Interview with Patti Johnson
About the Oregon Coast
Honey Lovers' Festival
About the Oregon Coast
Honey Lovers' Festival
The Yachats Gazette was very lucky to land an unplanned interview with the organizer of this year's Oregon Coast Honey Lovers' Festival, which is scheduled to take place at the Commons in Yachats on February 9, from 10-4 (with a mead tasting and hoedown scheduled into the evening).
TYG: So what is the Honey Festival all about?
Patti: Well, the Honey Festival actually started last year. It kind of came about in an odd way. We have Mary Crook, over at the Little Log Church, and she had done an animal blessing. She blessed my kitties, and I told her about my bees, so she did a bee blessing. So one morning I get this call, and Mary said, "You know, I've been having some coffee and some toast and honey, and I think we ought to have a honey festival, and I think it ought to be in February when we do the vow renewals on Valentine's Day." And at first, she said, "I think it should be called 'Honey, I love you,' something like that." [laughter] Well, it grew very quickly, and it kind of worked into the Oregon Coast Honey Lovers Festival, because we wanted to get a community kind of event; not just for bee-keepers, but really the community, and teach and share about pollinators. As you probably well know, pollinators are having a horrible time at this stage. So we thought if we could get some good speakers, get some good vendors, and just really involve children and families, plus the bee-keepers and bee clubs, and get people understanding about pollinators, understanding about honey, how wonderful local honeys are. We wanted to have a honey-tasting that was somewhat more formalized, but not [too formal]. So we have a person coming, Jeffrey Warren, and five different honeys, light to dark, so people can learn about honey. And then we're doing the same with mead, so people can learn about that.
TYG-Graphic Design: What is mead, exactly?
Patti: Mead is a beer made with fermented honey. It's different than honey beer, in which they use honey, but [also] grains for the fermentation.
TYG: So this has no grain alcohol, correct?
Patti: Right. But oh, it gets strong! [laughs] So we just wanted to do education and this is for families, so we had a puppeteer come in for the children, who did a fantastic job of actually educating the adults, too. This year our line-up [includes] the puppeteer too—she is so good, and people loved her so much we're going to have her twice.
TYG-GD: Oh wow! Where does she live?
Patti: Portland area. So in our line-up are two honey tastings; we have Dr. Sarah Kincaid, who is an entomologist and pollinator specialist from the Oregon Department of Agriculture. She'll be speaking about interesting bees and what they do, and have clips of them. Her talk is called "Weird and Wonderful Bees of Oregon." And we have "Designing a Pollinator Garden." Shonnard's Nursery in Corvallis is our main sponsor for this event. They've been in business for 35 years. Last year, Fred Selby from Shonnard's talked about bees; this year he's going to be doing a talk on the medicinal aspects of honey. We also have Dr. Ramesh Sagili, from the Oregon State University Bee Lab, who does a lot of work with bee-keepers and Oregon State, with the apiary and research. He's also going to be talking about different aspects of bees and interesting kinds of things, trying to keep it more for community versus too specialized.
TYG-GD: I didn't even know there was a bee lab! I wonder what they do there?
Patti: Yes, there is. They do all sorts of things! It's amazing... [They study] all of the diseases, nutrition, queen rearing; they work with commercial growers—when I say commercial growers, I mean the bee-keepers who have more three or four hundred hives, up to fifteen, twenty thousand hives. That's what they do: they move their trucks around the different areas for pollination.
TYG-GD: So it's like pollinators for hire?
Patti: Yes. I also asked [Dr. Sagili] to talk a little bit about Africanized bees, just for interest. So he'll probably do a little bit on that. That isn't anything around here, but people have heard the word and they get a little scared.
TYG-GD: So what is that about?
