Beekeeper Philip Gerrie–He’s Not in It for the Honey

By Lorraine Sanders : The Noe Valley Voice November 2005

You might think that being an apiarist–a beekeeper, in layman’s terms–would go hand in hand with a love, or at least a strong affection, for honey. But you’d be wrong. For Noe Valley beekeeper Philip Gerrie the golden, viscous substance drawn from his four hives is something he rarely consumes. “Anything more than just a tiny bit, and my throat will seize up,” Philip,53, explains. Despite his allergic reaction to honey, Gerrie has around 100 pounds of the stuff sitting in a lofted work area inside the 26th Street home where he lives with his wife, Andrea, and cats Georgio and Fiona. He sells the honey under the label Noe Valley Apiaries, to neighbors, friends, family, and a few local stores. It’s a very casual operation. Regular fans of his honey often call when they’re nearby, and Gerrie pops out of his house to meet them in the street with a jar.

But just as honey does not drive Gerrie’s interest in beekeeping, neither do the rewards of selling it. For Gerrie, a postal worker and current president of the San Francisco Beekeepers Association, the fascination has much more to do with the bees and the many challenges they present than their sweet byproduct.

Ten years ago, Gerrie, an avid gardener who’d lived in his Noe Valley home since 1981, noticed fewer and fewer bees flitting through the terraced and heavily planted area behind his house. After doing some research, Gerrie discovered that a species of mite had attacked and killed a large portion of the local bee population. Gerrie knew that bees are essential for plant pollination, and became interested in keeping a colony instead of waiting for them to arrive of their own accord.

“Without [bees], we don’t have the food that we eat. The bees pollinate all kinds of fruits and vegetables that we eat. A lot of beekeepers just bring enough bees to pollinate their crops,” says Gerrie.

Although he became interested in beekeeping years earlier, it wasn’t until four years ago that he built his hives, which now house around 100,000 honeybees. Many of Gerrie’s bees come from folks who’ve enlisted his bee-removal services.

Sitting in a row underneath a shady tree and emitting a steady humming sound, each hive is comprised of several wooden crates stacked on top of one another. Each crate or section can be removed to allow Gerrie to inspect the hive’s interior. Inside each box, closely spaced wooden frames hang like files in a file cabinet. The frames hold the bees’ honey and the eggs laid by the queen. (There’s just one queen per hive.)

To open the hives, Gerrie dons a beekeeper’s veil and uses a small smoker to pump smoke from burning pine needles into the crates. The smoke distracts the bees and makes them less likely to sting.

The trick to opening a bee hive, Gerrie explains, is moving slowly. Very slowly. Gerrie certainly has the touch. His practiced fingers gingerly pull frames from each hive while the bees continue about their business. But no matter how careful the beekeeper, stings are part of the territory.

“It is recommended that you get stung fairly consistently to build up an immunity. I certainly don’t intend to do it,” he says. Despite that, Gerrie endures stings “all the time.”

But then, the potential for stings, as well as unruly swarms, is part of the appeal.

“[Beekeeping] has sort of a cowboy thing to it,” he explains. “They’re dangerous creatures if not treated properly.”

Bees also exhibit complex social and communication patterns that make them endlessly interesting to watch.

“There’s always something new to observe,” Gerrie says.

On a warm and sunny afternoon in October, it was easy to see soap-operatic drama engulfing Gerrie’s bees. While many worker bees took flight in search of nectar from Noe Valley flowers, others were struggling in twos and threes to pull slightly larger, darker bees from the opening of the hives. Once a cluster of worker bees had successfully moved a victim outside the safety of the hive, they would drop the unwelcome bee right onto the ground and leave him there. If the evicted bee tried to return home, the workers would fight him off at the entrance.

It may sound harsh, but as Gerrie explains, it’s nature’s way. The ousted bees are male drones, whose main purpose is to fertilize the queen bee. The aggressors are worker bees, females who tirelessly hunt for nectar sources.

“They don’t do anything for the hive,” Gerrie says of the drones. “All they do is eat. It’s the women who do all the work.”

Once the drones have fattened up and done their duty, the busy females send them packing. Another striking bee habit is the “waggle dance,” a funny-looking movement worker bees make with their abdomens once they’ve found a new blossom or plant rich with nectar, such as a fragrant rosemary shrub. Just by watching the waggle dance, other bees will know where the nectar lies. There are also nurse bees who are workers that remain inside the hive to tend larvae that hatch from the queen’s eggs.

Given Philip’s affinity for these highly social, complicated creatures, it’s not surprising that the social side of beekeeping itself is one of his favorite parts of the hobby. Like the bees they keep, beekeepers are quite the tightknit community. They meet on the second Tuesday of each month at the Randall Museum, but Philip estimates he talks with or e-mails other beekeepers on a daily basis.

Says Gerrie: “It’s old-fashioned. It’s very social. We exchange information. That’s what farmers did when they’d get together at the corner store. That’s what we do.”

You can pick up your own jar of Philip’s honey from the neighborhood shops Lovejoy’s Tea House, the Cheese Company or by calling Philip at 415 641-7457.