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By Olivia Boler
Michael Cooper describes himself as a "mild-mannered office manager in a Berkeley consulting firm," and his partner, Deno Marcum, is a project coordinator and a former Stars chef. Together, these humble 23rd Street residents are courtiers to the latest Noe Valley royalty: Pollen Princesses, otherwise known as a hive of honeybees.
Actually, Pollen Princesses is more than just a bee colony. It's also the brand name for Cooper and Marcum's honey-making business, whose signature label is Noe Valley Honey.
"The [Pollen Princesses] name comes from the fact that all of the worker bees that gather pollen and nectar are female," Cooper explains. "Even more so, within a colony they're all sisters, having hatched from eggs laid by the queen bee. Since they are all daughters of the queen, we figure they are all princesses that go out to gather the pollen for the hive."
Marcum adds, "I think one of us just blurted out the name, and it stuck since we thought it was kind of cute."
Cooper confesses that bees and their behavior have always fascinated him. "They are so specialized, and some of the things they accomplish just amaze me--the way they build their comb, the sheer effort it takes them to create the honey and the quantities they create, the way they treat their hive, [and] the way they swarm to reproduce."
Nice Climate in S.F.
In 2006, Cooper was doing research into the growing phenomenon of bee colony collapse and discovered the world of amateur beekeeping. San Francisco, with its mild climate and abundant plant life, is "a friendly place to keep a hive," he says.
With Marcum's blessing, Cooper sent away for a beekeeping kit. He ordered the bees online and they arrived in the mail, the queen encased in a special cage of sugar paste, which Cooper describes as like "dry icing."
"You simply dump the bees into a new hive, put the queen--still in her cage--in the middle of them all, and wait," he says.
The bees eat the sugar paste, which releases the queen from the cage in two to three days. By that time, the queen's new subjects have had a chance to grow accustomed to her scent. The bees start building comb and gathering nectar and pollen, the queen starts laying eggs, and--ta-da!--in about a month you have an established bee colony.
'Overall, Pretty Safe'
The Pollen Princesses and Her Royal Highness started out at Cooper and Marcum's apartment near Alvarado School, but the bees now reside in a friend's back yard at 21st and Chattanooga streets. "Our friend Tony tells us he's always wanted bees but doesn't want to care for them, so it works out for us," says Marcum.
The couple, who have lived in Noe Valley since 2002, visit the bees at least once a month, and more often as the weather warms up. As members of the San Francisco Beekeepers Association, which supports apiary hobbyists, they can use the association's equipment to extract the hive's honey surplus. Over last summer, they collected at least 90 pounds.
In the three years they've been keeping bees, Cooper says he's been stung about six times, and Marcum "a few more times than that. It happens when we don't have our veils on snugly enough or a bee crawls up a pants leg. But overall, it's pretty safe."
Jars of Honey and Lip Balm
Last fall, Marcum and Cooper opened a virtual Pollen Princesses shop on Etsy.com, a website that allows people to buy and sell handmade items online. They sell their Noe Valley Honey in 5-, 11-, and 18-ounce jars, which range in price from $6.49 to $19.99 (shipping is extra).
Cooper says his favorite batch is from August. "It's quite floral and a bit fruity--very sweet."
Right now, they're also selling a Pollen Princesses citrus-hemp beeswax lip balm ($5.49), handmade by Marcum. He and Cooper gather the wax from the hive's honeycombs. "Most of the comb is returned to the hive, but the layer of wax that caps the honey is cut off, and we melt that down and strain it," Cooper explains. Then Marcum adds the hemp oil, almond oil, and some lemon oil for scent.
"I've also made a nice ointment with another product of the hive, propolis, a.k.a. 'bee glue,'" adds Marcum. Bees gather this resinous substance from tree buds and use it to seal and varnish the honeycombs. "Homeopaths may be familiar with the anti-bacterial and other healing qualities of propolis. It is, in fact, the immune system for the hive."
Bi-Rite Market, on 18th Street in the Mission, has picked up some jars of Noe Valley Honey to sell in its store, and Cooper and Marcum are hopeful that Bi-Rite Creamery will use some of it for its honey-lavender ice cream this summer.
Spring Is a Busy Time
In the meantime, the princesses should be heading into an active spring after huddling up over the winter months. April ushers in a new brood of field bees, adding as many as 1,200 each day from the queen's eggs. The hive workers are busy caring for the larvae and building comb to store supplies, and field workers are out and about, feeding on flowers.
"Fruit trees have been blooming for a while now," Cooper says. "But some of the later-blooming trees like cherries, pears, and apples are providing nectar, as are rosemary, lavender, California lilac, Pride-of-Madeira, and many other flowers."
"Add to that list magnolia, wild mustard, wild radish, escallonia, and the last of the acacia," says Marcum. "This is really the beginning of the bees' year. In the winter, the hive is really only a skeleton crew. Once the sun begins to climb in spring, the hive grows quickly and the princesses begin storing honey. This time of year, the queen is beginning to lay lots of eggs, and the newly hatched bees take turns building wax comb, cleaning, and then foraging for nectar."
A Gentle Queen
Bees can have a range of three miles, which means the princesses occasionally might journey out of their Noe Valley kingdom to the realms of Bernal Heights, Glen Park, and even Cole Valley. They also wander in the neighboring Castro and Mission.
"Any time I see a honeybee within a mile of our hive, I wonder if it's one of our princesses," Marcum says. He notes that the current queen is of the Carniolan variety. "These are a little dark in color and considered to be very gentle."
To follow the further adventures of her Pollen Princesses, check out Cooper and Marcum's blog at http://pollenprincesses .blogspot.com/ or search "Noe Valley Honey" at www.etsy.com.
The beekeepers say if Voice readers decide to order Noe Valley Honey online, they should leave a message in their order and wait for Pollen Princesses to bill them, rather than paying when they place the order.
"We can arrange with them to pick up their order from us and pay just the cost of the honey without shipping charges," Cooper says. How sweet is that?