VACAVILLE — John Banta and his father often talked about becoming beekeepers.
“We would look at the Sears catalog together,” Banta said. At the time, the company offered bees and beekeeping supplies.
Banta’s father died before the two took up the hobby. About five years ago, Banta came across two old books, circa 1940, on keeping bees. That was all the impetus he needed.
“I could talk about them for days,” Banta said of the honey-making insects.
The Vacaville resident keeps eight to nine hives in rural Vacaville. Each can have up to 60,000 bees during spring. The number drops in the winter. His hives are part of a very informal co-op where people pay money to sponsor a hive and reap sweet rewards when the honey is harvested.
“It’s been a real challenge,” Banta said. “We are hanging in there with it and having a lot of fun.”
Banta is the main beekeeper. The work is pretty minimal since the bees take care of themselves.
With winter on the horizon, his main job is to make sure the bees have enough food to get them through until spring. He’ll check on them every few weeks until February.
“But that doesn’t mean I still won’t go out and pull up a chair and watch them,” Banta said. He finds bees fascinating. Each has its own job. Banta praises their organizational structure.
Getting stung by the bees is part of the job. The worst time was when he dropped a hive and got about 50 bee stings. He’s built up a tolerance and no longer swells up or has a reaction to the stings.
“The way I look at a bee is they don’t sting you unless they feel threatened,” Banta said. “I do everything I can to make them not feel threatened.”
Beekeepers often use smoke to calm the bees. Banta only uses it if the situation demands.
“I won’t take any chances with the bees,” he said.
It costs about $250 to set up a new hive, another $150 for supplies, such as the boxes, and about $100 for bees. Some beekeepers build their own boxes. Banta would rather work with the bees than build for them.
Variables come into play for beekeepers.
Last winter, Banta started out with nine hives and lost one.
“That was good,” he said. “Some (beekeepers) lose between 50 and 75 percent of their hives every winter.”
Colony collapse is another issue. The phenomenon happens when worker bees from a beehive or European honey bee colony abruptly disappear. It’s significant because many agricultural crops worldwide are pollinated by European honey bees.
About 20 years ago, the typical queen bee lived four or five years, Banta said. Today, their life expectancy is closer to one year. Some commercial beekeepers are putting in a new queen bee every year.
Banta hasn’t gone that route.
“My goal is to keep the queens as long as possible to see if we can’t develop a breeding stock,” he said.
Africanized bees are another topic. Also called “killer bees,” this variation is known for being aggressive. To date, the Africanized bees have not been found in Solano County, according to Solano County Agricultural Commissioner Jim Allan.
If they were, Banta would probably stop his beloved hobby.
“They move into a territory and kill off the hive,” he said. “I don’t consider aggressive bees, defensive bees. Africanized bees are quite aggressive.”
Solano County has 10 resident commercial beekeepers and three bee breeders, Allan said.
The co-op concept can be found in other agricultural products in the county. Allan has heard of such arrangements with people investing in cows and sharing in the raw milk. The same for grass-fed steers and the beef they produce.
Banta is pretty sure there are people who think he’s a “little crazy” for having beekeeping as a hobby.
“There’s a lot of crazy people out there,” he said. “There are people out on the football field bashing into each other. That’s got to hurt. It hurts more to play football than get stung by a bee. I know firsthand.”
Reach Amy Maginnis-Honey at 427-6957 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/amaginnisdr.