Mark Paterson marvels at the work ethic of his bees.
"They just keep going. They'll keep going until they drop," he said.
Drivers going past his Campbell home could be forgiven for not giving the property much notice. Neither the squat, beige house or the seemingly empty plot of land obscured by trees draw much attention. But in the backyard, hidden from sight, workers are laboring feverishly to produce a common household item.
Paterson, an Australian native who moved to the South Bay in 1994, was introduced to beekeeping in 2004 by a friend. After getting positive feedback from people he gave honey to, Paterson wanted his newly taken up past-time to grow and started Honey of Distinction in 2005.
"I think I'm enjoying it as a hobby as I'm doing it, but I'd like to see where I could take it," Paterson said.
Honey of Distinction is a low-tech one-man operation. Paterson maintains the hives, collects the honey and then filters and bottles it in his kitchen. Other honey-based products he sells are honey comb, lip balm and beeswax candles. All are made at his home. Paterson is also developing a hand cream that he plans on launching sometime in February. His goal is to one day offer a whole range of all natural honey-based products.
Honey of Distinction hasn't turned a profit, but Paterson said business has improved and he may break even this year. One of the biggest challenges has been maintaining enough of an inventory to expand the business. In previous winters he has simply run out honey.
"This winter it's the best so far, going in to winter I had 500 pounds of honey...so i feel good about offering my honey to more locations because now i have the inventory to support that," Paterson said.
That increased inventory recently allowed him to add the Olive Bar in Campbell as a client. He also regularly supplies honey to Full Circle Farm and Rabbit's Foot Meadery.
Besides the nine hives at his home, he also maintains hives in Sunnyvale at Full Circle Farm and Charles Street Gardens, and the backyards of two nearby homes. Paterson checks all his hives at least once a month. Besides collecting honey, beekeepers maintain the health of their hives by checking for pests, diseases and making sure that space in the hive does not become restricted by excess honey production.
Paterson is passionate about the health of his hives. After checking on a particularly active hive on Full Circle Farm, he expressed his excitement.
"Look at that. That hive is rocking, awesome."
He also doesn't hesitate to get physically involved in their defense, killing hive beetles, ants and other pests and predators with his bare hands.
"I guess I'm a bit strange in that I kill yellow jackets with my bare fingers."
His concern for bees extends to their living conditions. The primary way beekeepers make a living is providing pollination services for agricultural crops. This entails boxing up hives and driving them wherever needed. Paterson said he "would not do that to my bees," citing days of forced enclosure, exposure to agricultural chemicals and lack of access to varied food sources as his reasons.
Paterson also said bees are exposed to new diseases when they interact with bees brought from all over the country to pollinate the same crop. He thinks this may be a contributing factor to colony collapse disorder, or CCD, a phenomena that began in 2006 where bees leave a hive en masse before dying. According to a New York Times article about 20 to 40 percent of colonies in North America have fallen victim to CCD since 2006. Paterson said that to the best of his knowledge he has not lost a hive to CCD.
Paterson doesn't use chemicals for pest control, instead opting for natural controls. For a hive affected by the varroa mite, he sprinkles powdered sugar on the bees. This causes the bees to groom themselves and in the process knock off the mites as well.
"I will never use chemicals, any chemicals. I eat the honey," he said.
While Paterson enjoys the work of maintaining the hives and collecting honey, he really gets a kick out of getting feedback from people who use his honey.
"I gave honey to a lady who helped me do something, and she gave me a thank you card, and her response was that it tasted like liquid sunshine," Paterson recalled, "It's like, wow. To me, that's like, wow."
Because honey is simply concentrated nectar, the flavor is affected by which flowers or plants the bees are pollinating. Paterson said that honey collected from his home hive has some notes of eucalyptus while honey from the Charles Street Garden has a more floral flavor.
Just as he was turned on to beekeeping by a friend, so has Paterson has turned others onto the world of bees. Among those he's converted are a former co-worker, his father, and his 10-year-old son, to whom he gave a beekeeping suit for Christmas in 2010.
"It makes me feel good that I can influence somebody to do something of that nature," said Paterson.
16 oz glass jar: $12
16 oz plastic bottle: $10
Honey Comb: $10
8 oz glass jar: $7
Lip balm: $4
8 oz: $10
4 oz: $6
Honey of Distinction is located at 464 W. Campbell Ave. in Campbell.