Patti: The Africanized bees are actually from Africa; they're a very aggressive bee and you've seen things on the news about bees going after people. One of the things that I really want to emphasize to people is [that] honeybees are not aggressive. They're basically vegetarians. When I talk to kids I talk about "sweet bees" and "bully bees." But bully bees are the yellow-jackets, the wasps, the hornets who attack. I've worked with the elementary schools a little bit and done some presentations—the little tiny kids, all they can think about is being stung. So we're trying to help children and adults understand that honeybees are not really aggressive. They're aggressive if you get into their home, their hive; they're more aggressive at times when it's dry, and they don't have forage or food; but you know, they're busy. And they're vegetarian—they don't want meat.
TYG-GD: And they die when they sting you! So that's the last resort...
Patti: Exactly. Whereas the other bees, it's sort of like fun for them to pick on you. [laughs]
TYG-GD: Well, a wasp... It's not even a bee, right? It's a whole other species.
TYG: Often it's grouped together, unfortunately. Is the difference between a bee and other things is that it's a "one-sting"? Or is there a different definition?
Patti: No, actually, it's more about body types and a whole bunch of stuff. I'll be honest—I'm pretty new at bee-keeping. I started about four and a half years ago, and when I started I didn't know anything about bee-keeping. I'd never even seen a hive. And I started it more for pollinators. I like to garden. Then I got hooked on thinking, "Well, maybe I could be a bee-keeper." I lived in Eugene, and it was pretty shady and cool. I went to a Lane County bee-keeper's meeting, and just really got interested in it. A gentleman helped me—he was a mentor—and I went through bee school there. I actually went through bee school twice—it's just a day—because there's so much to learn initially before you can even start.
TYG-GD: Do you have to have a license?
Patti: No, it's just that you have to know everything at once, pretty much, to just get through the season. Then it repeats and it repeats and it repeats. So I thought, "You know what? I need to learn more, and I'd probably get twice as much information if I went through it again." So I did.
TYG-GD: So, when did you move to Yachats?
Patti: Permanently, about two years ago. But we've had a place here since 1988, a vacation home, and we decided to downsize. I was concerned whether I could keep my bees in our little house here, and at about the time we moved over here, I saw a little poster about the Central Coast Bee Keepers starting a club. So it all worked out. I also went through the Oregon State Master bee-keeping classes. An apprentice is assigned a bee-keeper. It's a really good class, and you work through all of the seasons with someone that has been through the classes, and then you move onto journey, and that's the program I'm in. I've also helped mentor other, younger bee-keepers. Bee-keeping has changed since probably twenty-five, thirty years ago. We first got the varroa mite in the 60s—which is the reason we have so many problems with our bees. You used to be able to put in a hive, basically, and not have to do too much to it. Now, it's quite a process to keep your back-yard bees. Agriculture changes: commercial bee-keepers go out into thousands of acres of the same kind of forage, and that would be like you eating only bread every day, and nothing else.
TYG: I imagine that's not really healthy for the bees.
Patti: Right. The bees need pollen—that's protein. So they need a variety of different kinds of pollen to keep healthy. Nectar is their carbohydrate, and that's what they make into their honey. Nectar from the flowers is a sugary, watery liquid, and they bring it to the hive. Bees have a couple of stomachs, the one in which they carry the nectar is separate, a container. They come back [to the hive] and they regurgitate it. It's kind of interesting: they will fan the liquid until it's just the perfect consistency and concentration, with 15 to 18 per cent water.
TYG-GD: When do they eat the pollen? I know they have "pollen baskets," but I don't know anything about how they eat it.
Patti: They bring it [to the hive] and they have mandibles and chew it—now this is getting a little beyond my level—and they use the pollen to make "bee bread" for the babies. They will use some of their own chemicals in their saliva, and they [combine] it with some of the honey to make this food that has both the nectar and the pollen.
TYG-GD: So the adults don't eat the protein? Or they ingest some while they're making their loaf, or something?
Patti: The protein is usually for the larvae. If you think about a bee, they only live about 21 days.
TYG: So how has your bee-keeping been going?
Patti: [sighs] You know, it was going very well until this year. I had three hives, and I lost all three this year. The first time I've ever lost my hives. And it wasn't just me—there are some bee-keepers that lost thirty to forty per cent of their hives.
TYG-GD: So what's going around?
