RICKREALL -- Warren Kester pries the top off a bee hive box, removes a honey comb-caked frame and studies it for about 30 seconds.
Kester is "queen checking" on the 100 or so colonies he keeps on a 40-acre field of meadowfoam north of Rickreall. White and fragrant blooms, the buzz of tens of thousands of bees and welcome rays of sunshine compete for his attention.
Lack of a matriarch means the bees might have naturally swarmed -- or relocated to another site. Kester needs to make sure he has egg-laying queens to keep the hives prosperous.
He pumps the billow of his smoker. A faint cloud that hangs over the hives triggers a feeding response that calms the bees so he can work.
"There she is," Kester said, spotting a long-abdomined specimen in one box. "That's a beautiful example of an Italian bee."
Kester had "dropped" 60 hives beforehand in another field to the north on this day. In the evening, he'll log several hours in his shop, melting and straining beeswax for candles.
This is the easy part of the job, Kester said. And the enjoyable part.
"The most fun is watching what they do," Kester said. "You do this all your life, you open a hive and see them doing something that maybe you didn't see before."
April through September marks the annual busy stretch for W.C. Kester Apiaries, a Rickreall-based commercial beekeeping outfit. Kester is on the road often, transporting hives to fields across Western Oregon for pollination accounts
Drone -- A male bee (located at top), its main purpose is to mate witht queen. It cannot sting, and does not participate in pollen collection or hive building. Charaxterized by much larger eyes than workers or the queen, and a stouter overall body. Queen -- The only sexually mature female (at bottom) in the hive; she is usually the mother of most, if not all, the bees in the colony. Her abdomen is noticeably longer than a worker bee's, and she is constantly waited on and fed by workers as she goes about laying thousands of eggs.
Honey collection, the other branch of the business, will start in another month. Kester markets his own honey, bottling and selling directly to customers at farmers markets.
Kester isn't a huge honey eater and never kept bees as a hobby. He just grew up in it.
In 1941, Kester's grandfather started keeping bees and selling honey from his home in Rickreall.
"He had 30 colonies behind the house," Kester said. "When a super (a tier of a hive box) was full, he would extract it and sell it to the locals."
During the 1960s, Kester's father, Wesley, inherited the operation and expanded it. Warren used to accompany him on trips or help handle bees as a child. It takes a certain breed to seek out the profession, he said.
"You've got to be fascinated with bees every time you open the box, you can't be the nervous type," he said. "It's usually a family thing or you at some point worked for a beekeeper."
Kester helped his father off and on with the apiaries until the late 1990s, when he took over the apiaries and brought in more bees. Kester's father and older brother, Wayne, pitch in.
The lifespan of a worker bee is six weeks, and for queens about two years. Kester's current colonies originated from bulk beekeepers and have been divided many times over.
He owns 400 colonies today, each containing between 60,000 to 80,000 bees at full strength.
During an average to good year, a colony can produce about 60 pounds of honey. Hives are located near blooming plants and fruit orchards through agreements with farmers.
Kester also hunts for "wild" locations in the mountains, where bees transform vine maple, fireweed and other plant nectar into honey.
A major component of his business comes from shipping bees to California during the winter for almond season, he said.
"It's sort of nomadic," Kester said. "We follow the pollination contract."
The product varies by the type of blossoms the bees feed on, including blackberry, meadowfoam, clover and other plants. Each offers a distinct taste.
W.C. Kester Apiaries sells, honey, candles and other bee-and honey-related products at farmers markets throughout the state, in addition to commercial pollination contracts.
"We extract it separately so we don't mix the honey," Kester said.
About nine years ago, he began experimenting with beeswax candles and has been selling them alongside his honey at farmers markets.
There are a handful of commercial beekeepers in Polk and Yamhill counties. That might relate to the challenges of running a modern operation compared to the good old days, Kester said.
"Parasitic mites weren't a problem," he said. "It's tough to set 40 hives anywhere because of population and development growth ... we have to feed them more."
"To a degree, the bees used to manage themselves," Kester added. "Now you keep on top of them because of disease."
Kester said he endured a poor honey crop two years ago and an average one last year, partly because of weather, partly because of the economy.
"But honey sales have been amazingly good this year, I'm surprised," he said. "A lot of it has to do with publicity, about the health benefits."
Kester said commercial beekeeping is competitive and there's limited crops out there for pollination. Donning the suit and standing hunched over for long days is "backbreaking labor," he said.
But "beekeepers don't retire early," Kester said. "It's in the blood."