The Wisdom of a Veteran Beekeeper


Most years, Spencer Marshall’s bees produce about 100,000 pounds of honey. While that sounds like a lot, with labor costs coming to almost $400,000, Marshall is going through his roughest period in almost five decades as a beekeeper. “I’m in debt,” he says. “But we’re cutting costs; it’s getting better.” photo by Rob Waters

Spencer Marshall is the proprietor of Marshall’s Honey, one of the biggest and most widely distributed artisanal honey brands in the San Francisco Bay Area. At his peak, Marshall had roughly 500 colonies scattered around Napa, Marin, and Solano counties. Now, at the age of 76, Marshall still maintains 350 colonies at more than a dozen locations, including the site of his store, production facility, and home in American Canyon, a small town in southern Napa. At this point, Marshall has seen it all, and his hard-won perceptions show how honeybees might have become agriculture’s version of the canary in the coal mine.

Rob Waters: How long have you been doing this?

Spencer Marshall: Almost 50 years. The timing was good. Farmers markets were starting up. People were starting to appreciate local food and how good honey is for you. We got into to the best farmers markets and a bunch of grocery stores. Life was simple. If you lost 2% or 3% of your colonies at the most, you’d wonder what was going on. I always say it took me five years to learn how to keep them alive and took another five years for me to learn how to make honey.

The trick to having healthy bees is not to make them fly very far and to be near lots of wildflowers. And not put too many bees in on spot. Most of the big commercial guys are into pollination—that’s their main source of money. They don’t want to have 20 colonies here and 20 there.

You used to call your honey organic but you can’t use the term anymore.

Ten or 12 years ago, I had about six locations that were recognized as organic in Marin County—Mount Tam, Muir Woods, near Fairfax, San Geronimo—places where there was no farming, no industry and no housing. The state sent inspectors out to make sure but about 10 years ago, they said it was too much trouble. I still have those locations.

From his headquarters in American Canyon, north of the San Francisco Bay, Marshall has access to the colonies he keeps in more than a dozen locations scattered across four counties, including one at San Francisco’s storied Fairmont Hotel. photo by Rob Waters

How have things changed?

In the mid-80s the [Varroa Destructor] mite showed up, which was devastating at first. We lost 80 percent of our hives. We got some medication that worked really well, but it was overused, people left it in their hives, and the mites built up resistance to it. For 15 years I was pretty much able to keep losses down to 25% or so with genetic management.

But then there were more viruses and bacteria, which the mites carry. Now, pesticides are a big part of the problem, and the fact that we’ve lost so many wild areas. There used to be miles and miles of wild areas that didn’t get cut, didn’t get bothered, didn’t get sprayed, and the bees didn’t have any diseases. These pesticides are terrible and a lot of places in the world outlawed them. But in this country, we’re still using them.

Queens used to last like five years, and now if they last two years, you’re surprised. Five years ago, a drought hit. Production went way down. It’s frustrating when you want to go to the next step, but really can’t. You just have to keep plugging away.

Why was the Bay Area so good?

The early days in the Bay Area was like—if it’s more expensive, that’s the [honey] they want. They’re looking for gourmet. But now we’re maxing out on price. To make money I have to charge what I’m charging. We’re in a real serious situation now. We’re on a tipping point. People are starting to go “wait a minute, I can’t really afford that anymore.”

The Bay Area is still primo for bees — the water table’s high, it doesn’t get that hot, and there still are wild areas.

Where did you learn about bee management and genetics?

Mostly experience and reading bee journals and books. They say there are more books written on bees than anything else. And I’m always learning from my fellow beekeepers—I’ve known some of them for 40 years, and some of these guys have 10,000 colonies. I never stopped asking questions.

Are you optimistic about the future?

It seems like in history, we always have to learn the hard way. We’re going to really screw ourselves doing away with these pollinators. At some point the people [and] the government’s going to have to say: “Wait a minute. We’ve got to take care of these bees.” The chemical companies want to sell their crap, and they’re in control now. But at some point we’re going to face the heavy truth. If we want to survive we’ve got to look after other things besides profit.

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Published: November 21, 2019