The space below the roof is calm, cool and shady. Oostra says he keeps his bees here so bears won’t raid the white wooden boxes arranged on sturdy tables that serve as hives. He lifts the lid of the first one with his bare hands and pulls out a frame thick with eggs and worker bees.
“These are all new bees in the making,” Oostra said.
Kees Oostra and his wife Teri McCune Oostra were featured in the January 2014 issue of the American Bee Journal. They have operated The Dutch Gardener, a five-acre nursery, in the shadow of Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park since 2000.
Customers browse their greenhouses for potted strawberries, plant starts, flowers, trees and shrubs. The Oostras are regulars at the Crescent City Farmers Market on Saturdays.
Oostra, who is originally from the Netherlands, said his father-in-law Art McCune got him started raising bees about six years ago. McCune has eight hives in Smith River.
Oostra, however, has 20 hives. In addition to the five in his barn, he has four hives on Elk Valley Road and another 11 in Smith River.
He said he usually starts harvesting honey in October. In the spring, much of the nectar the bees collect goes to the next generation of bees. But this year, Oostra said, he’ll try harvesting in late July, and he expects a good yield.
“This year is going to be a good year because we have had nice weather,” Oostra said.
A good place for keeping bees, Oostra said, is where the temperatures are in the mid-70s to mid-80s, like in Redding and Chico. The biggest challenge for coastal beekeepers is the cooler temperatures, especially during the winter.
“When the north wind is blowing they get a little ornery, and they just don’t fly much because it’s too cold for them.” he said.
While honey from specific plants like orange blossom or clover are available at supermarkets, Oostra said his bees gather nectar from the variety of plants that happen to be local. Much of the nectar comes from blackberry blossoms and cotoneaster flowers, he said.
Oostra’s hives provide an opening to the outside world, allowing the bees to go out and gather the nectar.
Many beekeepers will purchase their bees from breeders, Oostra said. He displayed the specialized box a new queen comes in, which allows her to be separated from the workers by a sugar candy barrier and keeps them from killing her while they adjust to her presence.
The workers will eat their way through the barrier until the queen is released, which takes about three days, Oostra said. By that point the worker bees will have grown accustomed to the queen’s scent.
One good hive can hold 20,000–30,000 bees, with the queen laying 1,500 eggs a day, Oostra said.
A single bee’s lifespan lasts about a month during the summer and three months during the winter, Oostra said. During the winter the bees will cluster together for warmth and remain largely dormant.
When asked if he was worried about colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon in which worker bees from a colony abruptly disappear, Oostra said he thinks he’s had it a few times, but not severely.
“Sometimes it’s hard to figure out why the bees die,” he said. “Sometimes the queen quits laying eggs, and you don’t notice it soon enough. If there’s no queen, the colony dies. They die of old age.”
Oostra said he currently has a hive in Smith River that has no queen. If a queen’s absence is noticed quickly enough, a new queen can be brought in. The queenless hive could also be combined with another colony, he said.
“You take the box with no queen and you put it on top of a box that has a new queen with a piece of newspaper in between,” Oostra said. “Slowly the bees will eat the newspaper out from in between the two boxes. It takes them a couple of days and then they’re used to the smell.”
For a beginner, beekeeping can be a pricey hobby, Oostra said. Last year he extracted between 10 and 15 gallons of honey from 12 hives, he said. This year he expects to get more and hopefully make a little money off it.
According to The Delaware Beekeepers Association, purchasing a beginner kit can cost $215 to more than $300.
“I kind of compare it to owning an ocean boat,” Oostra said. “With an ocean boat you can go to the store and buy fish a lot cheaper.”