Waxing poetic

By Richard Ellenson

Photography By Richard Ellenson

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Beekeeper’s talents put to use at Sandia's California campus

beekeeper in full gear

NEWBIES — Jessica Williams introduces new bees to one of the hives she maintains at a garden center in Livermore, California.

Jessica Williams has worn several hats at Sandia, in some cases quite literally: she dons protective gear, including a hat made of beekeeper netting, when working with the swarms of bees that visit the Labs’ California site.

“I’m the one who gets called when there is a swarm onsite,” Jessica said. “It’s important to save swarms rather than killing them, which some people do out of fear. Bees are important; they pollinate many of the plants we eat, and they make honey. Their decline is a symbol of the dangers of global warming and pesticide use.”

Outside Sandia, Jessica and her husband keep an apiary with 300,000 honeybees and sell the honey they produce. She welcomes the opportunity to share her knowledge.

“I started to really get interested in beekeeping in 2009. There was a lot of discussion at that time about the honeybee decline, and I had always been intrigued by entomology,” she said.

Jessica’s interest was piqued by a friend of her father’s who keeps bees, so she took a beekeeping course in Marin County and has been hooked ever since.

“I’ve always enjoyed science, and this is a way to learn about one aspect of the natural world,” she said.

Bees and Sandians — two communities at work

“A beehive is an example of a community working toward a common end, and no bee can live without its hive. All of the bees must do their part in order for the community to survive,” Jessica said, comparing beekeeping to working at Sandia.

Jessica’s Sandia career has taken her from the Combustion Research Facility to Human Resources, where she leads Sandia/California’s student programs. She said a mainstay throughout her time at Sandia has been the quality of her coworkers.

“I really like the people here. There are good people throughout Sandia,” she said. “Sandia has always given me opportunities to move around and has allowed me to stay and grow.”

Harvesting raw honey

When Jessica first started raising bees, she kept the hives in her backyard. Later on, she moved her operation to a local garden center that wanted to sell its own brand of honey. Jessica bottles raw honey from the bees, selling enough to pay for a family vacation each year.

“Livermore is beekeeping heaven,” she said, adding that bees will continue to fly as long as the outside temperature is above 55 degrees, so they can collect nectar on mild winter days.

beekeeper tending hives
BEE HAPPY — Jessica and her husband keep an apiary that is home to 300,000 bees.

Jessica and her husband practice foundationless beekeeping, meaning they do not use a preformed foundation to direct the bees’ honeycomb design or centrifuges to remove wax. Instead, they crush the honeycomb, strain the honey through a nylon filter to remove the wax and collect the unpasteurized honey directly into bottles. Typically, her six hives yield 20-30 gallons of honey.

Beekeeping requires a smoker, a hive tool with a hook on one end and a pry bar on the other to separate boxes, a bee brush, a veil/hat, gloves, hive boxes and frames. Jessica visits her bees every two to three weeks to make sure the bees are making straight honeycombs, the queen is healthy and laying eggs and pests like mites and wax moths are not hurting the hive.

“A beekeeper cannot walk away from a hive for good and expect it to carry on without problems,” she said.

Beekeeping first steps

For those interested in pursuing beekeeping, Jessica recommends spending a few hundred dollars for equipment, starter bees and training (she took a four-part class). She also emphasizes having enough open space for the bees, ensuring a variety of plants nearby to pollinate and checking local laws about beekeeping.

One final tip from Jessica: providing free honey to neighbors may help alleviate their concerns about having extra bees nearby.