Stuffing small pieces of wood into a metal can with a bellows attached, Pavel Vykhrestov, 27, lights a fire to blow smoke into a stack of beehive boxes.
Vykhrestov says the smoke calms the bees because they think there is a fire inside the hive and they begin to eat the honey before it might be destroyed.
He begins to search for the queen, which is one way of checking the health of a hive, although he admits it can be difficult to find in the supers, hives which are up to three boxes tall.
Each box has 40 frames, and each must be checked for evidence of the brood of recently laid eggs or larvae in order to more easily find the queen.
Some boxes are upside down marking hives that died. Other boxes are marked which have missing queens.
Row by row, Vykhrestov pries the frames loose with a flat metal tool and lifts one covered in honeycomb and now-hanging feeding bees. After scratching nonchalantly at a barb sticking from his finger, he continues his search.
Vykhrestov is a local beekeeper based in Thornton, keeping the cycle of agriculture going for some area crops which don’t self-pollinate. Although it may seem that the bees do all the important work, maintaining the business and caring for the bees can be a challenge in itself.
He continues a family tradition of beekeeping. His father was a beekeeper in Russia and developed a strong love of the craft at a young age. Eventually, the family immigrated to the U.S. when he was 14 and started beekeeping in Yuba City.
“It’s going to be in your heart. Sometimes if everything works good, I have fun. If everything goes bad, it feels like a lot of work. It’s like any other job.”
As a business, Vykhrestov’s #1 Honey Bees works by contracting with farmers to transport bees out to fields to pollinate local crops.
First, Vykhrestov and his four employees strap the hive boxes together with a nylon belt in the middle of the night when the bees are all back inside their hives. They load their three trucks with as many as 400 to 600 hives in a night.
In February, they move the bees to almond orchards for pollination and removes them as soon as a farmer says he plans to spray pesticides. When the cherry trees blossom, the bees are taken to those orchards, and so it goes. During the summer, very active bees visit sunflowers, cucumberS and watermelons.
But the bees get a harvest of their own.
Between crops, Vykhrestov places the hives in empty fields so the bees can settle and produce honey.
“It’s hard to find places to put them because not everyone wants bees on their property. You talk to one person and he says, ‘I don’t want them. Ask my neighbor’ and the other says the same thing,” he said. “It’s a hard business sometimes. My problem is always, ‘Where do I take it now?’”
The #1 Honey Bees business also makes money from their harvest of honey, although Vykhrestov said the bees don’t produce as much when the weather is too dry.
He collects the sugary harvest by removing frames and spinning them in an extractor to separate the honey from the comb.
In an average year, Vykhrestov harvests 10 barrels of honey from his hives, with each barrel carrying more than 600 pounds of honey.
He sells them to companies that will process the honey and send them to stores where consumers will gladly buy the jars to slather honey on their toast.
While Vykhrestov goes out to tend to the bees daily, his wife Tanya handles much of the business side, dealing with the finances, receiving calls from farmers who want bees out in their fields, and setting up contracts.
Vykhrestov said starting the business at the age of 19 with his wife was the most difficult time for the operation. But he now faces challenges with the weather and in keeping the bees healthy and alive. Last year he lost half of his hives to mites, and is working to find new ways to treat the bees to prevent more hive deaths.
Tanya Vykhrestov said a very effective treatment called Taktic was recently taken off the market by the EPA. She is skeptical of that move.
“It would be more important to keep the bees alive,” she said, “than just thinking that it may cause harm to flies and butterflies and taking it away.”
Pavel Vykhrestov continues to experiment with other treatments like acids that require temperatures below 70 degrees, yet mites are more of a problem in the summer. The concern is that if they can’t treat the bees, most of them will begin to die off.
“Like every farmer’s problem right now, it’s too dry. We don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re hoping it’s going to be good, but every year we work hard,” he said. “You worry about it because the bees are like your family. If I take a break from it, one day I’m sitting, the next day I’m shaking and I have to be out in the field to check on them again.”