame when full and ready to harvest can hold a pound of honey--a pound of pure beeswax is produced.

"You don't have to destroy the comb--you return it to the bees," he says. And they start building up comb cells all over again.

"The wax is secreted from the bees' abdomens--they build with them like little masons. When you keep a hive, you're providing them with optimum conditions. A properly maintained colony," Nelson smiles patiently, "will produce far more honey than the bees can use. We are not robbing them."

Supreme foragers, bees collect from what's already available in nature and transform it into a livelihood for themselves, continuation of their species and useful and life-sustaining produce for humans.

"Beekeepers are careful about where they put their hives," he says when I ask why honey isn't contaminated by pesticides used in agriculture.

People are taking more care with managing crops, Nelson feels, and there is a highly developed system governing the "open bloom" period for crops, during which time no pesticides may be sprayed. "If bees encounter toxins," he continues. "it'll kill them before they can even get home to make the honey."

Nelson says, "Pollen feeds the larval bees--it's their protein source. Nectar is food for the adult bees, their fuel. They have this wonderful organization, they get so much all from just foraging. It's magical." He smiles broadly. "And in the evening, this wonderful aroma from the evaporating nectar fills the air around the hives."

As we walk back to the top of the property, stopping to inhale the spicy scent of crabapple blossoms, Nelson continues to extol the ingenuity of the bees. He tells how they navigate by the sun, doing a little dance to explain to their colleagues just exactly where and how far away a new food source is. "They always come back to the exact same hive," he says.

No wonder, I think, trying to memorize the impossibly verdant, springtime aura of this land. The next time I taste Camp Joy honey, I'll be closing my eyes and tasting the madrone blossoms mixed with notes of wild radish, apple blossom and the gentle hand of Jim Nelson.

Camp Joy wildflower honey and handmade beeswax candles are sold at stores in the San Lorenzo Valley and at Shopper's Corner in Santa Cruz.

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From the April 10-16, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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