Accidental Beekeeper Builds Successful Honey Business Amid Environmental Difficulties
David Maislen did not foresee spending his retirement as a beekeeper; he was interested in growing organic fruit. He had an acre of land in La Habra Heights, California where he tended a bounty of over 50 kinds of fruit, avocados and macadamia nuts.
His idyllic plan was unfolding, until the early nineties when Los Angeles County ordered insecticide to be sprayed in response to the Mediterranean fruit fly infestation. Unfortunately, the chemical, Malathion, also killed many other insects including pollinator bees. Maislen’s organic fruit production greatly diminished, so he set out to get some bees of his own. He interned with a beekeeper, studied books and brought one hive to his land.
“I went out one day after having the bees for six months and found that I had a couple hundred pounds of honey in the hive,” Maislen said. “I really wanted the bees for pollination. I didn’t want to get into the honey business, but I was forced into it.” Subsequently the one hive generated several more hives, turning a sticky situation into a sweet addition to David’s orchards.
Today, Maislen owns Lupine Meadow Farm, five acres on the Arroyo Grande Mesa where he grows a variety of organic hybrid stone fruit and other specialty produce. He and his wife consume most of the crop, trade some and donate to local food banks. The fruit blossoms, lavender, rosemary and various flowers on his property produce enough pollen from spring through early fall for the honey production. Maislen harvests about once every six weeks in summer and once every six months in the off season.
His resident bees now produce approximately 2500 pounds of honey which Maislen sells wholesale to regional high-end groceries, gift shops and local restaurants. David’s Blue Ribbon Honey products include raw liquid honey, honeycomb and 13 kinds of creamed honey infused with natural flavors, such as peach and lavender. Maislen chooses not to pasteurize his products, keeping the natural, nourishing enzymes and beneficial bacteria in the honey.
“If it’s not pasteurized, it’s the only perfect food in nature. It never needs refrigeration and lasts forever,” he said. “They found honeycomb in King Tuts tomb, over five thousand years old, crystalized but perfectly edible.”
Maislen only uses organic and sustainable practices on his farm. He explains the improbability of truly organic honey: “Bees forage up to three miles away from their hives. I can’t in good conscience tell people I am growing organic honey when the bees have the ability to leave the property, because I don’t know what they are foraging on, whether it is organic or not, he said. Maislen has heard of one apiary, deep in the forest of Brazil, miles from anything, which could actually be producing truly organic honey.
While Maislen has had up to 22 colonies of European bees, he had to begin regularly buying bees in 2007. He blames a widely-used rose and fruit tree insecticide which contains imidacloprid for the bee shortage. In 2016 an Environmental Protection Agency study indicated the chemical was harmful to bees. “These effects include decreases in pollinators as well as less honey produced,” an EPA press release stated. Maislen believes that imidacloprid is present on neighboring properties and causes the bee larvae to die, contributing to colony collapse disorder. “I have to replace most of my hives every year now”, he says. Maislen notes the chemical imidacloprid has been banned in the European Union, and tries to remain hopeful for a change in the United States.
Other challenges in beekeeping are diseases and parasites that can contaminate and destroy the hives. Maislen uses natural remedies such as feeding the bees spearmint in simple syrup, and sifting powdered sugar into the brood chambers to combat mites. Additionally he buys a breed of bees called Minnesota Hygenics, which have a genetically-based trait that causes a hygienic behavior in the insects. The bees groom themselves to dislodge Varroa mites and are able to detect and remove infected pupae from the colony.
When he isn’t producing David’s Blue Ribbon Honey products, Maislen teaches beekeeping on his farm, helping others obtain the bees and set up their own hives. He also occasionally does swarm removal but rarely keeps the recovered bees. “I am basically a one man band” David Maislen laughs. “I do it all myself; it’s a hobby that has gotten out of control.”
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