How a beekeeper found hope after the California fires

Story and photos by Catherine Cocke

In the early hours of Oct. 8, 2017, residents of Santa Rosa, Calif., awoke to a real-life nightmare as they watched flames cascade over the hills toward their homes. With only minutes to grab family members and escape from the fires coming their way, thousands of people — mothers, fathers, children — lost everything.

Dewitt, a resident of the Santa Rosa area, was among those battered by the fire. A father to 1 child, with another on the way, he also cares for tens of thousands of bees and relies on them for his livelihood as a beekeeper.

In the chaotic days after the fire, Dewitt learned that thousands of bees from his 25 oldest and largest hives had died. For the first month after the fire, he was in denial, but the reality soon sunk in that overnight he had lost $25,000 in equipment, product and revenue.

Honeycomb amongst charred hives

Dewitt took an unusual path to the beekeeping business. In the early 2000s, he lived in San Francisco selling CDs and was, in his own words, “the functional equivalent of a buggy driver during the automobile boom” as the digital music revolution unfolded . With newfound free time on his hands, Dewitt picked up a book on bees and then another book on bees and then, well, another book on bees.

His extreme fascination was ignited when he realized how selfless bees’ roles are in society, as they sustain themselves by making honey that gives back to our world instead of taking away: “We humans have to take life in order to sustain our own life. Bees have figured out how to give back to others while sustaining theirs.” He was also struck at the deep care bees have for not only each other but their beekeeper as well.

The beauty of this ecosystem triggered Dewitt's professional shift into beekeeping. It’s a tough job where he works 7 days per week sunup to sundown, but he is passionate about creating a fine product that is good for both bees and humans.

In the growing movement to know what you’re eating and know where your food is coming from, Dewitt’s honest beekeeping wins. His specialty is honeycomb, the rawest and purest form of honey, which he sells in wholesale to local restaurants and businesses with whom he has formed relationships. “Chefs love stuff that comes out of the ground. Keep it simple stupid.”

After the fire, there was one thing that kept him fighting on: “When I stopped feeling sorry for myself and looked up, the bees were still flying. They need me,” he reminded himself.

The relationships Dewitt had built with local sellers was instrumental to helping him get his feet back on the ground after the fire. Good Eggs, an online marketplace that delivers food products from Bay Area producers to Bay Area residents and sells Dewitt’s honey, is one of Kiva’s trustees. With deep relationships in local communities, Kiva partners with trustees to determine those who might benefit from their 0% interest loans with flexible repayment terms. After the Northern California fires, Kiva and Good Eggs quickly reached out to producers to see how they could help the communities rebuild. Dewitt, a clear fit with his strong drive and solid business plan, applied for a $25,000 loan — Kiva’s largest ever loan in the U.S. for his Kiss the Flower Honey company. Then, a beautiful thing transpired, as 727 people from as near as Santa Rosa to as far as New Zealand and Ethiopia, funded Dewitt at the fastest fundraising speed Kiva has seen for a U.S. loan.

The Kiva fundraising experience “enlarged [Dewitt’s] sense of power of the internet,” and he soon found hope and support amongst the darkness of the aftermath of the fire. “It’s not money that’s the root of all evil. It’s the love of money,” Dewitt believes. However, on Kiva, you can find some of the best of humanity- those willing to part with their money to take a chance on others and help them succeed. “This is transformative,” he said with a huge smile. While only in the beginning stages of recovery from the Tubbs Fire, Dewitt has been catapulted forward by 727 people invested in his passions and cheering on his success.

About the author

Catherine Cocke

Catherine is a proud Texan who graduated from Vanderbilt University with a degree in Globalization and Development and now works as the Online Marketing Manager at Kiva. One of her very favorite activities is traveling to hear about the lives of Kiva borrowers around the world, but in her spare time, you'll find her hiking, cooking, and trying to find the best coffee shops and Mexican food in San Francisco.