When culinary horticulturist Laura McNiff first saw the grounds at Charlie Palmer’s Harvest Inn in St. Helena, California, one word came to mind: bees. Setting up a colony would have many benefits. The five edible gardens would get pollinated, the bees would (hopefully) thrive, and the Inn’s restaurant, Harvest Table, would get delicious, ultra-local honey for desserts, cocktails and tea. There was just one catch: McNiff, while she holds a degree in environmental studies and specialized in utility forestry, had never before done anything bee-related. But after studying up and interviewing many expert apiarists, she dove head first into beekeeping. Three months later, McNiff boasts two healthy hives that are home to about 100,000 honey-happy bees. Here, she shares a few things she learned from her first foray into beekeeping.
Bees come in boxes. “We have a local shop, Beekind, in Sebastopol. I took classes there,” McNiff says. “The owner, Doug Vincent, breeds his own queens.” Vincent doesn’t ship his bees, so McNiff had to pick her new wards up. She drove back to the inn with a box of 13,000 bees.
You need more than hives, bees and flowers. Beekeeping requires a good amount of equipment. “You need a hive tool, which you use to break open the hives and lift the cell frames,” she says. “You want a bee suit—or at least a head screen.” She also recommends a smoker, which helps push the bees away from the top of the hive so you can inspect their work and will subdue them in an emergency. Also on the list: a serrated knife to uncap the cells of the honeycomb; a honey extractor, which spins the honey out of the cells; and a tub to collect the honey.