Patti: There's a lot of varroa; I think the weather pattern was different. Varroa is kind of like a tick; they don't kill the bee, they weaken the bee so that it gets viruses, it gets sick, it can't fly. And if you don't take care of the mite, they will overrun the hive. What they've found is that varroa can be spread from hive to hive, when bees go robbing; they're finding that it can be picked up from a flower. A phoretic female [the females use the bees to hitch-hike from place to place] can smell exactly when the bees have laid eggs, and she can go into the cell and lay her eggs, and so [the mite] spreads and spreads.
TYG-GD: Do you have to burn the hives?
Patti: No, basically you're treating, and there are all kinds of different treatments you can use. Back to the OSU labs and things: all through California and the Carolinas, there are labs, and they're working on ways to medicate, or at least cut varroa down. The Africanized bee does not have an issue with varroa. So they're working on [finding out] why this is.
TYG-GD: I think more in the public eye has been the impact of pesticides. How is that entering the life-cycle of the mite, or influencing its spread? Or is there any connection there, or is it a totally different issue on top of everything?
Patti: On top of everything. [Pesticides] weaken the hives, then there's the varroa mite, the forage—it's just a whole bunch of things. And genetics, too! Because the queens are all basically sisters.
TYG: A fairly limited gene pool.
TYG-GD: Is climate change influencing the mite population in any way?
Patti: Yes, with the longer seasons. But to get back to the festival: we have a wonderful time, and it's a fun activity for the family, and this year we're adding to it. The festival itself is February 9 from 10 till 4, and then from 6 to 9, we're having a honey hoedown. We have Red Diesel coming in, which is a foot-stomping band. If you look it up online, they have a Red Diesel in Russia, and it's this crazy, psychedelic band! [laughs] But that isn't the same one. But the Farm Store is going to be doing pork sliders and a few things, and we'll have a bonfire, and it'll be a good thing! And during this, we do the honey tasting! We wanted to have people understand the differences of the honey, and not just go through and take a toothpick and dip some out!
TYG-GD: Do you have to swish and spit?
Patti: [laughter] No.
At this point, Jeff Warren joins in the conversation. Jeff is the expert who is going to lead the honey tasting.
Jeff: I don't mean to cut in on your last question and answer, but you asked about climate change possibly having an effect. I just saw a post this morning on Facebook—looks like the snow pack is down in Washington State. If that's true, then the Spring crops could be slow or nonexistent. Bees need flowers; they need food. And it's either there or it's not. A super-rainy Spring for us out here in the Northwest is going to affect the flowers: the nectar's going to be different. And if it's super-dry, also. It's all connected. But if the flowers aren't growing, we're not going to have very much honey. There was a source of some really gnarly, black honey that came out of Washington, that had been coming. We got zero last year, and if this is true, there will be zero again. The folks in the lowland valleys and the rural farmers, the actual commercial operations, they will have their crops because they have water, so it's a different ball game for them. But the natural stuff up in the mountains, in the higher elevations—there may not be as much of that.
TYG-GD: I have a friend in the Philippines, and she is now selling blue honey. Have you heard of that?
Patti: I've heard the term, but I don't know anything about it.
TYG-GD: It looks beautiful!
Patti: Different areas have different kinds of honey; Jeff is the one to be talking about that!
Jeff: Does it have a blue hue to it? Really blue?
TYG-GD: Oh, it has a blue hue to it! It's beautiful!
Jeff: And the flower source is...?
TYG-GD: The Mindanao valley in the Philippines.
Jeff: A naturally-occurring thing. That's crazy! People will buy it just because it's blue!
TYG-GD: I know! [laughter]
Patti: Jeff is the honey man! He does a wonderful job of helping people understand the intricacies of honey and the subtleties of what you're tasting, and how. [To Jeff] You're in the food and wine industry?
