Califonia Bountiful

Hail to the queen

July/August 2021 California Bountiful magazine

Family keeps tradition—and bee populations—alive

The queen bee, center, is usually the largest bee in the hive. She's the only female with fully developed ovaries that allow her to reproduce. Photo: © 2021 Lori Eanes

As beekeepers in Shasta County who specialize in breeding queen bees, Matt and Sara Stayer know the importance of flower power. It sustains the insects they raise and, by extension, their family business, Stayer's Quality Queens.

Wearing a full beard, standing 6 feet 5 inches at 320 pounds, Matt Stayer says he may not look like the kind of person who spends his day scanning the landscape for flowers, "but that's what I need for the bees."

Producing queen bees has become ever more vital as bee populations continue to decline and beekeepers lose colonies each year, potentially affecting about 35% of the world's food crops that depend on pollination to reproduce.

Because every hive needs a queen, queen breeders represent "the first line" of restoring bee populations when colonies fail and more bees are needed, Matt Stayer said.

"We're kind of the backbone of keeping the bees alive," he said. "We can take one queen and make thousands out of her."

Sara and Matt Stayer operate one of several queen-rearing businesses in Shasta County, a region known for its tradition of queen bee production. Photo: © 2021 Lori Eanes

The business of queen bees

As with most California queen breeders, the Stayers join other commercial beekeepers in almond orchards every year, renting their bees to farmers, to pollinate the crop. The state's 1.3 million acres of almond trees, which explode with blossoms in February and March, provide the first big meal bees collect as they emerge from winter's dearth. Later in the spring, the couple turn their attention entirely to producing queen bees, shipping about 1,000 queens a day to beekeepers throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Queen bees are sought after especially in April and May, because this is when other commercial beekeepers need new queens to replace old ones, try to increase their colonies by dividing them and make up for bee losses they experienced during the winter.

Beekeepers looking for new queens often turn to Northern California, considered "the epicenter of queen breeding and queen production businesses," said Ben Sallmann, a honeybee health specialist for the Bee Informed Partnership, a national nonprofit that works to better understand how to manage healthier bees.

Crew members of Stayer's Quality Queens work at one of various locations where they raise queen bees, capturing the queens in the spring to sell to other beekeepers. Photo: © 2021 Lori Eanes

Northern California weather in February and March makes it "a great spot" for queen production, he said, because those are months when breeders begin grafting bee larvae, a key part of the production process. With much of the country still buried in snow that time of year, breeders in the North State can gain a head start producing spring queens that are in hot demand in early April. The only other regions of the United States where breeders can produce queens that early in the year are southern Georgia, Florida and the Big Island of Hawaii.

Timing is key because after a virgin queen hatches, she has a very short window to mate and requires temperatures above 50 degrees with no strong winds. If she misses her chance because of inclement weather, there could be a shortage of queen bees that year, Sallmann said.

"You can produce queens anywhere in the country, but weather needs to be good for those queens to mate properly," he added.

Queen bees, which are sought after especially in April and May, are raised in special queen cells. Photo: © 2021 Lori Eanes

A legacy from the 1940s

Regions such as Butte, Glenn and Tehama counties all maintain a rich tradition of queen production, but Shasta County in particular dominates by its sheer number of queen breeders. At least seven queen-rearing businesses in the county share a common connection: They use methods perfected by early queen-breeding pioneer Homer Park, who began raising queens in the 1940s and passed his knowledge to family members and others who worked with him, including the Stayers.

"It is very similar to family farms. It's the same sort of idea here that we do this," said Jackie Park-Burris, who runs one of Shasta County's queen-breeding businesses and whose uncle was Homer Park.

She said her uncle was fascinated with bees beginning at age 7, when he caught a swarm with a gunny sack, then brought it home on a horse. He kept acquiring more hives and began raising bees as part of his 4-H and FFA projects.

"He even talked about how he learned to put cotton in the horse's ears so it couldn't hear the buzz, because the horse wouldn't let him on because of the bees," Park-Burris said.

Matt Stayer's family got into beekeeping and queen production because his father worked for Park for 26 years and bought the business when Park retired in 1998. Stayer spent most of his childhood in bee yards and said he remembers "getting the crap stung out of me" as a youngster working with the insects. He and his wife took over Stayer's Quality Queens last year when his parents retired.

Sabastian Garcia packs queen bees to be shipped. Photo: © 2021 Lori Eanes

Bee-coming familiar

As someone who didn't grow up in the business, Sara Stayer said she told her future husband on their first date that she didn't want to date someone "who doesn't have a real job." This was in 2003, she noted, years before the public became aware of the collapse of bee colonies, efforts to save honeybees and their role in crop production.

"At the time, beekeeping was someone who had a beehive in their backyard for fun," she said. "It was nothing that you ever heard about, because it wasn't publicized back then."

It took a while for her to become used to being around so many bees, she said, recalling the early days when she'd drive up to the shop and couldn't get out of the car.

"You hurry up and roll up the windows, because being around that many bees is really intimidating, especially for the first time," she said.

Queens are ready for shipping. Photo: © 2021 Lori Eanes

In the spring, when her husband typically works six to seven days a week, Sara Stayer said she'd have to go to the bee yard if she wanted to see him. As she spent more time in the field, she said she became more comfortable with bees and eventually learned the art of queen rearing.

"I think it's a crazy field to be in, but it's a lot of fun," she said. "We go to these beautiful ranches and there's all these flowers everywhere. It's amazing."

Queen bee production remains a top economic driver in Shasta County, which ranks apiary products as its third most valuable agricultural commodity after cattle and hay, two sectors that fit well with beekeeping, Matt Stayer said. Though almond blooms provide an important food source for bees, he said, the insects need a diverse and well-balanced diet to stay healthy, and his region's vast landscapes of natural pasture and cattle ranches offer a smorgasbord of blooming clover, vetch and mustard throughout the spring for foraging bees to grow and thrive.

"That's what makes Shasta County so great for queens," he said.

Ching Lee

Queens are raised in special queen cells, which bees make when they are trying to make a queen. Photo: © 2021 Lori Eanes

How queen bees are created

When a hive becomes too crowded, honeybees instinctively know it's time to divide into two or more groups and move to a new home. Worker bees prepare for the move by raising a new queen in specially built queen cells in the hive. The existing queen lays fertilized eggs in these queen cells so a new queen can emerge and take over the hive. Any female larva has the potential to become a queen. Right before the new queen hatches, the old queen leaves the hive with about half the worker bees. These departing bees form a swarm.

The first queen larva that emerges from the queen cell will sting the others to death, because there can be only one queen.

"They'll fight to the death, because that's nature's way: You want the strongest, the best," queen bee breeder Matt Stayer said.

The one that survives will mate with drone bees after growing to about a week old. She'll then start laying eggs in about four days, creating female worker bees that will sustain her and the colony.

To streamline this process, beekeepers split their hives before bees have a chance to swarm. They do this by taking part of a hive and putting it into another box with a new queen. To produce queens, queen breeders trick bees into making queen cells by transferring freshly hatched larvae from a donor colony into man-made cell cups, from which new queens will be raised. Bees naturally will raise queens if one fails or disappears. Therefore, with no queen in the hive, worker bees will begin to feed the larvae with a special diet that allows the larvae to develop into queens.

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