VENTURA, Calif. — Steve and Kelly Nimmer were awakened by a call from a friend around midnight: The fire that had started just a few hours earlier in Santa Paula was now in Ventura.
The Nimmers had to evacuate their bees.
The couple owns Mission Beekeeping, a company that removes beehives from homes and businesses, and they plan to start producing and selling honey. When they got that midnight call, they drove from their home in Oak View to the property in west Ventura where they’d been keeping their 160 beehives.
“When we showed up, the fire was two ridges back,” Steve Nimmer said. “We went into panic mode.”
They loaded up their truck and took as many hives as they could to a friend’s property near Lake Casitas. They returned for a second load, but when they came back for a third, it was nearly sunrise, and it was too late.
“The field was just in flames,” Kelly Nimmer said.
About half their beehives were destroyed, a loss of $50,000, the Nimmers estimate. They aren’t sure yet how much of that they’ll be able to recover through disaster assistance programs.
Their experience during the Thomas fire was common among Ventura County’s small community of professional beekeepers. Most don’t sell much honey, or any at all; the bigger business is renting out their bees to farmers for pollination. In the spring, when almond growers in the Central Valley want Ventura County bees, there might not be enough to fill the demand.
“The colony loss from this fire is going to be huge,” said Dave Mitchell, whose family owns Mitchell Bee Products and Blue Ridge Honey. “It will have a large impact on the beekeepers in this area.”
Mitchell said he was lucky and didn’t lose any bees from his apiary on an orchard property near Santa Paula. Beekeepers tend to keep their bees on or near orchards, many of them in the Upper Ojai Valley and the hills between Ventura and Santa Paula, areas devastated by the fire.
Beehives, since they’re made of wax, don’t do well in fires. The melting point of beeswax is around 145 degrees, and the flash point is around 400.
“When the wax goes, it looks like a candle,” Mitchell said. “It basically turns into gasoline when it gets hot enough.”
Even if a hive doesn’t melt or burn, the heat and smoke can damage colonies and affect bees’ behavior. Moving the hives might save them, but that, too, can disrupt the insects.
“Every time you move the bees, it’s stressful for them,” Steve Nimmer said. “They start fighting, they rob each other for food.”
Nimmer and Mitchell both attended a meeting Thursday of the Santa Paula Beekeepers Association, a group led by Mitchell’s wife, Wendi Dowling-Mitchell. The group includes both professional and hobbyist beekeepers, and it convened so the members could talk about their fire experiences and what they plan to do.
There weren’t many solutions, but there was camaraderie. The beekeeping world is intimate; Mitchell estimates there are only about 10 beekeepers in Ventura County who make a full-time living at it. There are also hobbyists, part-timers and beekeepers from colder climates who keep their bees in Ventura County during the winter.
It’s not an easy time for beekeepers. Bees were used to pollinate Ventura County’s orange trees, but that industry has been leaving Ventura County over the past 20 years, and Mitchell said much of the bee industry went along with it.
More recently, colony collapse, drought and viruses have taken their toll on the region’s beehives. And that was all before the Thomas fire.
There’s a strong market for artisanal honey, though, and farmers still need bees to pollinate their crops. Business aside, beekeepers often feel called to the job.
“Beekeepers are a strange bunch,” said Mump Kenyon, a beekeeper in Ventura County for the past 45 years. He got his start when he repaired a 1955 Chevy owned by a beekeeper. Rather than pay for the work, the man offered to barter some beehives. They’re still friends.
“I love bees,” Kenyon said. “They’re the most useful insects known to man. And they’re fascinating. There’s just a lot to them, and the longer you do it, the more you learn about them.”
Follow the Ventura County (Calif.) Star on Twitter: @vcstar