Hives to wines: Bees benefit local vineyards

(written for the Los Altos Town Crier)

You’d have to be wearing some pretty serious sound-canceling headphones to miss the increasing buzz about how farmers, biologists, beekeepers, entomologists and environmental groups the globe over are encouraging bee population growth.
Promoting bee health is critical to ensuring human food supplies. Bees can take credit for pollinating approximately one-third of everything we eat and play a big role in what we drink, too, both directly and indirectly.
“Grapes are self-fertilizing, which means they don’t need bees to set fruit,” said Prudy Foxx, managing director of Foxx Viticulture. “However, vintners often consider the insects essential to the health of their vineyards and the quality of their wines. Bees can perform cross-pollination, which enhances diversity within the vine species.”
Foxx, who consults on all aspects of caring for vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains, has seen a dramatic shift in the way grapes are farmed since she began working in the region in the 1980s.


A vineyard clean of any growth but grapes was once considered good land management. The thinking was that weeds and other plants would be negative competition for the vines. According to Foxx, growers have become more aware of creating a full and healthy ecosystem on their lands. Bees are foundational to this holistic approach.
“I like to say that weeds are in the eyes of the beholder,” she said. “When a vineyard includes multi-floral plants, such as yarrow, dill, Queen Anne’s lace or ceanothus, bees will come to feed on the pollen, encouraging more flowers and fruit and contributing to the biodiversity of the site.”
Called cover crops and hedgerows, these companion plants promote healthy soil and can help grape roots pull out minerals from the earth – a process that creates some of the aromas you’ll find in a glass of wine. And bees do more for a vineyard than just encourage flowers.
“Where there are bees, there will be beneficial insects, and where there are beneficial insects, there can be decreased need for pesticides and chemicals,” Foxx said.
A bee-friendly ecosystem also encourages other beneficial insects. Predators such as mealybug destroyers, green lacewings and syrphid flies eat the would-be pests that can threaten a vineyard.
Many wineries are growing more than grapes these days, too. It’s not uncommon for vineyards to have vegetable gardens or small olive orchards on their property. The ecosystem created makes great sense overall and supports the farm-to-barrel approach that continues to gain popularity in California. Big Basin Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains is a local example embracing this kind of pro-bee mentality.
Some local vintners take bee-encouragement a step further by adding hives to their farms. Honig Vineyards is one example. Honig, which means “honey” in German, produces wines, but also its own estate-harvested honey.
Lasseter Family Winery in Sonoma focuses on sustainable practices and includes honeybees on its property, too.
Beer makers also are buzzing. The San Francisco-based Bare Bottle Brew Co.’s head brewmaster is a beekeeper, and two of its current brews feature honey in the ingredients.


As the ground warms and becomes ready for this year’s backyard garden patches, consider including your own bee-loving plants. Native flowering options include California poppy and scented geranium. Two herbal and fragrant bee attractors to plant are lavender and rosemary. Edible blossoms to add to the garden include pumpkin, squash and zucchini, all great at attracting bees.
I like to include honey in my summer entertaining efforts, as the lush liquid seems to capture the season in edible form. I use honey in my version of a margarita and love to drizzle honey over cheese for a quick and beautiful appetizer. Point Reyes Original Blue cheese served with Soquel Vineyards’ 2014 Lester Family Vineyards Chardonnay is a stunning pairing.


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