By Nicholas Ibarra | OBSERVER Staff Writer

Beekeeper Cameron Redford checks one of his newer hives and smiles at his 30,000 “magical creatures.” Redford, 31, owns and operates the Black Sierra Honey Company. Photo: Cameron Redford

Deep in the hilly forests of Nevada City sits a small apiary, a collection of beehives.

The hives are stashed away behind surrounding residences off a dirt road that leads down a path that would be invisible to an unsuspecting traveler, barely wide enough to drive a car through.

Anywhere from 15 to 20 beehives occupy an area of about 20-by-20 feet, surrounded by an electrical fence set up specifically to thwart bears. There are 15 more locations like this — approximately 170 hives and more than 4 million bees — spread out across 200 miles of land, from Nevada City to the borders of Nevada.

While explaining his love affair with bees — calling them “amazing, magical creatures” and then comparing them to supercomputers due to their complex operating systems and inherent intelligence — Cameron Redford suddenly was stung in the forehead by one of his many bees located nearby. “They must be in a mood today,” he said, as he took a second to gather himself and then walked over to his car to use the mirror to pull the stinger out of his head. He was slightly shaken up but proceeded to talk through the pain.

Redford, 31, owns and operates the new Black Sierra Honey Company. He’s responsible for making sure the 170 hives he cares for stay alive against mites, bears and other threats. “I do all the work,” he said. “It gives me a sense of purpose and meaning.”

Redford was born and raised in South Florida.

Living in Florida was not an easy time for him. “I had been in a lot of tough situations,” he said. “I had been homeless, sleeping on couches, experienced long periods of unemployment, and was getting in trouble with the law.” He came to California on a whim when he was 24, and lived with a friend.

“I had flopped,” he said.

While living in the Bay Area, Redford developed a new passion: perma-culture, otherwise known as sustainable agriculture. It started when he began volunteering in gardens and attending free programs that taught him about agriculture and farming. He earned a scholarship for Earth Activist Training, which is a perma-culture design course that teaches you a lot about sustainability and agriculture. “That changed my whole life,” he said.

With this newfound knowledge and passion for sustainable agriculture, Redford was able to pursue a career in cannabis with a holistic approach and began to grow legally in California, where he otherwise would have been jailed in Florida. 

“Working in cannabis supported me in this really beautiful way and brought a lot of beauty into my life,” he said. “It showed me that I could do things outside of societal norms.”

Redford had never had a job where he felt, “Whoa, I really like this” or “This is going to work out for me forever,” until he started working in agriculture and farming. Coming to California really helped him realize that there were different ways to make money and support himself. Most importantly, he said, “It was coming from the earth,” which started with cannabis and then became beekeeping.

He started working with bees in 2017, when he moved to Nevada City. “I was in search of work and a buddy of mine literally came across a Craigslist ad for a beekeeper and sent it to me,” said Redford, who jumped in to work with the bees on his first day and fell in love with them instantly.

The apiary’s original owner decided to sell. Redford created a GoFundMe page and titled the project Black Hives Matter. With $40,000 raised from the project and a $100,000 loan from California Farmland Trust, a nonprofit that works alongside the USDA, Redford purchased the apiary for $120,000. Redford was able to secure the loan because of the recently passed American Resource Plan relief bill signed by President Joe Biden that sets aside $5 billion for farmers of color. The project still takes donations. 

Redford chose the apiary’s new name because the honey produced in that area is dark, the bees derive most of their nectar from blackberries, and he and several family members who work with him are proud of their heritage and want the work to benefit Black communities. He discovered beekeeping offered a lot of freedom; he could be with nature and dictate his own schedule.

“And it occupies my brain in a really positive way,” he said.

Making ends meet as a beekeeper can be difficult. Redford expects only a small profit at best this year. “But it’s not going to be much,” about $30,000 a year, he said. 

He said he has enough to live on. “I have savings and I live simply.”

Being a beekeeper is hard enough with the traveling, heat, danger, instability, and backbreaking work that goes into it, but being Black in the beekeeping industry has come with its own set of challenges. Redford said he often faces racism within the industry, ranging from rival beekeepers wanting to put him out of business, landowners refusing to store his bees, and farmers refusing to sell his honey. To combat this, Redford must keep his options open at all times. He is constantly looking for new locations where he can move his hives or sell his honey. “I’ve lost four locations this year alone, but that’s normal,” he said. “It rises and it falls.”

Redford’s ultimate goal with the company is to be able to offer kids who are like he was: who don’t fit into the scheme of college or are having trouble with the law, the opportunity to learn about something different that they can do.

“I barely escaped the penitentiary,” Redford said. “I barely escaped working in jobs that I would have hated for the rest of my life. I had some privilege and I had some luck and those are things that I want to be able to give back and show people that there is another way.”

Redford hopes to one day be able to raise enough to purchase extra equipment that will allow kids and young adults to visit his apiaries and learn beekeeper skills, including the marketing and salesperson qualities needed to sell honey and make deals on new locations to store hives. 

“I’m on this mission to do good,” he said. “In this society, it’s hard to profit and help people, but I’m trying to break away from that, which is why I set out to do (what I do).”

“I own something. I own these hives; I own these bees; I own the equipment to continue to do this work. And I also want to be altruistic and give to people and allow them to see that they can do it too.”