Gerard Ehrmann is a longtime beekeeper and founder of Luna’s Gold honey in California. After a mutual friend introduced us via email, Gerry was kind enough to respond to my questions about his work with bees. He wrote by hand, on several sheets of yellow legal paper. The letter arrived with a jar of San Francisco blend honey– some of the most delicious honey I’ve ever tasted.
Thank you, Gerry.
When and why did you begin beekeeping?
I first became interested in it while in grad school at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, OR. I had a housemate who had been a beekeeper in high school and seemed to really enjoy it. He told me many stories about the bees that sparked my interest. A year later while living in Seattle, I met a friend of a friend and he showed me his two hives in his backyard. This time I was able to see the hives in action.
It wasn’t until seven years later, in spring of 1983, when I was reading my first and second grade hearing-impaired students a book on bees (while using sign language) that I knew I had to do something about my interest. I bought a couple of hives and kept them on my third story balcony outside my flat. There was the start of my caring for honeybees as a beekeeper. The hobby was launched.
I believe it will take years and many generations of bees to improve and change their genetic makeup to combat some of these ills. Also, man has got to stop doing so much destruction to our planet.
What are your methods as a beekeeper?
When I began beekeeping, I bought a couple of hives. As I lost a hive, I would generally buy a new one or if I was lucky I caught a swarm. I used to get two to four years out of a hive before it would die out. These past seven years, due to tracheal and varroa mites (which have been here since the late 80s), viruses, fungi, pesticides, CCD, and others, I find it very difficult for a new hive to make it through the winter and into the next spring. Some of this is my fault, for I have refused to medicate my honeybees. That is because a lot of these medications can contaminate the honey or wax or both. I also feel that, like other diseases, the honeybees have to find ways to combat the mites. I believe it will take years and many generations of bees to improve and change their genetic makeup to combat some of these ills. Also, man has got to stop doing so much destruction to our planet.
This year I am trying something new. I have bought some new hives that are very strong, and with some of my remaining hives from last year, I am making small hives called nucs. That is, I’m having my hives make new queens, thus new hives. Hopefully they will develop into strong hives.
How has beekeeping changed you?
All my life, I’ve had a love of nature. Trees are one part I’ve always had a fascination and fondness for. Beekeeping has helped me zero in on these highly productive little insects and how much we depend on them for our food. It’s opened my eyes to other insect pollinators and how all of nature is intertwined. I find myself always looking at flowers and trees that honeybees are attracted to and I enjoy spending time watching the bees forage on different plant species.
I also studied birds of North America for many seasons and I believe this was a result of studying honeybees. I think all in all, beekeeping has given me a keener sense of nature and the interdependence that is essential.
How does the honey change over the course of a season in taste and color?
Honey can actually change over the course of the season depending on what the honeybees forage on. Some nectars are lighter, some medium, some dark, and every shade in between.
Frames of honey in a beehive will often have different flavors depending on the nectars that have been foraged. For example, part of the frame may be apple honey while another part may be made up of rosemary or blackberry. Some frames may be made of many different nectars. When the frame is extracted, the honey mixes together and you get a blend of its own.
I have found the darker nectars tend to come later in the season, but I don’t believe this is always true. Also, the mixing together of all the nectars can make the honey darker in the comb.
Comb can also darken as the season progresses just because of the additional pollen that’s placed into cells to feed the young. Comb will definitely darken over the season, especially if there has been brood in there.
I think all in all, beekeeping has given me a keener sense of nature and the interdependence that is essential.
In terms of plants worked and resulting honey, what is unique about your corner of the world?
Well, I have hives in four places in California: Pescadero, two properties in Sebastopol, and my backyard in San Francisco. The Pescadero property is an organic vegetable farm with fruit trees nearby. The bees there can forage from strawberries, rosemary, wildflowers, berry bushes, and eucalyptus. The bees in San Francisco have access to the Golden Gate Park Arboretum, some backyard fruit trees, bushes, blackberries, ornamental flowers, some wildflowers, Australian Christmas Tree, bottlebrush, lavender and may other herbs. The bees in Sebastopol get wild mustard, blackberries, apple and other fruit trees, ornamentals, wildflowers, eucalyptus trees, madrone, and many backyard flowers and sages.
All of these places share some nectars but have different tastes. It’s the combination of all these nectars that give each honey its distinct taste and color.
Do you farm other foods?
For the past 28 years, I have attended three apple trees and one pear tree that I planted in 1986 in my backyard in San Francisco. This is as close as I’ve gotten to my adult dream of owning my own apple orchard. All my life, I have grown vegetables in my yard, and some strawberries as of late. The apples I collected over the years have been enough to share with my 4th grade class that I had been teaching up to last June when I retired. The students enjoyed them thoroughly and it gave me great pleasure. I also grow plants that attract the bees and help give them something to forage on.
Do you feel hopeful about our shared future with pollinators, including native bees?
I feel somewhat hopeful that humans can share a future with pollinators such as the honeybee, but I’m not sure of some of the others. I say this because in the cities, there are way more hobby beekeeper than there were when I first started. Bees in the cities, even though still subject to all the diseases, they get a much healthier diet of nectar and pollen because there’s a greater diversity of plants, bushes, and trees to gather pollen and nectar from. Whereas on many farms, there is a monoculture and bees can;’t get all they need from one food source. I believe more of the public is aware of the problems of honeybees, though solutions are slow to come forth.
Humans have to look at the environment as interconnected, and to realize that when they break the chain of life they are doing mass destruction on many other forms of life. Greed has got to stop!
Farmers have got to stop spraying pesticides that disorient and kill beneficial insects. They have to diversify their crops and leave corridors of native plants, bushes, and trees which honeybees and other pollinators can gather food from. They need to plant more plants that pollinators need to survive and give them enough food for winter.
Man has to leave large parcels of land to the nature species of the area for pollinators to survive on. We have to stop developing every space we can for malls, parking lots, housing, industrial buildings, etc, etc., etc. Humans have to look at the environment as interconnected, and to realize that when they break the chain of life they are doing mass destruction on many other forms of life. Greed has got to stop!
I know there are many bright scientists studying ways to rid honeybees of the problems they face. There are also bee breeders who are working to develop or breed honeybees that can combat mites in a holistic organic way.
I am sure it will be a very slow process. Banning dangerous pesticides and GMOs can be a great start for pollinators.
On Gerry’s bookshelf:
The Hive & Honeybee, Dudant & Sons.
Natural Beekeeping, Ross Conrad.
The Wisdom of the Hive & Honeybee, Thomas Seeley.
Honeybee Democracy, Thomas Seeley.
Fruitless Fall, Rowan Jacobs.
A Book of Bees, Sue Hubbell.
Bee Culture (monthly magazine)