I have beekeeper envy of my friend Earl’s bee yard in Port Costa. He has thirty-plus hives of happy, gentle bees that have acres and acres of unmolested meadows to draw from.
Over Memorial Day Weekend, my other beekeeper pal Aaron and I helped Earl inspect his hives. First Earl schooled us on the proper way to light a smoker. Cedar slices + broken bits of tree branch + balls of green grass = a smoker that goes for an hour or more.
Then we checked his hives to make sure the bee colonies are thriving. We looked for eggs and a queen. Earl is so badass he doesn’t wear any protection.
During a snack break in his “bee trailer” (WANT), he showed us the pollen he’s collecting from just one hive.
There were yellow, purple, grey, red and orange balls of pollen, all from the different plants growing in the area.
Curious, we decided to separate and taste the different colors to see if we could tell which plants produced the pollen.
Here are our tasting notes:
RED – earthy, with a sour, bitter bite. Most likely culprit: Buckeye
YELLOW – grassy, tastes like horse saddle. Plant guess: Mustard
PURPLE – floral, sweetpea. Plant guess: Thistle
At the end of the day, Earl gave Aaron and me a split colony to take back to our garden in San Francisco. We call them “Earl’s Bees” and they are adjusting well to their urban neighbors. (hive on right)
Over winter, I leave the hive alone. The colony is smaller, the queen slows her egg-laying, and I don’t want to open the hive and break the propolis seals that help keep the hive warm in the chilly season. It’s always scary to open it back up again once the sun returns – sometimes the hive is empty, and it feels like losing the family dog.
When Aaron Yu and I opened our hive in San Francisco’s Connecticut Friendship Garden, we were overjoyed.
Not only did we spot the queen right away, we found eggs, young larvae, pollen, honey stores and even drones. All indicators that this is going to be a banner year for honey – especially given the long California rains that will produce wildflowers with tons of nectar.
Next we checked for mites, using the powdered sugar shake method. We put a cup of bees in a jar, tossed them gently in powdered sugar, and then saw how many mites fell off. Four. That’s an incredibly low number, indicating our hive is healthy and unlikely to succumb to mites. (But we need to check regularly because mite loads can turn in a day)
The bees are irritated, but not injured, by being doused with powdered sugar. The sugar makes the mites lose their sucker feet grip on the bees and slide off. We put the powdered bees back in the hive, and they madly beat their wings to get clean. In this slo-mo video, you can see the sugar flying.
Ask a kid.
Every fall, I remove spare frames of drone larvae from my hives to help keep mite counts low. I freeze the larvae and give them to my friends who have chickens.
But in this case, the boys got to the bugs first. They tried to get me to try one, but I was too chicken.
Bees love a freebie. They will bypass a flower full of nectar to suck a drop of honey off the ground. It’s much more efficient to gather pure honey than to turn watery nectar into honey by digesting it, regurgitating it into a wax honeycomb cell, fanning it until it reaches the right consistency, then sealing it with more wax to cure.
The honey bee’s sucking tube, or proboscis, is a long, slender, hairy tongue that acts as a straw to bring liquid to the mouth. It’s assembled from two separate organs, the maxillae and the labium. The bee opens its mandibles and folds the two organs into a tube when it needs to suck, and then quickly moves the proboscis up and down while lapping with the flexible tip.
Wanna see it?
Queen bees make a signature sound, a “toot” that has been described as a quack or a mouse squeak, also known as “piping.” They make this noise for a variety of reasons, it can be a sign of distress, or a warning to rivals to vacate the premises. I’ve heard queen bees make this noise when they are being artificially inseminated in a lab (ouch), and also when they are incubating inside a wax cell and want to communicate with the colony. When there are many queens ready to hatch at the same time in one hive, they use this call to intimidate other queens, think of it as, “As soon as I hatch outta here, I am going to kick your ass and take the throne.” Take a listen, and see what you think. The sound was captured by British beekeepers, and sent via by my Petaluma beekeeper friend Aerial Gilbert.
Decades ago, my friend Aerial Gilbert (right) was a beekeeper. She loved the sight, smell and feel of bees in her hands – like any crazy beekeeper will try to convince you is a magical thing.
When Aerial lost her sight, she had to forego some things – only a few – for safety. After living with bees for eighteen years, she tearfully gave her hives away. But now, she’s ready for a comeback. She joined the Sonoma County Beekeepers Association and got a beekeeper buddy to help her.
She’s wearing the white suit again, and overjoyed with two new hives in her backyard.
When she told me she listens to her hive with a stethoscope, I got an idea. I have some professional sound recording equipment. Why not drop a mic in and find out what it sounds like in there?
And that we did. We heard the ping of bees landing on the wire mesh bottom screen. We heard fanning that sounded like a jet fighter. And we heard the hum of a super-organism, a collective happy sound that all is good in the family. Take a listen yourself.
We plan to keep testing with different microphones, so stay tuned for sound updates on this blog.
Pardon the vertical video – it was the best way to capture my bees coming in for a landing in slomo. With the sunlight behind them, you can see their bellies full of nectar. All four of my hives are thriving, and I’m happy to report that Grandpa’s hive has doubled in size since I put it in the back yard two months ago.