Monday, March 24, 2008

Migratory Beekeepers

In the second half of the 19th c. and the first few decades of the 20th, hundreds of Basque sheepherders roamed the Sierra Nevada. Trading their native Pyrenees for California’s monumental mountain range, they spent their days in solitude, tending to their flocks, fending off coyotes, and following the seasons’ fluctuating greenery. Much of the great mountains of the West received their first human footprints from these wide-ranging wanderers.

Southern California, it turns out, has its own heritage of what one might also call wandering pastoralists. In the 1920s and 30s, the fragrant coastal hills were home to a vast number of migratory beekeepers. In Ventura and L.A. counties in the mid-1890s, beekeepers discovered a way to deal with erratic rainfall and lengthy dry spells: they would mobilize their hives and follow the flowers wherever and whenever they bloomed.

Although migratory beekeeping was not new or unique to Southern California, it was here that it attained great significance. Southern California’s climate facilitated a wonderfully long flowering season, with blossoms cropping up in different areas as the season progressed. Because some plants only secrete nectar for a brief length of time (and nectar yield can vary sharply from year to year), and some are indigenous to very small areas, beekeepers would haul their colonies onto special horse-drawn wagons, trains, or automobiles and follow the wild sages and buckwheats for dozens or even hundreds of miles.

By the 1930s, California had become the leading honey-producing state in the union, with an estimated 2,000 migratory beekeepers, most of whom resided on the southern coast and took advantage of that region’s native pungent flora. Although fields of cultivated plants such as alfalfa, lima beans, orange, and pear did provide the colonies with nectar (indeed, fruit growers were dependent on beekeepers for pollination), these were only plan B, in case the sage crop failed. For the most important and the most prized plants were the indigenous black, white, and purple sages. Black sage was the chief producer of honey, and, in fact, had been dubbed Salvia mellifera, or honey-bearing sage. But many other indigenous plants proved valuable, for nectar as well as pollen: buckwheat, acacia, willow, cottonwood, black walnut, oak, and the many flowering ephemerals that bubbled up after spring rains.

Few other industries could boast such an intimate dependency on and vulnerability to Southern California’s climatic whims, frequent wildfires, and hardy yet finicky native flora. These migratory beekeepers, like Northern California’s wild salmon fishermen, had placed their livelihoods in the hands of forces completely beyond their control. Certainly, they had to learn to surrender to California’s natural fluctuations, but they also had to become keenly perceptive, learning to sense favorable climatic conditions and discern where and when the next and most nectar-laden field of blossoms would arise.

In 1932, Clifford M. Zierer characterized the migratory beekeepers as “amateur naturalists [who] enjoy outdoor life….The successful migrator is always a keen observer; he must be resourceful and frugal; he must possess unlimited hopefulness. For the migrator fortune lies always just beyond.”

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