● By Sandie Tillery
story: Sandy Tillery photos: Kara Stewart
THE WOOTEN'S GOLDEN QUEENS IN PALO CEDRO
Theirs is a thriving operation with agricultural interests at the heart of everything they do. Shannon Wooten and Glenda, his wife of 41 years, carry on a good-natured debate about whether their 80 acres is actually a ranch or a farm. Forty-five head of cattle graze in the nearby pastures along with several horses. But their other livestock is on the miniature scale and makes a rather rhythmic humming sound. By far the most prevalent domesticated creatures on their ranch/farm in Palo Cedro are—bees.
Shannon has characteristic calluses and sun-browned skin from his years of work outdoors. Glenda spends more time indoors than out, but is very much a partner in the business. A staff of 15 that includes Robert, the youngest of their three children, works with Shannon. They spend their work hours breeding queens, producing nucs (small hives with three frames used to create new hives or to raise queens), providing hives for pollination throughout the North State and, of course, in honey production. Glenda handles the marketing and business details. Both actively participate in local, state and national trade organizations.
The Wootens readily confess to loving what they do. Shannon started working as a beekeeper for Homer and Lois Park in 1966. In 1974, after he married the boss’ daughter, he and Glenda purchased some of Homer’s hives and started their own business. Other family members have done the same, some staying in the area and others moving with their supply of Park Italian Queens to as far away as Canada. The Italian strain introduced and developed by Homer and Lois continues to define the quality of their stock and is carefully protected from mixing with other genetics.
Glenda talks about one of the most important qualities of their bees when asked why employees don’t wear the stereotypic beekeepers’ outfit. They must be gentle bees, she explains, and gentle bees must be treated gently with ungloved hands. Park Italian Queens are sought after by other breeders and beekeepers all over the United States and Canada for their honey production and brood production, as well as their parasite resistance and gentleness.
Shannon has an especially good instinct about good breeders. Years of experience have taught him how to identify a queen with all the right traits for continuing the strain and for providing the qualities needed to carry out their job in the hives. He and his staff work tirelessly throughout the year to maintain their hives, feeding when the weather dictates, checking and treating for mites and parasites. They keep detailed records of their stock and the lineage of the queens. Their thoroughness has helped develop a respectful working relationship with University of California at Davis’ Bee Lab and other scientists in the prevention of disease and the development of sound genetics throughout the industry. California’s almond industry has grown tremendously over the past six or seven years. According to Shannon, it requires 1.5 million hives to pollinate the 800,000 acres now growing in the state that produce 83 percent of the world’s almonds. The Wootens rent as many as 5,000 hives to orchards in Chico and Red Bluff when the almond trees are in bloom between late February and early March.
Beekeeping is the oldest and largest industry in Palo Cedro, which is among the largest queen producers in the country. Shannon at one time was famous for wearing a bee beard during the Honey Bee festival. Three years ago he turned the job over to younger folks in the family. The Shasta Bee Club continues to feature prominently in the festival with their informational displays, guest appearances by the American Honey Queen, and members of the club providing literature and answering questions. Of course, honey from local beekeepers is always available for sale.
Honeybees lend their own subtle fragrance to farm smells in the Wooten warehouses, where the scent of stored lumber (pine and cedar used for building hives and frames) blends with wax infused with whatever pollen the bees have collected. The Wooten home sits just behind the office and the main warehouse. Large and small livestock attend to business while their human caretakers seem content to cohabitate and share the workload.
The Wootens think about retiring, but not yet. Shannon says when his “want tos” out weigh his “have tos,” that’s when they will let someone else take over. They love to ride their horses into the back country with friends and visit their daughter and grandchildren, who live on the East Coast. Shannon loves his ranching and cowboying with relatives when they move cattle. Farmers or ranchers, it doesn’t much matter what you call them. It’s in their blood.