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Maxwell High grad living the beekeeper dream
Sergio Velazquez is looking for land on which to put his hives. If interested, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 701-7244.
Sergio Velazquez was 17 when his brothers "volunteered" him to be the bee handler in the family.
As it turns out, he's a natural.
"My brothers work for Allen Etchepare and Emerald Farms and he does a lot of vine seed, and that takes a lot of pollination," Velazquez said.
"So (my brothers) threw me out there, and because I liked animals, they saw it as a good opportunity for me to become a beekeeper."
Velazquez admits he was not particularly enamored with school, and in fact, admits with a chuckle, he was selected by his classmates as the guy most likely to end up fighting pitbulls.
"I took it as a challenge to try to win their trust," Velazquez said of his five brothers. "So I thought it was a good idea."
What happened next even surprises Velazquez.
The Maxwell High graduate, the guy who did not like being in a classroom, went off to college.
He wasn't exactly sure what he wanted to major in at California State University, Sacramento, but he knew bees were in his future.
The early course of study led him to the environmental sciences, in which he earned his bachelor's degree with a minor in biology.
"I already knew I wanted to be a beekeeper," Velazquez said, "and that is what I did my thesis on."
He said when he presented his paper to the faculty panel, a number of other professors sat in to hear what he had to say.
It was a confidence boost for him.
Now 30, the Maxwell resident has launched Velazquez Apiaries out of Delevan. He is specializing in breeding queens, but also produces hives for pollination.
Honey is a natural part of the operation, but he it is not a commercial enterprise.
Velazquez admits it is a challenge, but said he is passionate about his career choice.
"You have to be dedicated, precise, productive and persistent," Velazquez said.
The Apiary industry represented about $8.7 million in gross crop value in Colusa County in 2010, with $7.8 million coming from pollination due in large part to the almond crop. There was $704,000 in queen production, $90,000 in packaged bees and $54,000 in honey.
In 2009, the value was $7.9 million, in 2008 the value was about the same, and in 2007 the value was about 46.8 million, according to reports from the Colusa County Agricultural Commissioner's office.
The newest beekeeper said there is room to grow, and Velazquez is applying much of what he learned in his environmental science courses, closely monitoring and recording a number of environmental factors such as water quality and pesticide impacts.
Velazquez entered the profession with his eyes wide open to all the problems the industry is facing with mites and colony issues.
What he didn't expect were birds sitting on his hives picking off his queens as they emerged. He didn't expect to have issues with skunks and ants.
And he didn't think it would be so difficult to find places to put his hives.
Most of his hives are up in the foothills on property owned by his friends, but space is at a premium. He said for every 100 hives, there needs to be about a mile between the next 100.
"We are having more trouble because they are planting more trees and pushing us out to the edges and out into the (open) country. That is good for the bees, but no one wants our bees around," he said.
He also has to be particularly aware of pesticide use in the area.
One way to combat that, he said, was to go into a partnership with a friend to buy some land. They plan to plant some clover and other grasses. His friend is raising sheep, and his bees will have a place to go, while benefiting the pasture growth.
In recent weeks, the bigger issue has been the weather.
"We are having trouble with the queens. They are like female dogs, they are only in 'heat' during certain times, so they need to get out and fly and mate. But with all the rain and wind, when they get out an fly, they are getting wet and cold and they die," Velazquez said.
"And smaller guys like me are having a harder time."
Still, he did sell his first queens recently, shipping them to Ohio, Utah and Oregon.
Last year, he produced about 8,000 queens, mostly for he and his brothers' own operation.
A good strong queen, Velazquez said, produces between 800 and 1,500 eggs per day, which is necessary to support an operation since bees essentially have a 30- to 50-day life cycle.
A good queen can produce for as many as three years.
Velazquez said he has received a lot of support and guidance from larger bee operators in the area.
He also gets a lot of support from his brothers and his five sisters, but at the heart of it all is his mother, Josefine.
"She's the one who played the biggest role in this for me," Velazquez said.
Not only did she push her son to go to college, but she encouraged him to start his own business.
She also told him he may have come to the vocation through his bloodlines.
"My grandfather was a beekeeper," Velazquez said. "He would collect the wild swarms, and collect their honey, and that is how he made a living."
And it was nothing like the operation Velazquez has with man-made hives, use of an incubator to help with the queen production and other advantages.
His grandfather's hives were essentially tree trunks he had hollowed out, and when the bees settled in, he would cover the opening with cattle dung.
Velazquez also was born in Mexico, and came to the Maxwell area when he was 8.
In time, Velazquez intends to continue his education and earn a master's degree through the bee program at UC Davis.
And while he continues to make a living, he hopes his efforts ultimately strengthen the bee population in Colusa County, with a greater aspiration of contributing the overall health of the entire industry with his studies, research and practical applications of what he learns.