Grandpa’s Last Beehive

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Before Grandpa passed away last May, he asked me to take care of his bees. He was 89, and although he had years ago reluctantly given up his Big Sur beekeeping career because he was too frail to lift the honey-heavy hives, he still liked to watch the wild bees set up homes in a pile of deteriorating bee equipment in his backyard.

Now all that’s left is one hive. The bees were entering through a small crack in the top left corner.

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When I pried through a seal of gummy brown propolis, I found a very small colony trying to raise eggs in frames that had been destroyed by mice, wax moths and who knows what.

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The frames crumbled in places when I lifted them. I carefully searched, and found eggs and larvae. And a spot of honey.

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Then I saw the queen! (6 o’clock)

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I carefully transferred Grandpa’s frames into a deep I brought from home with four empty wax frames. I heard a collective thrum of excitement from the bees. I think they were overjoyed to have clean wax and more room.

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I used mesh drawer liners and duct tape to cover the entrances for the trip to the Bay Area.

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I secured the lid for the two-hour journey.

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Their new home was waiting when I pulled up at 10 p.m. I transferred them to the garden, removed the mesh (got stung on my right pinky finger), and fed them with a 1:1 sugar-water ratio. I also placed a super of sticky honeycomb on the ground nearby so they could find it in the morning for easy forage. I filled a planter tray with rocks and water so they could have water close by.

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In the morning, they made small, exploratory flights around the garden. I hope, with more room, new equipment, my mothering and Grandpa’s spirit, this little hive will survive.

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R.I.P.

Franklin Peace, 1926-2015

Relocating a Beehive

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A friend recently told me she wanted to move her beehive across the yard, about 10 feet from its spot.  As incredibly smart as bees are, they can’t find their hive if you move it to a different place in the same bee yard. They will return to the old location, circle in a confused cloud, and perish overnight while their home is sitting, literally, feet away.

So if you want to move your hive, you have to shift it less than a foot a day, to let the bees acclimate, until you have your hive where you want.

OR

You move it miles away.

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The bees will sense they are in unfamiliar turf, make short exploratory flights until they orient themselves and then settle in to their new zip code.

So, how do you move a live hive of bees?

Carefully. You need ratchet tie-downs to secure the hive boxes. You need to staple mesh over the hive entrance to keep the bees inside during transport. And you should move it either before dawn, before the bees wake, or late after sundown when they have returned from foraging in the sunlight. That way you won’t strand thousands of bees while they are out collecting nectar and pollen.

Put the hive in a truck bed, tie it down again, and drive like there are infinite tomorrows. Make ’em honk!

Today some friends and I relocated a hive to Connecticut Friendship Garden in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood. Happy to report my bee operation, and my heart, are both expanding.

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Welcome to your new home! Here is video of the bees checking the place out:

Bee Lesson Number Five

Curious what the inside of the hive looks like from a bee’s POV, I put my iPhone at the entrance with the lens facing inward, and pressed video slomo.

What I captured was pure comedy, and another life lesson: When you lose your footing and fall down, inspecially in front of a crowd, there’s nothing you can do but dust yourself off and take another step forward. Like it never even happened.

Bee Lesson Number Four

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LESSON FOUR – Fear is 99% Wrong

Bees are more afraid of you than you are of them. A bee does not want to sting you – because it knows it will die if it does. When a bee plunges its barbed stinger into your skin, it rips from her abdomen, disemboweling her.

Working with bees all my life, I’ve discovered that these fearsome creatures are actually gentle, only stinging when I am clumsy and accidently step on them or squish them with my finger. In fact, bees will head butt my veil, warning me to back away from the hive when they are ready for me to close the hive back up – typically they lose their patience after about 90 minutes.

I can put my bare hand into a hive of bees and scoop up a handful without getting stung, if I do it slowly, gently and with good intentions. It actually tickles.

Another important bee lesson: do the thing that scares you because that is the only way to dislodge your fears.

Bee Lesson Number Three

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LISTEN TO THE HIVE MIND

Everyone has heard that bees dance to communicate the sources of flowers and of new homes; but in reality it’s more like a TV dance competition, So You Think You Can Dance, with judges and audience votes.

Groups of bees dance at once, all advocating different locations – and the scout bees take those coordinates and go investigate. Scouts return to the colony and begin dancing with the bee whose proposed location they like the best. Eventually one dancer gathers the most supporters – the largest dance crew – and thus a majority decision is reached about where to forage, and/or where the swarm will relocate.

Bee researchers, led by Cornell University’s Thomas Seeley, have tested the strength of honeybee democracy by offering the colony an array of artificial nesting sites. They tracked the bees and found that the colony always chose the best available home — the one that was the roomiest, driest, and with the most protective entrance high off the ground.

Another bit of bee magic wrapped in a good lesson: Democracy Works.

Bee Lesson Number Two

Illustration by Noel Pugh, www.fullpollenbasket.com
Illustration by Noel Pugh, http://www.fullpollenbasket.com

Another big life lesson the hive taught me is that SEX KILLS. Totally kidding. Got your attention. But, while male bees do die by genital explosion during intercourse (see above), the lesson behind this is about the importance of living for others’ needs in addition to your own.

Selfishness is a Sin

Male bees unfortunately never learn this. While they do have a vital function – impregnating the queen – very few of them actually get the chance. Like men waiting for a pretty woman to walk into the bar, the drones congregate in a cloud in the sky, hoping a virgin queen will fly through them. She will make just one mating flight in her life, copulating with up to 20 drones on the wing, and store their sperm in her body to last her entire egg-laying days (1-3 years).

Drones spend their whole lives in search of their own pleasure, while their sisters scurry around them, storing honey, building wax and feeding the young. There are just a few hundred males in the hive, compared to tens of thousands of females.

Every bee you see on a flower is a girl – they are the nurses, maids, grocery shoppers, construction workers, air circulators and guards of the hive, while their brothers wander the hive demanding to be fed.

Therefore, the layabout drones are pushed out of the hive every winter by their sisters because they are a drain on honey resources needed during the cold months. The poor fellows are victims of their own narcissism, and perish because the colony knows the queen will simply make more studs-in-waiting the following spring when the hive needs them.

Bee Lesson Number One

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In the weeks since my grandfather died, I’ve been thinking a lot about what he and his bees taught me about life. A hive is a social community with rules of behavior and cooperation and love, which becomes more visible the longer you share your life with bees.

Everything I know about being a good person comes from Grandpa Frank Peace and his bees. For the next five Mondays, I will share a bee lesson, to get the week off to a good start.

LESSON ONE – Family First

 The hive is a matriarchy, with a queen mother and tens of thousands of daughters. They can’t exist apart, because the queen is the only bee in the hive that lays eggs, yet the queen can not feed herself and stay warm if not for the comfort and care of her daughters, who bring her nectar and water droplets and gather round her to keep her warm at night. The queen’s signature pheromone is what helps the daughters navigate home from their foraging trips of up to five miles in search of flowers. Mothers and daughters must live in harmony for the whole family to thrive.