“Of Hives and Honey:
From San Roque to Santa Maria,
Don Cole makes bees and their bounty
his bees-ness.

By Rachel S. Thurston


Santa Barbara Magazine
Natural Wonder Feature Article

            As a profession cloaked in images of mystery and danger, the life of a beekeeper isn’t as glamorous as one might think. It’s just plain sweaty, dirty and physically draining work. But as I watch local beekeeper Don Cole point towards thousands of bees screaming along aerial highways above us, I’m mesmerized.

            Tall and soft-spoken, and with an edge of paternal pride, 40-something Cole tells me how the trails are actual “skyway” scent paths, guiding bees to groves of blooming trees and lush wildflowers.

            Suddenly, a “guard” bee dive-bombs my head and burrows noisily into my curly hair. In a flash, Cole’s hand instinctively snaps forth and retrieves a perfectly frozen bee held between his thum and forefinger. I look at him aghast at the speed of his unconscious heroism.

            He looks at me with a sly grin, “I call it Bee-Fu.”

            Cole has been dabbling with the little winged ones since he was in high school, helping his father care for hives in San Roque Canyon. In the early 1980s he and his wife, Anne, sold jars of honey alongside their San Marcos Farms produce at a Goleta roadside stand. With time, his fascination with bee culture and a growing demand for their honey enabled the Coles to turn beekeeping and honey proeducing into a full-time operation. Cole now cares for nearly 500 hives throughout the county, which help pollinate fields of local crops.

            Men and women like Cole have been “bee-mused” by the fuzzy little creatures and the decadent honey they produce since history began…almost. A 17,000-year-old Spanish rock painting portrays one brave lad scaling a cliff face to grab a honeycomb from a wild hive and its irate protectors. Assyrians smeared their dead with beeswax and buried the bodies in honey. Ancient Egyptians marked the tombs of the First Dynasty with the sign of a bee and would transport hives along the Nile River between flowering areas. Probably brought across the




 Atlantic by the Irish and Norwegians, the European honey bee beat Columbus to the New World by several hundred years and was already a part of trade in indigenous America by the time the explorer arrived.

            Our crafty ancestors knew a good thing when they saw it. The buzzing objects of their affection are among the most productive living creatives on earth. In the United States alone, honey bees, or “apis mellifera,” produce nearly 200 million pounds of honey every year. The one-pound honey jar gracing your breakfast table each morning is the product of one bee’s flight path totaling three orbits around the earth. The industrious little buggers are also resilient, surviving just about anywhere in the world except the extreme polar regions.

            Specialzing in the production of local honey, the coles sell honey and bee-related products like wax, candles, bee pollen, and royal jelly to restaurants, bakeries, and people at the Farmer’s Market who’ve come to recognize the San marcos Farms label and the quality behind its name.

            Over his lifetime Cole has been stung thousands of times, joking that “you could probably measure the venom in gallons.” During the summer, he tolerates 100-degree-plus heat amidst clouds of bees while wearing a full head net and cotton blend bodysuit. “Inevitably, you come to a time when you test a person’s temperament; you see a lot of big, tough guys disappear into the woodwork pretty quickly,” he says with a chuckle.

            Like beekeepers around the world, Cole acts as a part guardian, manager, and medical doctor to his entrusted hives. He must inspect the brood and larvae for disease and watch for changes in the pattern of the Queen.

            These days Cole has a new project. He’s begun the county’s first Africanized Killer Bee Swarm Trapping Program. Introduced to Brazil in the mid-1980s, the egregious bees have been making their way up through the Americas and have already reached nearby Ventura and Kern counties. With an uncanny physical resemblance to honey bees, Africanized bees are slightly more aggressive, displacing and mating with local honey bees and aggravating human populations. Although Cole believes this new breed of bee is here to stay in North America, he hopes to help protect the community by removing hives from areas of high public exposure. “Beekeepers are an asset in the community because they’re controlling bees in their area by diluting down [through interbreeding] the aggressive nature of Africanized bees,” he says.

            At the end of our day together, Cole laments that, due to increased foreign competition in the honey trade, “beekeeping in the U.S. is now a dying art.”

            For the sake of our sweet-toothed palates, let’s hope that local bee fever like Cole’s doesn’t die out anytime soon.

            An adventurer of the insect world herself, Rachel Thurston works both indoors and outdoors as a free-lance writer and wilderness guide.



Copyright Rachel S. Thurston 2010. All rights reserved.
Email: rachel@rsthurston.com
Last Updated November 22, 2010.