James Garcia & Keely Donnelly
PIRATE CREEK BEES
Pirate Creek Bees was founded by Jim and Mike Garcia of Sunol, California in 2014. With a family history of ranching that dates back to the 1860s, the brothers have deep ties to the land and wildlife of their region. Seeing the need to help declining populations of bees and other native species prompted their many conservation projects – notably, Pirate Creek Bees. Their logo (a honey bee sporting a pirate hat) and rustic-look labels with a deckle edge caught our attention. Thank you to James for answering our questions about this business that helps local pollinators and agriculture thrive. We’re excited to share his family’s experience of beekeeping and honey production – and we highly recommend picking up some delicious Pirate Creek honey for yourself.
Before you started your honey business, we understand that Pirate Creek Bees was primarily a pollination company. Does that mean that you rent out bee hives to other farms? Tell us what’s involved with that service.
Yes, we do almond pollinations. Usually, almond pollinations start mid-February and go into March, depending on the weather. Most pollinators use special pallets that can fit four hives each. We begin transport of our hives around dusk, this ensures all of our bees are back in the hives and we will be full strength when we arrive at the orchard. We use two skid-steers to load our hives on trailers and flatbed trucks and haul them to the orchards. There is no set date for any of this, it’s all dependent on the weather. The almond farmers will call us when they believe the trees will start blooming and let us know when all the flowers have fallen to pick them up. We are usually in almonds for around 4 weeks.
Almond pollinations are extremely important to beekeepers as it is the start of the new bee season and a major source of yearly revenue. For most hives, this may be the first major nectar flow of the year and important for growing the size of the hive. Bee hives expand and contract depending on the availability of resources. In the spring they grow very quickly as there are an abundance of flowers to provide nectar and pollen. In our area, around the summer solstice we expect hives to begin to contract, but it is different depending where the hives are.
What made you decide to get into the honey business as well?
We always planned to expand into the honey business, but since we were trying to expand our beekeeping operation, it drastically reduced our honey production capacity. To add new hives, put very simply, you essentially cut one hive in two. It is called a ‘split’ and you take a few frames that either have brood, larvae, pollen or honey and put them in a new hive box filled with bees. Once you put a new queen in there, it is essentially a fully functioning hive. As you can imagine, when you take a bunch of workers and resources away, the hive will take some time to get back to collecting enough nectar and producing enough honey for us to collect ourselves.
In addition to honey, you offer an assortment of natural hive products. Tell us about those and how you developed them.
We actually discontinued our natural hive products, except for our natural lip balm for the time being. With the current size of our company, we decided it was better to focus our effort on the honey side for now and develop the natural hive products side later. The lip balm took us about 2 years for us to get the formula to where it currently is. One of the main ingredients is our beeswax, which is a byproduct of our honey extraction process. We’re very pleased with how the lip balm turned out and have received great feedback.
Do you mostly sell at farmer’s markets and from your website, or are there other places people can find your products?
We mostly sell at farmers markets and special events. I am actually working on updating and expanding our website. We are also preparing to start selling in stores very soon.
Pirate Creek offers a beginning beekeeping class. Have you had a good response to it so far? What has the teaching experience been like for you?
This is going to be the first season we’ve done official classes. For the past five years my Dad, Jim, has been leading our local 4H beekeeping group teaching youth between 9 and 18 about beekeeping. We have also taught numerous individual classes as well as queen rearing classes. This year we will be holding both beginner and intermediate classes.
We enjoyed all the fascinating bee photos and videos on your facebook page. Those, along with the beekeeping class, makes us think that education is an important part of your venture. Is that because it encourages conservation?
We started beekeeping because of conservation projects that we had done around our families ranch. We have been traditionally cattle ranchers in this area since around the 1860s. When my uncle and my dad first took over the ranch they started to do a lot of conservation projects around here to restore the native species. Some of the projects included owl boxes, predator perches, troughs and fences around the ponds (to protect the habitats for animals like tiger salamanders when cows drink water), etc. Beekeeping was another conservation project we had started and ended up really enjoying. Education is extremely important to us and does promote conservation, but they came about in different ways.
One of the first things I noticed when we started selling at farmers markets was people have a lot of misconceptions about bees and honey. It is a very hot topic that gets a lot of attention and a side effect of that is poor or misunderstood information. Bees are a very hard industry to get into and we have been lucky enough to have many very experienced older beekeepers show us a lot of tips and tricks along the way.
We appreciate your devotion to environmental and wildlife stewardship. Thank you for including details about your conservation projects on the Pirate Creek Bees website; we learned a lot!
We are very proud of land stewardship projects we have been implementing over the past 10 years. Not only do we believe that agriculture can be done in a fashion that is environmentally friendly, we believe it is a requirement for agriculture to be sustainable.
What is your favorite part of running Pirate Creek Bees and what has been the most challenging?
My favorite part is working on something you can truly leave a unique imprint on. A company like ours that has very few employees, you can directly see how everyone’s work contributes to our vision and helps propel the company forward. One of the reasons I was excited about this interview was because I have had a very specific idea of what I have wanted to do and our labels are an area that I have had on my mind continually. We spend a lot of time and effort to create a high quality product we are proud of and it is wonderful to have a high quality label that matches that.
The most challenging part is simply working in the bee business. In this industry we yearly lose a large number of our hives which is our production capacity and are expected to rebound every year. There are constantly new challenges we face that could destroy our whole industry. It is really a testament to how amazing bees truly are. They are an incredibly resilient and adaptive species.