DIY, Mind & Body, Skincare, Travel

Introducing Gold&Thyme’s LE BALM Part 2 {Sustainable Beeswax} + Interview

Napa Valley Bee Company_4_Meg Smith

Introducing Gold&Thyme’s LE BALM Part 2 {Sustainable Beeswax} + Interview with Rob Keller of the Napa Valley Bee Company


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Photograph courtesy of Meg Smith

During my trip in California this summer, I took a Herb Craft and Medicine Making Class at the Ohlone Herbal Center in Berkeley. We learned the art of making teas, infused vinegar, cordials & elixirs, tinctures, infused oils and healing balms. Since our class was only 3 weeks long, we had to decide what we had time to make… decision? A balm, a tincture and some zoom balls (which I’m hoping to have up on the blog soon!). When it came time to finish making our balm, one of the girls in my class brought beeswax from her hives in St. Helena, a small town just north of Napa. It was amazing to get to work with such a beautiful product, so when it came time for me to source mine for LE BALM, although she didn’t have enough, she introduced me to Rob Keller of the Napa Valley Bee Company.

Napa Valley Bee Company is a sustainable honeybee organization that recognizes the importance of strong genetics in our local indigenous bee. Breeding from survivor stock in our area is a way to solve some of the problems with European Honey Bees.
-Napa Valley Bee Company

With my infused oil hitting the 4 week point, I called Rob and asked if we could meet. For me, going up to Napa is always such a joy and with my mother’s birthday approaching, it all seemed very serendipitous! Meet Rob at his apiary at the Napa Valley Bee Company and learn about the current state of bees, go to his house to pick out some sustainable beeswax for LE BALM and then spend the rest of the day celebrating the birth of my incredible mother!

Sustainable Beeswax_18_Gold&ThymePhotograph courtesy of Janis Bankoff

Arriving to BeeCo was a bit surreal. We pulled up in front of a big beige building with no signage and were told to park, walk towards the back, open the gate and take a left. We walked for a bit and passed three or four amazing gardens on our right- I was tempted to ask if I could have some squash blossoms for a pasta I was making that evening, but I imagined those beauties were spoken for. We then arrived to see Rob in action, watering his beautiful garden made especially for the bees! I asked if he didn’t mind being recorded and here’s what he had to say…

60840030_Meg Smithtumblr_ln1xxfdze51qfmijio1_1280_Meg SmithPhotographs courtesy of Meg Smith

“We’re beyond sustainable at this point.  We’re looking to be regenerative… The bees come first. We’re not hustling them for honey. We’re not hustling them for anything really. The main thing we ask of them is pollination, but it’s stationary pollination. We’re not moving them into the almonds, which is a huge deal here in California. We really just do what we can do so that the bees can thrive. It’s a little challenging here in Napa Valley because it’s not really the epicenter for honey. There’s not a whole lot of forage because every bit of fallow land has been swooped up and planted [by the vineyards]. It’s a mono-crop for sure. The vineyard is a desert for the bee. Sometimes they can be seen this time of year on the crush pad, for the juice, but only because they’re really hungry. “

How long have you been here?

“This is my second year. Our idea was to do a queen breeding facility here, based on locally adopted stock. The main things with beekeeping are…there’s this little mite riding around on their back and there’s a lot of different ideas on how to take care of that. Some people say kill the mite, kill the mite, kill the mite…and they’ll throw an arsenal of medications at the bees. I’m kind of looking at things a little differently, saying don’t kill the mite. Let the bees and the mite come to some kind of balanced co-existence.”

img_9132_Meg SmithPhotograph by Meg Smith

How did the mites come to be?

“They came here from Southeast Asia I think back in 1996. I think that’s when the first ones were found. From my understanding, they came into Florida and made it to the Midwest before they caught them. And they haven’t been able to stop them since. They live on the bee. They reproduce inside the cell with that young baby bee as the young larvae is developing and the family of Varroa Mite is growing.  What you need to do is look at the bees and let them build their own resistance. And a lot of people say that would take years and years and years, but bees are already prone to be hygienic, but there are bees that are super hygienic and they’re able to clean up those cells. Some of them could groom the mite of each other. Some of them can recognize that there are mites inside that cell and they go in and open up the cell. That tends to be a little bit more complicated because it takes more than one mechanism. Right, they have to be able to smell the mite in the cell, they have to be able to open that cell up and drag that larvae out.”

“The second issue is that people are moving bees around like crazy. You can call up right now to Kona, Hawaii and order a queen and have her sent to you in a little package and then introduce her into your apiary. My thoughts are that we should be focused on locally adopted stock. My whole push has been to attain bees wherever I can here in Napa (I don’t order bees out). I’ve gotten really good at cutting bees out of houses and pulling them out of wine barrels or…we’ve pulled them out of the craziest things you can imagine. Bees move into all sorts of crevices. And then watch that genetic stock and see how they do, and if they live for a year, we take away the queen and then that colony will make a new queen from their own genetics. Then you watch mother and daughter, and if mother and daughter are showing you the same traits, you get a little bit excited and you take away daughter queen and you watch grand-daughter. We’re really looking for those traits that are dominant in the queen. The problem is the genetic strain has been so diluted down so far that bees don’t really stand a chance. They have to be able to recognize the environmental cues to be able to survive. That’s what BeeCo (Napa Valley Bee Company) is all about.”

