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The Accidental Beekeeper

Dr. John C. (Jack) Gilbert is a professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Santa Clara University in California’s Silicon Valley. He’s also an amateur beekeeper — or, as he would say, a “sideliner” in the world of beekeeping. We asked him to tell us about swapping his lab coat for a beekeeper’s suit.

Can you tell us how you started keeping bees?

The start was purely coincidental. I was living in Austin, and I went for a walk along the lake with my wife Lucia and her parents. We stopped to admire a garden, and the owner invited us to see his beehive. I was fascinated that one could open up a hive without the use of smoke and examine the frames. Even though the beekeeper was stung once in the process, I was hooked. 

We soon found a source of bees: a commercial beekeeper in Pearsall, Texas, who must have been at least 80 years old at the time and was running over a thousand hives. He sold us a hive, which we loaded into the trunk of our car and brought to Austin. This was in about 1968, and the rest is history. 

I kept my colonies behind our house and at one time had eighteen of them there. Far too much work for someone who was a "sideliner" in the trade (that term is preferred to being called a "hobbyist"). Nonetheless, I was having fun and once harvested some 2,200 pounds of honey from my colonies during one season. Fortunately, I was selling honey five gallons at a time to an ice cream shop and a bakery.

I heard that you once rescued a wayward colony on the University of Texas campus?

A bee colony established itself between a faculty member’s window and the decorative stone that was outside the window. The stone had many filigreed openings, so the bees had plenty of entryways and exits. The faculty member was concerned that the bees would somehow get into the office and start stinging everyone nearby, and he called the campus exterminator to address the issue. When I learned of the impending doom for the colony, I convinced him that I could save it. We taped up all the openings around the doors of the office, opened the window, and transferred the honeycomb and bees to a hive box. Very messy business, with lots of honey on the wall and floor, but we got it done. 

How does being a scientist inform your beekeeping?

As a scientist, I can fully appreciate the importance of the chemicals (pheromones) that control activities in the hive and also those pesticides and herbicides that are harmful to bees.

What advice would you give to aspiring beekeepers?

Read up on the strategies for beekeeping and find a mentor. Beekeepers in general love to help others get started and freely offer advice and assistance to novices. 

Give Bees a Chance

Pollinators (mostly bees) are needed for more than two-thirds of the world’s crop species, yet US honey bee colonies are declining at an annual rate of 30% or more.  Experts believe that multiple factors — including parasites, pesticides and loss of habitat — are contributing to bee decline.

As an industry leader in natural and organic foods, Whole Foods Market is passionate about raising honey bee awareness, taking action and helping our communities “bee the solution.” Learn more.

Are you a beekeeper? Tell us how you got started in this sweet pursuit!