A photograph by Krystle Hickman. “This image is really cool because there are three different families of bees all in one photo,” she says. “They all have a symbiotic relationship with the flower they’re on.”

Photographer, Beekeeper Strive to Protect Coachella Valley Bees

Worlds apart, two bee enthusiasts work to safeguard striped pollinators in the Coachella Valley and beyond.

Catherine Downes Arts & Entertainment

A photograph by Krystle Hickman. “This image is really cool because there are three different families of bees all in one photo,” she says. “They all have a symbiotic relationship with the flower they’re on.”

A photograph by Krystle Hickman. “This image is really cool because there are three different families of bees all in one photo,” she says. “They all have a symbiotic relationship with the flower they’re on.”

In the heart of the desert, where life seems to defy the odds, a subtle yet essential symphony buzzes daily. Against the backdrop of the Coachella Valley, a remarkable tale of survival and symbiosis plays out in the world of bees.

With more than 20,000 bee species around the globe and an estimated 4,000 native to the United States, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, the honey-producing type that most often bumbles to mind hails from Europe. These striped, stinging insects that sometimes build unwelcome hives near our homes have been domesticated and bred by apiarists for honey production and pollination for thousands of years, evidenced by ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and Mesolithic paintings discovered in Spanish caves.

A curiosity about honeybees propelled photographer Krystle Hickman on a spirited journey across California to uncover the secret lives of bees. Armed with a camera and a desire to connect with nature, she embarked in 2016 on a mission to shed light on their world.

“I was taking pictures of honeybees for a while when I ran across a native bee for the first time,” she says. “At the time, I thought all beekeepers were bee experts, so I went to them. I was asking, ‘Hey, what kind of bee is this?’ And none of them knew.”

Turning to social media, she connected with a community of melittologists — a fancy term for bee experts — who opened her eyes to the incredible diversity of native bees.

While the variety of species reported today may impress on the surface, native populations have experienced a sharp decline in recent decades. At least a quarter have vanished since the 1990s, according to a 2021 study published in One Earth. Research shows that habitat loss and fragmentation are among the leading causes of their disappearance. Here in the Coachella Valley, conservation efforts like the Pollinator Pathway projects organized by The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens aim to make a difference by planting gardens, engaging the community, and underscoring the impact of  biodiversity — or the lack thereof.

Armando’s Bar

Krystle Hickman photographing bees in the Coachella Valley.

Hickman’s journey led her to Crescent Farm at the L.A. Arboretum, where she realized the importance of native plants in supporting native bee populations. This discovery marked the beginning of her deep dive into documenting the creatures and their ecosystems.

“I spent about a year heavily documenting the bees at Crescent Farm,” she says. Over the course of that year, Hickman reports, she photographed 43 native species.

She has documented bees in the Coachella Valley, too. “Spring bees are my favorite bees in the desert,” she says. “They have symbiotic relationships with plants. I spend a lot of time looking for the plants that these bees have relationships with.”

Krystle Hickman

Krystle Hickman in the field.

Hickman received a National Geographic Explorer grant last year to fund a book, The A, Bee, C’s of California, in which every letter of the alphabet represents a different species of bee, each with its own story. Still in progress, it’s poised for release sometime next year.

“Some of the bees [documented in the book] are in the mountains, some are in the desert, some are on the Channel Islands — they’re all over the place,” Hickman says. “I’m just trying to include as many ecosystems as possible.”

When the buzzing moves a little too close to home (honeybees are the common culprit), wary residents may seek out pest control services. In lieu of extermination, removal and relocation ensures colonies can carry on their important duties as pollinators, tending to our ecosystem.

Serving the Coachella Valley for almost four decades, Lance Davis of Killer Bee Live Removal in Palm Desert has become one of the most sought-after bee removers in the area, even working on call for Goldenvoice during the Coachella and Stagecoach music festivals. He relocates bees — from sheds, cars, and equally undesirable spaces — to apiaries and other suitable locations.

Notably, Davis forgoes the traditional beekeeper getup and most often interacts with colonies in little more than a T-shirt and jeans. This unconventional approach caught the attention of  Wayne Page, a producer and director who has worked on shows with Steve Irwin and Martha Stewart. Together, Davis and Page developed The Killer Bee Catcher, an EarthxTV docuseries released in 2023. Mixing education and entertainment, Davis brings the fascinating world of bees to life in viewers’ homes.

Armando’s Bar

Lance Davis responds to a local bee removal call. He uses a bellow smoker to calm the bees before removing and relocating them to a more bee-friendly environment.

His interest traces back to early childhood afternoons on the Davis family’s 20-acre peach orchard in Palisade, Colorado, helping his parents tend to the bees. “I always liked insects,” he shares. “As a kid, I was always catching bees in those little plastic catcher things.”

Davis moved to the Coachella Valley as a teenager, and his passion blossomed. He went all in on beekeeping, learning the trade through practical experience and dedication. “It takes you about seven years to become a beekeeper,” Davis says. “Like anything, if you stick with it, you get good at it.” Working with bees and jarring honey, he kept jobs at restaurants in Palm Springs to pay the bills.

“I was waiting tables at Lyon’s English Grille and Melvyn’s at the Ingleside Inn,” he recalls. “I was 17. I got really good at waiting tables, and everybody who gave me a $100 tip or more, I’d go out to my car and get ’em a jar of honey. One diner I did this for owned a pharmacy across from Desert Hospital [now Desert Regional Medical Center]. He asked if I was a beekeeper, and when I told him I was, he asked if I could help with some bees in his roof.”

Lance Davis removing bees.
honey combs

Lance Davis removing bees.

Davis relocated them, ultimately launching a new career.

He started his live bee removal business in 1986. With a calm and methodical approach, he begins by using a smoker to relax the bees. “You have to greet them with a little smoke from your bellow smoker to let them know you’re there,” he explains. “It calms them down and confuses the pheromone that they release when they want to attack. This keeps them pretty mellow, and then you just handle them gently and with respect.”

Respect for these little life forms is the common denominator among the various communities of beekeepers, melittologists, and citizen scientists who advocate for the safekeeping of  bees in our area and beyond. Their work not only contributes to the greater understanding of these vital pollinators but also highlights the importance of preserving their habitats for generations to come.