The Royal Couple of Beekeeping
BY KIRSTEN JONES NEFF
PHOTO BY MEG SMITH
Doug and Katia Vincent were excited for a robust harvest when they planted their garden in Pocket Canyon, outside Guerneville, 15 years ago. But by spring they were disappointed; their garden was not thriving and producing the way they had hoped.
They were not sure what the problem was, but Doug, who Katia describes as “a quiet book-reading mechanic at the time,” had a solution in mind. Although his wife was terrified of bees, he suggested they start a hive to see if the prolific pollinators might help. He mail-ordered bees and quietly set up a hive at the back of their land.
The next year their garden “exploded,” says Katia. “And Doug began to spend more and more time in the back of the property.” Katia, still afraid, stayed away until eventually her curiosity got the best of her and she ventured out to investigate her husband’s project. “I found eight hives out there!” she laughs.
In the following years, as their garden thrived, Doug’s passion bloomed as well.
“Then he became very talkative, and all he talked about was bees,” says Katia. “I had never seen him so passionate.” Doug joined the Sonoma County Beekeepers Club and connected with a small group of kindred spirits. The club was just 20 people pulling their chairs into a circle at the time, but the Vincents found the fellow beekeepers to be “very nice, caring and sharing people.” Despite her fears, as Katia spent more time with her husband and fellow beekeepers, she became more involved. “Maybe it is because they are such caring, passionate people that I caught the bug,” she says.
Their home garden continued to grow exponentially, as did the second byproduct of the hives. “Honey was building up under our dining room table,” says Katia. “I was getting worried about what to do with jars and jars of honey.” She began to work with the beeswax as well, making candles.
Eventually, they decided to look for a space to sell their bounty. In 2004, they opened Beekind on the Gravenstein Highway not far from downtown Sebastopol. At the time, it was a small one-room retail shop, where they sold their honey as well as candles and lip balms that Katia produced.
“That first year I sat in the shop and played my guitar,” says Katia. “But that wasn’t for long. Really, I’ve never been able to play my guitar in the shop since. It’s been too busy.”
Fortunately, an intrigued young woman wandered into the shop early on, and Katia “hired her to help, right there on the spot.” Their first employee.
2004–2005 was also the year that the as-yet-unexplained Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) among bee hives began to peak. At the same time, the local food movement had gained momentum, and the plight of bees, which make up 80% of all pollinator insects, was coming into greater public consciousness. Many people decided they wanted to play a role in supporting local bee populations by keeping hives themselves. This “backyard beekeeping” has the immediate effect of increasing the overall population of healthy bees, as well as improving the genetic diversity of the general honey bee population long term.
Giving the people what they wanted, Katia and Doug stocked their shelves with beekeeping supplies and business at Beekind skyrocketed. “We were in the right place at the right time,” says Katia. “Although, for the wrong reasons.”
Studies show that bee populations remain in a steady decline overall, but the rate has slowed, and it is commonly understood that the rapid increase in backyard beekeepers in the US has had a positive impact. By 2010, five years into the CCD epidemic, there were an estimated 100,000 backyard beekeepers across the country. According to the Vincents, the Sonoma Beekeeping Club’s numbers soared, and 200–300 beekeepers now attend the group’s potlucks. “It’s a lot like seed-saving,” says Katia. “We are all hopeful because clubs are blowing up in numbers, and because we are saving bees in our own backyards.”
Beekind is now a full-service beekeeping resource, offering both retail and education. They have expanded the original store into an adjacent space, so the front room is full of every kind of bee-related treasure imaginable: a wide range of local honeys, including the exotic redwood forest honeydew, beeswax candles, candle-making kits, truffles, toffees, soaps, balms, salves and books; and an entire health center featuring pollen, royal jelly and the renowned antibiotic elixir Manuka honey.
They sell honey from many regional beekeepers, which means visitors can stop into their tasting bar to sample almost every possible honey from the greater foodshed. Some of Katia’s favorites are the savory honeys, like pine honey, which she says is fantastic in spaghetti sauce, or the eucalyptus honey, which complements coffee.
In the end, Katia says, the thing that most thrills beekeepers is the unique flavor they find in their own honey. At that point it is impossible to go back to buying generic honey.
The back half of the store is stocked with beekeeping supplies and how-to books. And they also sell bees themselves. When Beekind first opened, they ordered and sold “a few packages of bees,” according to Katia. This past year they sold over 800 packages of bees and 150 “nucs” (nucleus colonies) to local beekeepers.
The Vincents’ daughter, Brie, now operates their second retail shop in San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Building.
Beekind also offers bee-related workshops and events, including free introductory classes to share the pollinator gospel while setting others up for success. The intro classes, taught by Doug, are designed to give prospective beekeepers an overview, to prepare those with interest for the costs, time investment and potential pitfalls of backyard beekeeping.
“The classes began because we realized we don’t want to watch people get into something they can’t afford or don’t really have the time for. It’s a three-hour course to let them know what to expect. We don’t want to see people fail.”
Doug also consults with other beekeepers and oversees 175 hives from Marin to Sebastopol.
Meanwhile, back in Pocket Canyon, the bees have turned things around—for the Vincents’ garden and also for a neighboring 25-acre organic farm that is thriving. As for Katia’s fear of bees? Keep an eye out for her at events celebrating local agriculture like Sebastopol’s Gravenstein Apple Fair. You may just find her at the Beekind booth, surrounded by captivated children as she massages her bees.
“Yes! You just put your finger out with some honey and then you are able to massage their little backs,” she says. “They are just that cute!”
In their own words, Doug and Katia Vincent “worship bees,” and many would agree this devotion has earned them the title of the royal couple of beekeeping in the North Bay.
Kirsten Jones Neff is a journalist, poet and gardening teacher. She feels extraordinarily lucky to live with her family and menagerie of pets in a small rural corner of Marin County. Links to her work can be found at KirstenJonesNeff.com.