Sustainable Beeswax_19_Gold&ThymeSustainable Beeswax_9_Gold&ThymeSustainable Beeswax_3_Gold&ThymeWhat are they doing? Eating?

“No, they’re just all clumped up and generally what happens is the bees that are flying out…if you watch them fairly closely, you can see them. Watch this one- see her? She’s communicating with all the other ones around her. She’s telling them something. And generally what they’re telling them is where’s the new place to move to.”

So they communicate with their wings?

“Well their body movement. It’s all based on a figure eight. Right? And how fast she’s doing that waggle with her butt, but also how big is the figure eight. And it gets better! It’s all based on the orientation of the sun. So she’s saying, here’s a place we should go live! Here’s a place we should go live… All of them are saying places they’ve scouted and found a physical location for them to move to.”

How did you choose what to plant?

“I really like Zinnia. Zinnia’s are really nice because they are a wonderful table flower. They’re really easy to cut back and they grow again and they’re a late season nectar and pollen source for bees. So Zinnia, sunflower, all of the squash and winter plants that we put in are all very unique ones that we have specialty seed because what we were hoping to happen was to leave the blossoms for the bees, but when the fruit comes, we’ll take that and sell it to some of these higher end restaurants.”

What about the other farms that I saw walking in?

“BocaFarm used to have this whole thing filled out and they had a CSA, but then the gal who was running the CSA just got into Harvard to do a Masters in Environmental Education. So now what they’re doing is that they split it up into quarters and each one of those segments belongs to a restaurant and they send their guys out to take care of it. A couple of guys are doing late season tomatoes and squash. Most of the squash and pumpkins were volunteers because last year, this whole field was pumpkin. “

The discussion then turned to Paris…

“I think it would be so fun. I didn’t get to stay in Paris long enough last time. I went to the Bee Keeping Institute and spent a little while there. I would love to come over and do something on sustainable beekeeping. Come over and teach people what we’re doing here and how they could do it there.”

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“Do you know what this is? So you’re into the arts…you’ve heard of that artist, Christo?”

Yeah of course! How did you manage to get a piece.

“This is a section of his project, Running Fence! This is probably only a quarter of the section I have. I have a 150 feet by the full length, 18 feet. I have a Masters Degree in Fine Art.”

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One of my favorite parts of the visit was getting a ride in Rob’s van back to our car. The creative use of old Levi’s pockets as pockets on the back of car seats was genius! And then arriving to Rob’s house was great too! He showed us his studio in the back where he makes his honey and stores his beeswax and then showed us his office where he has this amazing “glass wall of bees”.  I tried to take a picture, but there was too much reflection from the glass. And besides, it’s one of those things you really have to see to believe.

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What can you tell me about your beeswax?

“This wax is as pure as it can possibly be. I don’t medicate my bees. I don’t have them on any foundation. I let my bees build all their own wax. I press all my honey. Bees build all their comb and a lot of the restaurants want the comb so it’s been my direction. I don’t really sell the consumer. I work with local restaurants like (Thomas Keller and) The French Laundry. By the end of this year, honey will probably be close to $3.00 per ounce, which is nuts. But I’m not sitting on tons of honey. Most of my operation is based on breaking the bees down, like we were talking about earlier. You can’t have bees and honey. I’m making a lot of smaller colonies that don’t make a lot of honey.  I take away the queen, but then I give her everything she needs for her own colony. We’ve taken it out to generation 10!”

Leaving Rob with this beautiful piece of beeswax made my day! He even gave my mom some honeycomb for her birthday! I knew that I wanted to find exquisite beeswax for LE BALM, but for me, this visit helped give me more insight into the lives of bees and raise awareness for people like Rob Keller who aren’t just proponents of sustainable beekeeping, but regenerative beekeeping. We need to see bees differently. We need to treat them with the respect they deserve. It’s safe to say I will remember my visit with Rob fondly and look forward to remaining in touch and seeing his sustainable and regenerative bees continue to flourish!

When I got home, what I remember most was the smell of the wax. It reminded me of where I had just been and for me, that is what I love about sourcing quality product. You can spend time learning the story about how it was made from the person who made it. And each time you use the product, you can remember your experience. Before adding the beeswax to for LE BALM, although it didn’t need much, we removed a bit of the “land” that remained on the beeswax and with my mother’s help, we broke the beeswax into pieces and weighed it out. In Part 3 {Making Le Balm}, I will discuss pressing out the Infused Oil and combining it with the Beeswax.

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