By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
Some of the tiniest workers behind one of nature’s sweeteners that ends up in your beer are getting some much-deserved love this month. The Rogue Farms bees that normally spend their days making honey in Independence are now hundreds of miles away in sunny California. It’s easy to forget about the busy pollinators once the temperatures cool, the blossoms fade, and the final leaves tumble from their branches. Therefore, it might come as a surprise to learn that Rogue actually takes the extra effort to transport more than seven million bees south every year to provide them with a winter respite.
During the warmer months, the bees help pollinate a variety of crops at Rogue Farms as well as produce honey that goes into the business’s kölsch, braggot, mead and soda. One keeper oversees all of the hives. After the bustling hop harvest in late summer and early fall, activity on the farm and among the bees begins to slow down. As wild sources of nectar and pollen go dormant, the colonies adapt by reducing their population. When older bees die, they are no longer replaced. Mating seasons has ended, which means the queen stops laying eggs. Male bees, or drones, are excluded from the hive since their sole purpose is to reproduce. Feeding them when they’re not needed could use up precious resources during the winter.
Before the bees make their journey 600 miles south to California, Rogue cooks sugar syrup and distributes pollen patties as a food source. The keeper will check on the hives from time to time to help ensure other wildlife, such as skunks, foxes and deer, aren’t disturbing the bees. However, handling of the colonies is kept to a minimum. The keeper wants to avoid opening hive boxes because exposure to temperatures below 50 degrees can stress the colonies. And while the bees help enhance the beer with their honey, a beer ingredient can actually add to the lives of the bees. If any of the hives need medicating to protect against mites or fungal diseases, Rogue uses a treatment called HopGuard, which is derived from natural food-based compounds in hops.
After a few months of winter preparations, the bees finally set out for their California vacation in January or February. This year, they departed Jan. 15. Crews hand-stack the hives onto a flatbed truck in the evening and secure them with rope. The bees get further protection by being covered with a net during the drive down. Their journey lasts all night until they reach Tracy, Calif., which is located about 30 minutes west of Modesto, Calif. If the driver were to stop along the way, the bees would likely start to get much more active due to the warmer temperatures.
The months spent out-of-state are a bee’s paradise. Their temporary home is a bountiful almond orchard, which the bees will help pollinate while they begin to increase their population once again. The hives are scheduled to return to Independence in early April so that they can take advantage of the apple and cherry blossoms that should be among some of the first to bloom during the season. The journey across state lines and back again may sound like one big endeavor for a bunch of bees, but their contribution to the flavor of beer and the health of the environment in general is truly greater than their physical size.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.