The warm summer morning already is hinting at scorching temperatures to come when Kelly Knapp-Combs turns off a main thoroughfare on the outskirts of Brentwood and slowly heads down an unpaved road.
Trundling past a long stretch of fruit trees, she comes to a stop in a clearing where she has stacked dozens of wooden boxes.
“Everybody’s nice today,” Knapp-Combs says matter-of-factly of the cloud of bees hovering over the hives and — for the moment — in a good mood.
But she still isn’t taking any chances. Knapp-Combs dons a bee suit and uses a metal contraption vaguely resembling an oversized icing gun to squeeze out puffs of smoke around the hives before looking inside to see what her colonies have been up to.
“It kind of mellows them out,” she explains.
Meet the creative force behind Miss Bee Haven, the whimsically named beekeeping business Knapp-Combs founded and that, as far as she knows, is the only female-owned enterprise of its kind in the entire county.
Over the past couple of decades, the 48-year-old Brentwood resident has thrived in what remains a male-dominated occupation, becoming an established presence in East Contra Costa County’s agricultural scene.
Apiculture — the technical term for beekeeping — wasn’t her vocational first choice, however.
Aside from a fleeting thought as a teenager that beekeeping sounded like a fun job, Knapp-Combs didn’t seriously consider the idea until she was expecting her first child and about to start an apprenticeship in midwifery.
Deciding she’d rather not work the unpredictable hours of that profession as a new mother, Knapp-Combs changed course.
Tending to bees held the appeal of working outdoors and being her own boss, so Knapp-Combs contacted a local woman who was an apiarist at the time and asked if she mentored others. She didn’t but offered an alternative: She was getting ready to remove a swarm that had taken up residence inside a panel of someone’s spa. Would Knapp-Combs like to tag along?
She jumped at the opportunity and, despite wearing only shorts and a tank top, found herself removing the bees with her bare hands as the woman supervised the extraction.
“No stings that day,” Knapp-Combs said, adding that with the experience she discovered a sense of purpose.
“It was almost a euphoric feeling that came over me. (I) could just feel that this (was) going to be what I was going to do for the rest of my life.”
The bee business begins
Knapp-Combs wasted no time making a bee vacuum and advertising her services. As calls for help began coming in, she used the swarms she removed to establish hives in her backyard.
She initially harvested honey solely for her family’s use, but that changed when Knapp-Combs received an invitation to sell her wares at Brentwood Farmers’ Market.
She began attending every other Saturday and filled out the paperwork to make Miss Bee Haven an official business.
The enterprise since has expanded to about 250 hives scattered over five sites on farms, in open fields and overlooking the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta; and Knapp-Combs also sells the raw honey at farmers markets in Martinez, Livermore, Pleasanton and Berkeley.
In addition, she ships products not only throughout California but around the country from Arizona and Oregon to the East Coast and even to England.
When Knapp-Combs isn’t filtering and bottling varieties of honey with names like Frog Hollow Summer Blast and Star Thistle, she makes beeswax candles, balms for lips and skin, as well as reusable food wraps that replace the thin plastic film traditionally used to seal food containers.
And there are the beeswax soaps: lavender honey, oat honey and plain honey are the three staples, but come fall there’s also pumpkin, and Knapp-Combs occasionally produces bars containing essential oils with fragrances such as sandalwood and cherries.
She also has five commercial accounts with local businesses including Brentwood Ace Hardware, her biggest customer.
And on top of recently serving up 80 embossed glass jars of the amber delicacy as wedding favors, Knapp-Combs last month scored her first large corporate gig when a company party planner ordered 280 8-ounce jars (“They loved my (business) name,” she laughed).
Not for the faint-hearted
Overseeing the honey-making process is tiring and, in East Contra Costa County, it’s often hot work even before climbing into a full-body protective suit.
“I’ll go through two gallons of water in a day,” Knapp-Combs said, adding that she uses large drums of water to keep her bees hydrated as well, because they get “prissy” as the temperature inside the hives rises.
She works out several days a week to keep up the strength needed to load her truck with hives that can weigh as much as 100 pounds when full of honey.
Her routine varies by the season: In the spring she separates hives into several smaller ones, so colonies don’t take off in search of roomier quarters to lay their eggs. Knapp-Combs also administers treatments that protect them from potentially lethal parasites, and during the winter she ensures they are getting enough honey to eat by checking the weight of the hives.
In between, she removes excess honey from the hives, which can amount to at least 80 pounds of honey from each of the healthiest colonies.
“We’re having a banging year,” Knapp-Combs said, noting that she’s had a couple of big harvests so far and expects to have one or two more.
With the rewards comes risk, however.
Knapp-Combs has been stung countless times over the years, although never as badly as the unforgettable encounter she had last year while helping a friend extract two colonies of bees from a bedroom wall at an Alamo home.
It was a sweltering summer day and although Knapp-Combs was wearing a bee veil, long pants and covered shoes, she only had a sleeveless top covering her torso.
Suddenly, the vacuum’s hose popped off the container and a mass of angry bees launched a full-frontal attack.
“All of them just instantly stung me,” said Knapp-Combs, noting that the needle-like barbs not only had pierced her clothes but covered her right arm so densely that it looked black. “I remember thinking your average person would have died with this many stings.”
The toxin triggered severe abdominal cramps that left her in a fetal position, and by the time an ambulance arrived she was sweating, pale-faced, weak and unable to talk.
Remarkably, Knapp-Combs was discharged after only about an hour in the emergency room, and in a couple of weeks she had overcome her apprehension of being around bees.
The job satisfaction she finds running Miss Bee Haven trumps the downsides of the business.
“I love what I do,” Knapp-Combs said. “I love the freedom, I love the people I’m around, I like creating my own schedule, I like making things with all the products. Yeah, that’s what I like.”
For more information or to make a purchase, visit missbeehoney.com.