Center of bee-ing
May/June 2007 California Country magazine
By Jim Morris
Wooten's Golden Queens breed and ship 35,000 queen bees to beekeepers throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Shasta County is a world power in raising queen bees
Royalty is a topic that usually titillates the masses, though precious few people know the stunning value of the most regal member of the insect world--the queen bee.
Queen bees are the ultimate example of big things coming in small packages. Thus it seems fitting that one of the world's biggest sources of this underappreciated insect is a little place so anonymous it's hard to even find a sign letting you know you've arrived in town.
Welcome to Palo Cedro, Shasta County, a bedroom community for Redding that sports a population of 3,000. In this land of ranchettes and rural charm, bee colonies outnumber citizens about 10-to-1. Palo Cedro's claim to fame is breeding queen bees, a practice that may never have taken flight had it not been for the stick-to-itiveness of an adventurous 8-year-old.
The year was 1924, and young Homer Park was able to cajole his aunt into helping him search for his source of fascination--bees. He found a swarm, put it in a gunnysack and took it back home on an old white mare. The boy kept the swarm in a hive, and although the bees didn't make it through their first winter, he wasn't deterred.
By the time Park reached adulthood, bees had become part of his farming business. His crops were unproductive, but his bee colonies made honey that he and his wife, Lois, could trade for groceries. Clearly, Park and these invaluable insects would remain forever linked.
Several of the Parks' children have followed in their father's footsteps, including daughter Glenda and her husband, Shannon Wooten, who began beekeeping in 1974.
Shannon Wooten carries on the family tradition of transferring larvae into wax cells and later inspects the cells to ensure they have a maturing queen bee inside.
"We started out at the ripe age of 24 and thought we knew everything," Glenda Wooten recalled with a smile. "Truth is, we still don't know everything about the bees at this time. Nevertheless, it has been good for our family and we have prospered from it, too."
The Wootens' forte is breeding queen bees. The queens preside over colonies of fellow bees, ensuring that a host of foods can be grown because of their pollination. These crops include almonds, apples, avocados, cherries, onions and watermelons, just to name a few.
Glenda Wooten often travels to schools and tells students about the industrious honeybee. She says the children's ears really perk up when she explains how bees help ice cream get to store shelves.
Pollination is essential in producing alfalfa seed, she tells them, which raises hay for cows. This in turn provides the milk and cream that is made into ice cream.
"Without bees we would cease to live," Shannon Wooten said. "Bees pollinate a third of what we eat, directly or indirectly. You can't take that factor out. They are very, very valuable, including what they pollinate for wildlife that we don't see on our everyday dinner plate. Plus, wildlife thrives on the different plants that are pollinated by wild bees and our domesticated bees."
Shannon and Glenda Wooten operate Wooten's Golden Queens. Their business has a winged work force of more than 50 million bees. Along with the bees are 15 human employees, including one of the Wootens' three children, 25-year-old Robert.
Wooten's Golden Queens breeds and ships 35,000 queen bees to beekeepers throughout the United States and Canada each year. Their specialty is the Italian variety, renowned for their docile nature, vigorous health and unparalleled production record.
The Wootens are among the largest of a small colony of queen bee breeders in the world. Their domestic counterparts are in the Sacramento Valley and San Diego County, as well as Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and Hawaii. Outside of America, large queen bee breeding operations are found in Australia, Argentina and Spain.
The process of giving nature a helping hand, and producing a queen bee that wins the genetic lottery, makes splitting the atom seem simple. It's an ever-evolving, complex art form that blends modern science with processes started by Homer Park and other trailblazers from earlier generations.
Wooten and his son, Robert, enjoy working together in this rare profession.
"There are texts written from way back that are the groundwork of what these people are doing," said University of California bee expert Eric Mussen. "It's also an evolving thing. Bee breeders don't keep records and lineages similar to the ones for other livestock. Every few years when a queen wears out, there's a good deal of examination and selection to find a new one."
The queen bee is vital to the colony for two reasons: She is the source of all of the eggs, and all of the offspring come from her genes and the drones she mates with.
Several factors make a good queen bee, including her ability to oversee abundant honey production as well as keep her hive free of disease and mites.
The rearing process for queens begins when the sperm from drones is artificially inseminated into virgin queens, creating breeder queens. It's a microscopic, exacting procedure done by hand each year. Only a small percentage of the Wootens' queen bees are produced this way, although these are considered premium producers and command the highest price.
Once the newborn queens are hatched, worker bees cater to their every need. The baby bees are fed an exclusive diet of royal jelly, a nutritious food source that comes from glands in the heads of young worker bees.
When the queens are a day old, the Wootens transfer the speck-size larvae into a man-made wax cell, warmed in an antique chicken incubator. Four dozen of the grafted cells are placed in hives devoid of a queen, which, by design, have a large bee population aiming to please their matriarchs-to-be. There, the cells remain for about 10 days until the queens are almost adults and ready to assume their thrones.
The queen cells are then gathered and brought to the ranch shop. The Wootens rely on eyesight to see if there's a viable queen inside the cells. They do this by candling--holding the cell up to the light to determine if a prized performer will soon emerge. Cells are then carefully cut by hand and placed by the hundreds into a wooden box. Employees take the cells and place them into nucs, which are small, man-made hives. This is an essential step because, if she were allowed to emerge on her own, a queen would kill her competition--the 47 others in the hive.
After a week in the hive each queen flies out, seeking some whirlwind romantic encounters. She mates with as many as 20 drones, which will supply her with all of the sperm needed to fulfill her job. Proving there's no wasted time in the bee world, the queen begins laying eggs less than a week after mating.
At that point, the Wootens catch the queens and place them in small, specially designed cages. The bees are then sold to other beekeepers who use them to pollinate crops and make honey.
The Wootens sell queens by the hundreds, at $15 each, although their premium bees can command $400 apiece. They ship bees far and wide, mostly through UPS, which speeds the precious cargo to an airplane within 20 minutes after pickup.
Glenda Wooten safely ships their queen bees through ingenious packaging that includes food, water and good ventilation. The packages are also sturdy enough to make the long trip via the postal service or UPS.
Glenda Wooten is also a familiar sight at the local post office, where she ships boxes chock full of her unusual livestock. And like parents with their children, the Wootens frequently keep track of their queen bees after they have left the ranch.
"I get to know what the girls do after we ship them," Glenda Wooten beamed. "Usually, they do pretty gosh-darned good!"
Queen bees have a short but storybook life. Their days consist of having every need catered to by willing subordinates. They typically live for about five years, with their best production in the first half of life. The Wootens say that as the generations of bees and years go by, their appreciation for the insect grows.
"Bees are the most impressive things on the face of the earth," said Shannon Wooten, who is a director of the California Farm Bureau Federation. "They don't tolerate anyone that can't carry the load. If you don't do your job, you get kicked out. And so, they only survive with the fittest, and I think it's a very, very good thing to live by. Our society should work together like what happens in a beehive."
The Wootens say it's rewarding to not only provide such a critical component of bringing food to the table, but to also carry on a tradition started when Homer Park first ventured into the country to catch bees.
"It's a proud feeling knowing I gained this knowledge from my parents," Glenda Wooten said. "The legacy and reputation from this inheritance is ours to hand down to our children."
Jim Morris is a reporter/photographer in Sacramento. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org