The nursery is filling up in my backyard hive, thanks to this gal. Look for the bit of red paint on her back to identify the Queen Bee. Watch her deposit eggs into honeycomb cells … and the worker bees wriggle with joy.
Robert, a Sonoma winemaker with an awesome tiki lounge in his SF backyard, heard some buzzing and noticed a large swarm was living high in a neighbor’s tree. He called my beekeeper friend Aaron, who unfortunately was on a big deadline at work, so Aaron called me. I had a stirring spoon in one hand and a glass of Cabernet in the other, when Aaron asked, in the fading light … want to go get a swarm?
For beekeepers, this is like getting to play superhero. (Woman! Where’s My SuperSuit!) I turned dinner off, turned to my wife, who sweetly hid her grumbling at our delayed dinner and we put on our bee suits.
Here was the task, about 12 feet up in a tangle of ivy and tree branches:
Note the honeycomb on the left. These bees had been living outdoors for quite some time. It takes several weeks for bees to build wax, and they were already storing honey, and brood (!) in their al fresco comb.
I assessed the situation with Robert. We’d need a ladder. And clippers. And lots of prayers.
We set my empty hive box on one of Robert’s wine barrels and I climbed to the top of the ladder and began snipping here and there, pretending I knew what I was doing. I’d seen my grandfather do this dozens of times. Most importantly, I needed to get the queen into the box, and the rest of the bees would follow.
I had a hard time seeing which branches I was clipping, so I yelled down, “It might happen fast!”
I’d barely finished saying “fast” when the whole she-bang tumbled down into the waiting hive box.
I placed the wax honeycomb on top of the box to entice the bees. I’d caught half the colony, the rest of the bees were flying in wild circles, trying to figure out what in the hayell had just happened.
When I saw bees fanning on the box, releasing a lemony scent from their Nasanov gland at the tip near their stinger, I knew I’d succeeded. The scent is bee-speak for, “Come here, everybody!” So I had the queen in the box.
For the next hour, I sat and waited, watching the bees march from the ground, up the barrel and into the box.
When the majority had settled into the box, I drove them home. I called my friend Liz who wanted a hive, and she picked them up that night on her way home to Oakland from work.
Now the bees have a warm, dry home and will not perish in winter. Here’s a photo of their new digs:
Please pass the word – if you see a swarm, call a beekeeper who will gladly remove them for free and keep the bees safe. DO NOT CALL AN EXTERMINATOR who will charge you and kill the bees. You will be saving money, and the planet, and karma points. Thank you.
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.