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Valley Life | SPOTLIGHT

Beekeeping Life Was a Honey While It Lasted

July 09, 1999|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN

You do not think of Canyon Country as a land of milk or honey.

The vast empty stretches along the old Sierra Highway are not just arid, they are drier than the unfortunates in the "Got Milk?" commercials. Indeed, the spirit of the place is evoked by a sign along the road:

LAST CHANCE. . .

DR. SPUNT

NEXT CHIROPRACTOR 103 MILES.

But this is more than rattlesnake and horse country. It is also bee country. For generations, the pioneering Warmuth family tended bees in the area. And the highway is still the site of the Honey and Bee Museum, shrine to an almost mystical foodstuff and one family's vanishing way of life.

The museum opened Oct. 18, 1986, explains curator Margleen Jordan. When I say museum, I am not talking Getty here. Dedicated to Jordan's late father, Joe Warmuth, the museum is a single room attached to the shop where Jordan makes custom-order chaps, saddles and other horse-related leather goods.

Painted a pale bee-ish yellow, the room contains large photos showing the all-powerful queen, the worker bees (all sisters), the stingless drones whose sole function is to mate with the queen, and the various phases in the ancient drama of beekeeping.

There is an old-fashioned honey extractor that sat in the family garage and that Jordan and her siblings used to crank "like we were making ice cream." And there are the honey pots, hive-shaped cookie jars and other bee-themed tchotchkes that Jordan's mother, Marge, started collecting decades ago.

These are displayed behind chicken wire, subtly suggestive of the hexagonal shape bees use to build the cells where they are born and store their honey. The chicken wire also protects the family treasures from earthquakes and clumsy little hands.

*

"They call me Honeybee," Jordan says. "Margleen is hard to remember."

Talking faster and faster as she loses herself in the topic, Jordan is happy to explain the use of the smoker, hive tool, veil and other objects on display.

Until a couple of years ago, the highlight of any trip to the museum was an exhibition hive full of live bees.

The bees entered the hive from outside the building through a hole in the wall, and the chance to see real bees do the remarkable things bees do kept even kindergartners riveted.

"You could see them wriggling and doing little dances, telling the other bees where the nectar was," Jordan recalls fondly.

In some exhibition hives, the queen is marked with bright paint to make her easier to spot, but visitors to the Warmuths' hive had to search for the queen the hard way--looking for the dark, hairless patch on her back that distinguishes her from her thousands of nonroyal offspring.

But Jordan was urged to remove the popular exhibit by the city of Santa Clarita. "Everybody was kind of paranoid about killer bees," she recalls.

*

Joe Warmuth died some 15 years ago, but in his prime he kept 3,000 hives from Bakersfield to Chatsworth. Undaunted by the occasional sting, Jordan loved working alongside her father and kept 100 hives of her own.

"The only place we didn't go was out to Antelope Valley because the wind would blow the wings off the bees and fill the hives up with dirt," says Jordan, whose family was the only one in the area raising and selling its own honey on a large scale.

Like makers of single-batch bourbons, the Warmuths did not mix their honey into a single sweet but homogeneous mass. Instead, they kept their honeys separated according to the nectar the bees collected, which determines their honey's characteristic flavor.

The Warmuths sold relatively common sage and orange honey, and lesser-known types, as well, including avocado and eucalyptus. Like safflower honey, the eucalyptus has a strong flavor, which made it popular with German buyers, Jordan says.

*

Their neighbors so identified the Warmuths with bees that they would call the family whenever the insects took over a dead tree limb or flew down a chimney to build a hive in a wall. Summers, the family got as many as 30 calls a day.

"They figured that any bees they had were ours," Jordan says, laughing. She would ask the callers, "Do they have a W on them? We brand all ours with a W."

Her knowledge of bees led Jordan to her brief Hollywood career--as an insect wrangler for the 1978 Warner Bros. bomb "The Swarm."

Her job was to cool the bees down, using dry ice, until they became passive enough to be put on plexiglass for a kind of apian circumcision. Once she had trimmed off a tiny bit of each stinger (removing it would kill the bees), they could be released around the faces of the understandably skittish actors, including Michael Caine. Not surprisingly, animal-rights people protested.

"Now they can do all special effects," says Jordan, remembering when a movie bee was an actual insect, not a buzzing bit of computer animation.

The Warmuths' business went into a long decline after Joe's death. The family began to sell off their hives. About 10 years ago, Jordan's mother retired and moved to Oxnard. And just last week, Jordan removed the last jar of family-gathered honey from the shelves of what has long been known as the Warmuth Honey House.

The Warmuths no longer practice the family trade and art. Such changes can punch holes in people's hearts.

Jordan has her leather work, nearby children and two beloved grandbabies, but you just know that no one else will ever treasure all that's distilled in the Honey and Bee Museum as much as she.

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Spotlight runs each Friday. Patricia Ward Biederman can be reached at valley.news@latimes.com.

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