This Ventura Couple Saved Millions of Bees From the Thomas Fire

But they lost millions more when their apiary went up in flames

At around midnight on Tuesday, December 6, Steve and Kelly Nimmer were awoken by an urgent phone call.  According to a friend, the Thomas Fire—which was burning at a comfortable distance when the couple went to sleep on Monday night—had moved into Ventura, and was approaching Mission Beekeeping, the apiary they’ve operated since October 2015.

They got dressed, drove from their home to the bee yard, and, with the help of friends, began the grueling process of relocating dozens of hives. Over the course of two trips, they moved 70-plus beehives—each weighing about 120 pounds—from Ventura to Lake Casitas in Ojai. By the time they returned to the yard to load up their trailers again and make a third trip, it was around 7 a.m. and the property was engulfed in flames. About half of their 150 hives, each of which contained tens of thousands of bees, were lost to the fire.

And that was just the start of their ordeal. During a recent phone conversation, Kelly recalled, “We evacuated the bees, and then we had to evacuate ourselves.”

Over the course of two weeks, the Thomas Fire has become one of the most destructive wildfires in California history, burning 272,000 acres and 750 homes from Santa Paula to Santa Barbara. Two people—firefighter Cory Iverson and 70-year-old Santa Paula resident Virginia Pesola—have died.

The Nimmers’ home was spared, but the bee yard is a charred shadow of what it once was. During the day, Mission’s bees would leave their hives, forage for food and then return to their queens at night. Now, the wild flowers and irrigated agricultural crops they depended on for nourishment are all gone.

Steve Nimmer surveys the remains of his beekeeping operation

Kelly Nimmer

“I’ve been talking to beekeepers in the area, and we’re all thinking it’s going to be hard to keep bees around here now that all that wild land is gone,” says Steve. “A lot of guys are planning on moving their bees out of the area.”

The Nimmers initially moved the bees to Lake Casitas, but then the fire reached Lake Casitas. They moved the bees a second time to a friend’s property in Carpinteria, where Steve was raised—then the winds shifted and Carpinteria was threatened. Exhausted and unable to move the hives a third time, they left them and hoped for the best. Luckily, the friend’s property was unscathed. The Nimmers (and their dog and their chickens) also evacuated to Carpinteria to stay with family.

Besides safely relocating swarms and producing honey, beekeepers like the Nimmers essentially rent hives to almond and avocado farmers so the bees can pollinate their crops. “That’s actually how beekeepers make most of their money,” Steve says. “It used to be honey, but now honey is so cheap since it’s imported from oversees.” Despite the reduced demand, the Nimmers had planned on beginning to sell honey commercially in 2018; the fires have set that plan back by about a year. And when farmers begin pollinating their crops in February, Mission Beekeeping will have fewer hives to distribute.

The same friend who called the night of the fire has set up a GoFundMe to help the couple begin to rebuild their business; it’s raised upward of $7,000 in the past 12 days. To begin to regrow his population of bees, Steve will “split” hives, creating as many as four new hives out of one. That takes equipment and equipment costs money, but what the Nimmers need most right now is fertile land in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, ideally ranches and farms where Mission can keep a large number of hives.

During the past several days, Steve has relocated a number of swarms, bees he presumes were displaced and were forced to move into residential areas. The uptick in business has been an unexpected byproduct of the fire and, for the time being, it’s keeping him busy.

“By no means is it completely destroying the business,” Steve says of the fire and its aftermath. “But it set us back a little bit.”

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