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BUSY BEES : A Couple and Millions of Little Helpers Have a Honey of a Business

November 25, 1989|ROBERT OSTMANN JR. | Robert Ostmann Jr. is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

At the weedy edge of a Tustin bean field, only 20 yards from the traffic-choked Costa Mesa Freeway, Melinda Moore harvested a crop of jewels.

"Aren't they lovely?" she asked, shaking a wooden tray filled with thousands of tiny, multicolored beads of pollen, each the hue of the flower from which it was taken. Orange, yellow, tan, black, purple and red grains held together with a minute amount of flower nectar.

"They've been busy," Moore said, as thousands of bees swarmed about her, flying to and from rows of white, wooden hives.

Moore, 34, and her husband, Steve Wernett, 31, come to this tiny patch of ground tucked in between field and freeway every few days to tend to their unusual business.

The Orange couple are commercial beekeepers who manage up to 5 million bees in about 70 hives scattered over 40 or so locations in Southern California.

Orange County is an ideal home for bees, Wernett explained, because of the constant supply and great variety of blooming plants year-round.

"Thirty years ago, Orange County was the bee mecca of California. There used to be more bees here than in all the rest of the state."

But the rapid development of the county has nearly wiped out the bee industry.

Moore and Wernett see themselves as practitioners of a lost art.

"We're a dying breed. When I go to work, I'm not just another yuppie going to work at Rohr or Ricoh," Moore said.

Despite the continuing demise of the county's orange groves and the spread of concrete, the couple's bee business is buzzing.

They collect and ship about 1,000 pounds of bee pollen all over the United States at a retail price of up to $13 per pound of the chalky granules that taste sweet and slightly nutty.

Bee pollen is a popular health food and is rich in amino acids, vitamins and protein. "I can't keep up with the orders. The demand is far greater than the supply," Moore said.

They package and sell half the honey made by their bees. The rest they sell to wholesale honey buyers. They collected about 49,000 pounds of honey last year. In a year with more rainfall, Wernett said, that figure doubles.

They also sell beeswax, a pure, clean-burning candle material and, for some people, food. "I sell honey to some people with the (wax) comb still in it," Moore said.

Perhaps the oddest bee byproduct they market is royal jelly, the sour, milky hormonal glop secreted by the worker bees to transform as larva into a new queen for the hive. Some people ascribe youth-preserving properties to the stuff, Moore said, and are willing to pay $15 to $20 an ounce for it.

Moore and Wernett also rent out their bees as pollinators to growers of almonds, cotton, plums, melons, apples and alfalfa. Though profitable, they don't care much for this part of the bee business.

"You take your bees there and they do their thing. Not that much fun in it," Wernett said.

Fun was the reason Wernett first got involved with bees. As a child, "I was fascinated by bees, ants and other crawly things," he said. In high school, he earned credit by working part time with a beekeeper in Orange.

After high school, Wernett worked for another beekeeper in Lake Elsinore and for a honey-processing company. Finally he bought a few hives and tentatively ventured into the business.

"I wasn't making a profit, but when money started coming in, I could see the potential."

Wernett and Moore met at a Halloween party; Wernett came dressed as a beekeeper.

"I laughed when I heard what he did," Moore said. "I never thought you could make a living off bees. I'd always thought of beekeepers as some old geezers with a couple of hives."

They were married in 1979 and by 1982 were partners in the bee business.

"I had been in hospital administration," Moore said, "and you always had to be there. You know, it was a job. With bees, I didn't have to work for other people."

On a recent, hazy fall afternoon, Wernett and Moore visited their hives along the freeway in Tustin. They have kept bees there for 10 years.

This time of year, the bees are less active than in summer, but they still collect pollen and crank out the honey.

Wernett moved from hive to hive, using a small bellows to blow the smoke from a swatch of smoldering burlap into masses of toiling bees to calm them.

"The smoke fools them. They think the hive is threatened by fire, so they start eating honey to tide them over in case they have to leave. That slows them down," Wernett said.

Bees flew all around Wernett as he worked, frequently lighting on his arms, hair and face. He wore none of the usual beekeepers' protective netting and says he usually doesn't.

He says he and Moore are stung frequently but not a lot at any one time. "You don't have to fear bees if you understand them," Moore said. In any case, the yellow-brown Italian bees they raise are usually very gentle. The aggressive African strains have not yet made it here from Mexico.

"Occasionally we get a rogue queen. Then if the hive gets really nasty, we go in and tear it apart and destroy the queen."

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