How Bees Make Wax

The other day, I opened my hive to discover my bees clinging together like a cluster of grapes, “festooning,” the fancy word for bees making wax. In the hot months I like to put an empty box on top of the hive to help with circulation, but the bees decided they wanted to fill it with honeycomb.

The way bees make wax is fascinating. One of the best explanations is from William Longgood’s “The Queen Must Die” (1985):

“Usually only young bees are capable of making wax, but, when necessary, older bees can turn the trick, in the same way a retired craftsman can, in an emergency, recapture a former skill. After eighteen to twenty-four hours of clinging together, the temperature climbs to about eighty degrees Fahrenheit and a strange thing happens — tiny wax flakes appear on eight small, pocket-like glands on the abdomens of young bees.

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The bee scrapes off the wax with her forelegs and kneads and chews the secretion in powerful jaws until it is a soft, pliable ball.

She frees herself from the clinging mass and deposits the wax at the base of the sheet of wax foundation with its hexagon imprints. Quickly she moves away, and another bee takes over, perhaps a celebrated architect or artist, who pushes and tugs at the soft wax, drawing it out into the hexagon shape.

Then she, in turn, steps aside and still another craftswoman comes along to draw the cell out farther, each a specialist, it seems, in a different phase of cell building.”

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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 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.

Goodbye to the Beekeeper of Big Sur

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E. FRANKLIN PEACE 1926-2015

E. Franklin Peace, a longtime Big Sur beekeeper and direct descendant of the area’s early pioneers, died in his sleep on May 31. He was 89.

Mr. Peace’s great great-grandfather was William Brainard Post, for whom the Post Ranch is named, who left Connecticut to settle in Big Sur in the 1850’s. Post married Anselma Onesimo, a Native American woman of Rumsien Ohlone (Coastanoan) descent whose ancestors helped Junípero Serra build the Carmel Mission. Mr. Peace’s grandfather was Edward Grimes, another 19th century ranching family on the coast, that emigrated from England.

For nearly 70 years, Mr. Peace kept more than one hundred hives in the Garrapata and Palo Colorado Canyon areas of Big Sur, as well as in the nuns’ garden at the Carmelite Monastery. He produced up to three tons of honey a year, and made deliveries to Big Sur grocery stores, restaurants and residents in his rambling pickup truck.

A lifelong Monterey County resident, Mr. Peace was born in the Monterey Hospital in 1926, and joined the U.S. Navy the day after graduating from Monterey High School. He served in Guam from 1944-1946.

His passion for bees began at age 14, when his father caught a swarm in their Pacific Grove backyard. Father and son bought a wooden box hive for the colony, which quickly expanded to five hives, until his mother put her foot down. They relocated the bees to a cousin’s ranch in Big Sur, but not before leaving one hive on the front porch of the house next door. Their neighbors, who were Japanese, were taken to World War II internment camps and Mr. Peace and his father used the bees to successfully protect the home until their friends returned.

After the war, Mr. Peace bought a decommissioned Army bus from the Fort Ord military base and renovated it into a portable honey rig; tearing out all the seats and installing a honey spinner so he could extract and bottle honey in the fields next to his Big Sur apiaries.

In his teens and early twenties, Mr. Peace also worked as a sardine fisherman on Cannery Row, using a skiff boat to haul in nets of fish. He also worked inside the canneries, rolling large steel crates of canned sardines into a steam cooker to seal the tins.

When the sardine population began declining in the mid-fifties, Mr. Peace relocated to Big Sur to apprentice under builders Frank and Walter Trotter. For the next eight years, the brothers taught Mr. Peace ranching, construction and plumbing. Mr. Peace became a well-known plumber in Big Sur, once climbing the steep Santa Lucia Mountains to build a gravity-fed water system that directed water from a natural spring to Nepenthe restaurant.

When he was 37, Mr. Peace met a schoolteacher he fancied while square dancing. Two years later, during a hoedown in Nevada, Mr. Peace and Ruth Miller dashed out to a courthouse to get married, asking a stranger in the building to serve as their witness. They settled in Carmel Valley, where he lived ever since.

Mr. Peace was a well-known storyteller and patient teacher who mentored many people in the beekeeping profession. He once summed up his love of beekeeping:

“I’m social. I like to talk. The best thing is talking to people about bees. People want to know if I’m having a good year, how many pounds of honey. People don’t know a lot about bees, but they are very curious. I tell them I have to take care of the bees and put them in a place where they can fly free.”

Mr. Peace is survived by his wife, Ruth; sister Ellanah Plain of Concord; step-son Stephen Rial of North Fork, step-daughter Sally May of Carmel Valley; five step-grandchildren: beekeeper Meredith May (and this blogger) of San Francisco, Matthew May of San Mateo, Shelley Billante of Las Vegas, Wendy Wallace of North Fork, and Jessica Hansen of North Fork; and nephew Craig Plain of Concord; and niece Cindy Terry of Danville.

No immediate memorial services are planned.

Donations in his name may be sent to the Big Sur Historical Society, P.O. Box 176, Big Sur, CA, 93920; or to the Carmel Valley Library, 65 W. Carmel Valley Rd., Carmel Valley, CA 93924.

Flight Plan

Every hive has a distinct flight plan – a certain place on on the landing board where the bees prefer to land and takeoff. One of my hives prefers the right corner. The other hive is less specific, with the bees landing and taking off anywhere near the entrance.

Today I took a seat on an old tire facing the right-dominant hive, and watched the bees to see if I could get a sense of which way they were going for nectar. They flew out, straight toward me, then rose up and over a fence several feet behind the hive, toward a basketball backboard. Then they banked left and flew toward a tree with white flowers and red berries. Returning, they made the same Blue Angels sudden turn, but in reverse. Show-offs.

Bee Cloud
Bee Cloud

I know this sounds strange, but the most soothing place for me is sitting in a cloud of bees. Their hum is like an “ohm,” and when I am alone with them, time slows down and I finally notice the pulsing microcosmos all around me. Today I saw that many of my foraging bees wipe their antennae clean just before they takeoff. Always important to look presentable before you leave the house, right?