To bee or not to bee?

Each of Molyneaux’s hives is named after a strong female figure from various mythologies. One of the hives’ names, Oya, after the Yoruba goddess of the weather, stems from the origin story of the bees inside. Their swarm was saved by Molyneaux in the middle of a rain storm, right before she and her husband went to sign papers to keep the farm property after financial struggles amidst the pandemic.

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series about the world of local beekeeping.

Autumn is a time most associate will falling leaves, harvest time and a fall into winter. Not many would expect to see vibrant blooming flowers in late September. But they adorn the property of Wild Everlasting Farm in Dorena in neat rows of color. Why?

Well, Fonta Molyneaux co-owner of Wild Everlasting, knows bees. Or, perhaps, the bees know Molyneaux. Whatever the case, it’s clear to anyone visiting the farm that there, nature and human live symbiotically. 

“Everything is all planted with a purpose,” said Molyneaux, “there’s nothing in here that’s just gardening or aesthetic, everything is planted here to bloom at different times for the bees.”

With help from Molyneaux and husband Matthew, the bees, residing in a colorful array of hives, are able to survive the winter on their own, and they profit enormously from a steady stream of nectar and pollen throughout the fall, as well as spring and summer.

“The biggest thing you can do to help save the bees is to plant flowers. And that’s a really big thing, especially if you plant flowers during the time of year when there’s less flowers around,” said Molyneaux. “We have 40 hives here and we don’t take our hives anywhere else. They are here and they get the advantage of all the different seasons of flowering plants that we grow specifically for them.”

Despite only having started beekeeping six years ago, she has already been a board member of the Lane County Beekeepers Association and Wild Everlasting Farm is considered a Bee Sanctuary by the USDA and the Oregon Bee Project. She also founded and currently runs Sun Queen School of Apiary Arts, where she teaches others how to keep bees.

Some of her students are just starting out and some take more advanced courses to further their knowledge of beekeeping. She tends to get older people who have more time in their schedule but also a lot of kids, she said. Those in the 13 and older range are surprisingly good beekeepers, and she’s proud to be educating the next generation.

“That’s what really empowers me is to know that I’m impacting this next generation that needs this knowledge,” said Molyneaux. “It’s imperative that we find a way to connect with that next generation and share this art because it’s more than skill.”

Her daughter, in fact, helps her care for the bees, and together they make a two-person team. She recently caught her first swarm all by herself.

The majority, if not all, of Molyneaux’s hives came from the Umpqua National Forest in swarms. These feral bees can be collected and given a bee box to reside in, where they will produce honey. But Molyneaux isn’t all about the sweet reward, she finds co-existing with the bees to be rewarding all on its own. 

So when it comes to the question of whether or not to keep bees, Molyneaux has a bit of advice. 

First, she recommends learning about how to keep hives alive and treat them well. It’s not as simple as ordering bees online, putting them in a box and expecting honey a couple months later. In fact, on average hives will lose about 40 percent of their bees naturally, a stark statistic when looking at a herd of cattle but a fact of life with honeybees.

“If you don’t know what you’re doing and you add human error to the natural consequence of 40 percent, that lowers your chance of having overwintered bees really a lot,” she said.

Overwintered bees are those that survive through the winter months. It’s a lot of work to ensure a hive is well cared for and healthy enough to do that. The best way to kickstart a strong hive is to buy, or catch, bees locally who are already adapted to Oregon conditions. If they’re from here, they’ll survive here much better, says Molyneaux. In fact, they’ll even thrive.

“We sort of live in this really beautiful little bee belt and we have lots of feral populations of honeybees, which is really rare. It’s not a thing anymore. Most places do not have a lot of feral populations,” said Molyneaux. “It’s a really exciting place to live for a beekeeper because there is just a lot of strength, not only from honeybees but native bees in our area thrive really well with our climate and conditions here.”

One of the second things to be aware of is the varroa mite. This mite attaches to the backs of honeybees and essentially eats them alive. Evidently this is a hazard for honeybees and their keepers so it’s important to treat hives for mites. The most common way is with oxalic acid twice a year, but at Wild Everlasting, Molyneaux prefers to include more natural methods as well.

Instead of just treating the bees, she also takes several steps to prevent the mites.

In the spring she splits her hives, giving the queen a “brood break” which lessens the presence of mites. She also uses screen bottom boards in her hives so when mites fall off they can’t get back up to the bees. When fall comes around she treats with oxalic acid, but only does so once a year instead of twice.

Another thing to consider is that the reason bees make honey is primarily for their own survival, so when Molyneaux collects honey, she makes sure to leave some for the bees to feed on during the winter.

“We’re really beekeeping for the bees, not the honey ... we only take what is extra, above and beyond their needs,” said Molyneaux.

She also makes sure to leave any extra honey out for the bees to reduce waste, because when transferring honey from one container to another there will always be a bit left behind and the bees will gladly take it.

But the most important thing, she said, is to invest in education. It is really important to know what you’re doing to offset all the obstacles to beekeeping, she said.

“Beekeeping isn’t about bees and it isn’t about people,” said Molyneaux, “It’s about a collaboration, how we can come together, collaborate, and do something better than either one of us could do before.”

Find out more about Wild Everlasting Farm and Sun Queen School of Apiary Arts at wildeverlasting.com. 

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