The Film About Local Beekeepers That is Causing a Buzz
Although there is still a dispute over whether it was Napoleon or Adam Smith who coined the phrase “The British are a nation of shopkeepers,” there is no dispute that beekeepers in Santa Barbara want to convince us that America is a “nation of beekeepers.” The Beelievers, a short documentary made by UCSB graduate filmmaker Leah Bleich and released at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, follows several Santa Barbara beekeepers who are doing just that.
Discussing the origins of the film during a SBIFF Film Talk on August 13, Bleich said the idea for making the film came while she was a junior at UCSB. She needed a subject for a green screen class. When she was home for spring break she stumbled on a bee swarm in a backyard tree. “When a beekeeper arrived, all suited up with his gear and treated the swarm gently, I saw his passion and that sparked the idea to do a film about bee conservationists in Santa Barbara,” she said.
One of the beekeepers interviewed in the 15-minute film is Nick Wigle, the 38-year-old owner of Super Bee Rescue and Removal. Wigle, who is known around Santa Barbara and Montecito as the Doctor Dolittle of Bees because he talks to bees and is trying to save bees, one at a time if necessary. Wigle calls himself a “beevangelist” and doesn’t mind if he’s also called a “Bee Guru” or “Bee Whisperer.” “I just want to be called to save bees,” said the soft-spoken crusader. “Bees are cows with wings. If you get to know them, you will see they are cuddly.”
Wigle said there was a worldwide threat to the bee population. From pesticides, varroa mites, CCD (Colony Disorder Collapse), exterminating instead of rescuing, climate change, and general ignorance about how the earth needs bees to pollenate our food and how essential they are to conservation, the task he has with other beekeepers is a challenging one.
This spring did not see the exceptional blooming of flowers that bees gorged upon, following the 2019 winter torrential rains. Now with a statewide drought and fires engulfing so much of bee territory, the bees are very stressed and fighting for every last bit of pollen.
Wigle recently posted on Instagram a video of him up a ladder, clad in a Tyvek suit with gloves, rescuing thousands of angry bees. “It sure was hot,” he wrote, although he often does not wear protective gear. “Standing on a ladder in the sun, working with some very pissy bees adds another layer. Yep these bees made me put on a suit and gloves.”
Wigle said bees could know whether they were being helped, emitting a scent that told him whether they were angry or happy. He said Super Bee Rescue was the only company in Santa Barbara that would climb ladders or go into a forklift to rescue colonies that were high up in trees or roofs.
Recently, the giant Asian hornet, aka the “Murder Hornet,” made its way across the Canadian border into Seattle. “I’m not looking forward to getting rid of a nest of these buggers,” he said. The two-inch honeybee-eating insect can travel 20 miles an hour, devour a beehive in an hour, and carries a deadly stinger that can penetrate bee suits.
The ‘Bee-Too Movement’
Although Juanita Collins is not in the film, she is teaching a bee course for the Santa Barbara Bee Association with the help of Zoom. The charming Montecito beekeeper has a delightful way of describing how she got interested in beekeeping, often talking to the hives as she flits around her garden, asking how they’re doing, pointing out what certain bees are doing, how a bee becomes the Queen bee, how her worker bees keep her clean and feed her, how the Queen mates with a drone while flying, killing the drone. She chuckled, “You could call this a ‘Bee-Too’ movement.” Then she asked me whether I knew that the venom of Australian honeybees appeared to destroy a certain type of breast cancer cells.
Juanita and her eight siblings grew up on a farm in Iowa. Her grandfather was an avid beekeeper as well as a farmer. “I have three brothers and two sisters who are farmers, but I am the only beekeeper; my parents didn’t keep bees,” Collins said. “My interest started slowly when a friend, who was living in our house while we were in our summer house in New Hampshire, asked if I minded if she put a beehive in our garden. She didn’t know a thing about bees, so I was puzzled, but said ‘yes,’ anyway as I was intrigued. That was the start of my journey with bees.”
She enrolled in a beginner’s beekeeping course with the Santa Barbara Beekeeper’s Association and took the online Apprentice Beekeeping class at the University of Montana. “It was a real challenge as there is so much to know about bees,” she said. “There are more than two thousand different bee species. They are so intelligent. Honey was discovered in Egypt’s pyramids and is the only known food that can be preserved forever. It has antibiotic qualities, has been used for healing wounds and really helps with allergies. When my husband, Evan, and I moved here twenty-five years ago from Phoenix, Evan had terrible allergies and I’d read that honey could be an effective treatment. He puts a tablespoon in his breakfast oatmeal and in his tea as well. He’s been free of allergies for years. Before my trainer comes to the house, I take a tablespoon of honey before she arrives and I’m all set to go.”
As Juanita passed the pool, her four grandchildren were enjoying the last days of summer. They seemed unaware that their grandmother was known affectionately in the neighborhood as “The Bee Lady of Montecito.”
In her office, Juanita demonstrated her grandfather’s A.I. Root antique honey extractor. It dates from the mid-1800s. Behind her are shelves filled with glass jars of last spring’s honey. In mid-August, Juanita emptied her 10 hives. Every year since her first hive, the amount of honey has been increasing steadily. This year, she harvested 100 pounds. She designed a label and content sticker for the jars and is selling them online. “I’ve got to design a website,” said the petite Renaissance woman, who once managed her family’s dairy farm in Iowa, had a career in finance before moving to Montecito, and is an accomplished flautist. Her main challenge now is to finish the SBBA course for the 20 followers she instructs once a month for three hours. She is also continuing with the online course at the University of Montana for her master’s in beekeeping. “I’m doing this, not only for myself, but to help further Santa Barbara’s interest in bees, even if it’s only planting more purple plants,” she said. “Here in Santa Barbara, even if the drought continues, there are many purple plants that will thrive. Bees like pink and orange, too. They see ultraviolet because of their omnipod eyes that enable them to see at a high spectrum of color.”
Bleich said beekeepers happened to be a bit eccentric and can be fun and silly when they talk about bees, even Hollywood celebrities. Scarlett Johansson, for instance, was given a hive by Samuel L. Jackson. “There’s a lot of merit to slowing down with beekeeping,” Bleich said.
I wonder whether Collins’s fellow Montecitoan, Oprah Winfrey, who lives on the other side of town and loves the color purple, is a beekeeper. Collins admitted that she didn’t know Oprah, but it would be nice to have a connection, if only with bees. “Maybe my bees are making a beeline for Oprah’s purple flowers and hers are coming here to taste our nectar. The bees can go five miles round-trip, but it would be tough on them as Oprah’s is about two miles from us!” She agreed that perhaps the former Duke and Duchess of Sussex can start beekeeping on the estate they have just bought down the road from their good friend. Beekeeping would fit in with their environmental concerns. “And the bees wouldn’t have so far to travel then,” she said added. “Their property probably has wild, purple sage – the bees love it – just like San Ysidro Ranch, almost next door.”