by Joshua Bay
photography by Breanna Ulsh
As puffs of smoke smother three stacks of hive boxes, the roar of hundreds of honeybees begins to grow. But what appears to be chaotic distress in actuality is the complete opposite. Combining eucalyptus leaves and pieces of burlap coffee bags, beekeeper Joaquin Munoz, working in the foothills of San Dimas, hand fans smoke into the hive to awaken the honeybees and to let them know he is opening the hive boxes. He says the strong, minty scented smoke lets the bees know that it is not a local fire because there are no eucalyptus leaves in the area. “The smoke helps them connect with me,” Munoz says. “Since they recognize the smell, I won’t have to wear gloves in the future because they won’t bother me.”
From San Diego to Santa Clarita, Munoz visits three different beehive locations every day as a full-time beekeeper for Aunt Willie’s Apiary, a company that strives to sell raw natural honey locally. His hive tending route ranges from local farms to family homes. In all, Munoz takes care of nearly 300 beehives, three of which belong to San Dimas residents Joe and Jill Leclair. They live in a fenced-off area 100 feet from all buildings; their yard is adjacent to raw canyon land. In turn for giving space for the hives, the Leclair’s receive some of the organic honey, with the majority going to Aunt Willie’s Apiary. “We don’t care about the money,” Jill Leclair says. “Aunt Willie’s doesn’t pay us, and we don’t pay them. We just want to help the bees, and we have had the best time.” The honey Aunt Willie’s Apiary collects is sold at local farmers markets.
At local farmers markets, shoppers can find Aunt Willie’s Apiary honey, with prices ranging from $6.75 for an eight ounce bottle to $85 for a 12 pound bottle. The company, owned by Mark Hoppe, sells a variety of different types of honey, such as buckwheat, orange blossom and wildflower. And, of course, there are flavored honey sticks for 25 cents each.
Through the La Verne Farmers Market (which closed Dec. 30, 2017), Munoz met Joe and Jill Leclair. If ever there were a couple who epitomizes what it means to live an organic lifestyle, it would be the Leclairs. Standing in their presence, one feels grounded with their calm, centering, healthy and inspiring herbal energy. As a dedicated couple who house three beehives in their backyard, the Leclairs blend a passion for organic honey and natural pesticide alternatives while contributing to the success of Aunt Willie’s Apiary. After educating the Leclairs about the requirements to house beehives, Munoz helped the eager couple set them up in their backyard. “We always wanted to help the bees because we knew they were struggling out there, and we wanted to be part of the cure, not the destruction of the world,” Jill Leclair says. “It’s something small, but you have to start somewhere.”
The Leclairs have had their beehives for nearly three years. Despite their excitement, they explain how the neighboring houses did not have the same sentiment at first. It was through opening up the conversation that the Leclairs were able to educate their neighborhood about the importance of taking care of the bees. “When you’re out there taking care of the bees, you can feel their energy and life force,” Joe Leclair says. “Having that opportunity to talk to people and show them our passion makes us feel like we’re doing something good in the world.”
In a society where new technological advances are constantly created, Munoz explains how his job will never be taken away or compromised. “When you go to the site and see how beekeepers do their job, people learn to appreciate the product that they have on their table.” Beekeeping is constant, tedious and tender loving care. “You need to appreciate all of the hard work put in just because you want to have honey in your cereal or shakes or green juice.”
Munoz says he will always love his job. Although the pay is not the most ideal, it is very rewarding in many other regards. “If you think you’re going to be rich being a beekeeper, it’s not going to happen,” he says. “As a beekeeper, you really have to love your job and love your bees. You’ll have money for your bills and other expenses, and you may be driving an old truck like mine, but you’re going to be happy and without stress. That’s the most wonderful pay.”
Getting to know bees on a personal level
The sun shimmered in the deep blue sky as the clouds began to fade. It was a very warm late September Friday morning. Beekeeper Joaquin Munoz, Jill Leclair, hive owner, photographer Breanna Ulsh and I were each helped into a stiff, off-white canvas bee suit, which covered us from head to toe. Included was an attached hood-hat with a mesh front. Joe Leclair, hive owner, kept reminding me to push the hood-hat away from my face so that the bees’ stingers could not reach my bare skin. I felt like an astronaut exploring the depths of the sun. I was hot, sweaty and apprehensive. This was all very strange.
We left the lush green grass, fruit trees and flower covered backyard and started to enter the bee sanctuary. Joe, who was watching us, stopped me. “Are you wearing long socks?” I say, “No.” He told me to wait for a minute as he walked in the house to fetch his own socks for me to wear. “Bees are ankle biters,” he says. “If you don’t have the correct socks, they will crawl up your ankles and get in your pants.” I changed into the correct socks, thankful he noticed.
I entered the fenced bee area with beads of sweat rolling down my forehead. After properly smoking the hives, Joaquin and Jill carefully opened one of the boxes. Inside were about 10 different slots of dark orange honey combs, most likely buckwheat honey. Joaquin says that you do not know the type of honey until it is harvested. When Joaquin pulled out one of the slots, pounds of honey poured down as hundreds of bees crawled around the comb. A few bees crawled on my arm and leg, but by then my fear was gone. The suit was doing its job.
“We don’t usually bring people to our sites because they might cause an accident,” Munoz says. “But Joe and Jill were so happy to have you here because they are so kind, generous and believe people should start thinking differently about honey.”
During this time, Joaquin recalled an unfortunate incident that happened at this site a few years ago. “We lost all three of these hives once, and Joe and Jill were standing here crying about how they were never going to have any more bees,” Joaquin says. “A whole swarm left all at once. There were about 100 pounds of honey, and the hive boxes were empty when they left. The bees took the honey with them.”
“I was sitting outside in the backyard when they all left,” Joe says. He remembers a big black cloud of bees over their house as the insects swarmed away. Bees can fly up to two miles in search of pollen, which is the foundation of their honey-making process. Although it is tough to confirm, Joaquin suspects pesticide use in the immediate neighborhood as the likely cause that drove the hives away.
But Joe and Jill did not give up. There was a talk with the neighbors about their use of yard pesticides. “It’s helped them know not to use pesticides,” Jill says. Supportive, the neighbors agreed to stop. Starting fresh again, these three hives have called their backyard home. Joaquin says the damaging effects of pesticides and other harmful chemicals commonly used on yard plants greatly harms bees. “Joe and Jill use more natural oils [for pest control], and that’s why their bees are alive and happy,” Joaquin says. “The honey you eat will always be clean and without pesticides. If a bee gets some pesticides from a flower, she’s not going to make it to the hive and produce honey.”
At Aunt Willie’s Apiary, Joaquin explains that it is the goal of every beekeeper to save the bees. “Making a decent income is ideal, but when you sign up for the job, keeping your bees happy and healthy should be your top priority,” he says. “As you notice, as soon as I see a disease in the hive, it’s taken care of right away—not the next time or whenever I don’t feel like being lazy. No, you got to take care of it soon.”
The uncertain future of honeybees resonates so strongly with Joaquin that he even compares their attributes to the perfect society. “They never fight each other for food or for anything.” Earlier, Joaquin assisted a hatching bee escape from its egg. “When we tried to help the bee hatch out of its shell earlier, there were a couple of bees also trying to help. They help others succeed. If we pay attention and learn from bees, we will find what it means to have the perfect society.”