Jeff: Yes, years and years and years of food business; not just dry bins, but it was actually nice food, restaurants. We had to know a lot of stuff and describe it at the table, and to the servers and everybody—we had to be on the edge. Then I ended up in the wine business, and that's where you either sink or swim. You know how to tell people about little things they know nothing about. You're not telling them anything that's not true, but you hear them, "What is that I'm tasting? What am I tasting right now?" You have to tell them what they're tasting. You've got to help connect those dots. So now being a honey salesman, and even maple syrup, and all these things, I'm helping connect those dots, make that connection. It's consumer-level, street-level. I'm going to help them get confidence, so they're going to want to go learn more. It only gets more interesting. We all know about simple jars in every store, in every jar that says "Clover" on the front, or just "Honey." These days, it probably isn't honey, and it certainly isn't raw, it's not alive, there's nothing beneficial to it—it's just sweet stuff on a shelf.
TYG-GD: How is raw honey alive? I presume by "raw" you mean non-pasteurized?
Patti: Of course what I do is screen out the impurities...
Jeff: Wings! Wax! Pieces parts! We don't want that in our jar.
Patti: For local, backyard bee-keepers, it's not heated or pasteurized. GloryBee would heat their honey because of the big tanks. So there are some differences that way. But I think the United States imports 70 per cent of its honey.
TYG-GD: Wow! From where?
Patti: China, I think...
Jeff: And Brazil. But [we can't be sure it's honey.] What are they feeding those bees? What's the regimen?
Patti: And there's corn syrup in there. So there's more testing being done, so that as we import, we can tell whether it's truly a raw honey, or how much they've added corn syrup, or other additives.
Jeff: [...] The systems to catch [fraud in honey] are getting better, but they're not perfect.
Patti: And then there are certain specialty honeys, like the mānuka honey for wound care—honey has extremely medicinal properties. Mānuka is from New Zealand, and that's a plant variety. It's very good raw honey, but we happen to have about a zillion great, cool varieties right here in our Northwest. And we can go meet the bee-keeper and go look him in the eye. [laughs] But that too, in the mānuka industry—there's some criminal stuff going on there, and it's pretty vicious.
Patti: So it gets pretty interesting!
TYG-GD: The politics of honey—I'd never heard of it!
Patti: Well, it's all about the dollar. And I think it's probably going to get worse as we lose more and more pollinators. Domestically, with our honeybees, we can do a little bit more. They're the only insect, agriculturally, that's under the Department of Agriculture, like cattle. But we don't know how many pollinators we've lost; there's some fear that's we've lost more than 70 per cent of our insect population. And I was reading an article about drones, tiny drones that can pollinate. But how many would you need? And in Japan, they have people do it in greenhouses, actually pollinating.
Jeff: Nobody wants to talk like that, but it's not going in the right direction.
Patti: And that comes back to community education. In helping people understand that bees and pollinators are important, and that bee-keepers... Well, I was so naive that I didn't even realize that there was an issue between people who are trying to help natural pollinators versus bee-keepers. To me, we should all be working together—I think that's happening more. So at our Honey Festival last year, we probably talked more about pollinators more than about actual bee-keeping.
TYG: It's all part of the same thing.
Patti: And the reason there's this bit of a clash is because if you put a concentrated bunch of honeybees in one area, they will take over and pollinate certain flowers. There's a certain concept, flower fidelity—bees will stick to one flower at a time with the pollen, otherwise it wouldn't work very well, so they stick with that flower until they're done. Well sometimes, that changes the flower diversity of an area, where it could damage a bit of your natural pollinator's forage. But to me, as a bee-keeper... If we're trying to plant a diversity of plants, have water, we're not spraying, and there's forage, that's got to be better than nothing.
TYG-GD: Well, this is terrific information! Is there anything that you wanted to add specific to the festival?
Patti: There is a cost of $5, and children under 12 are free. There will be two puppet shows, one from 11:30 to 12:30, and the second is from 2 PM to 2:45.
Jeff: It's an opportunity to learn. Some people will get to taste honey. And there will be vendors showing off and selling their stuff. And maybe someone will bring their bees—did someone do that last year?
Patti: We hope to have an observation hive. February is not the best month for bees.
Jeff: But mostly it's an opportunity to learn!
TYG: Well thank you so much!