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.

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?

The Queen Lays an Egg

The Queen and her retinue, photo by MaryEllen Kirkpatrick
The Queen and her retinue, photo by MaryEllen Kirkpatrick

It’s always fascinating to watch the Queen Bee at work, laying more than 1,000 eggs a day. She’s picky about her nursery, ambling along the honeycomb and inspecting each hexagon cell to make sure it’s clean, air-tight and worthy of her offspring.

She reminds me of a duck nibbling something underwater, sticking her head in the cell so just her butt remains visible. When she finds a space to her liking, she squats and puts her long abdomen inside, lays and egg, and then does a pushup with her long legs to exit.

Watch her lay an egg below. 

The Queen is an egg-laying machine, in constant motion. But I took the few seconds when she was still, laying her egg, to mark her with a small dot of blue paint. This helps me find her more easily during hive inspections, and also helps me know important things, such as whether she has been overthrown. Each year beekeepers use a different color for the Queen. In 2015, her heiness wears royal blue.

Why Bees Smell Like Lemon

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Being that this is Easter season, I went on an egg hunt of sorts today, checking to see if my new queen bee is laying eggs. Huzzah! Look in the cells between the four bees on the left-hand side of this photo. You might need to click on the photo to enlarge it. See some small white pins that look like rice? Bee eggs! Proof Her Majesty is going to work, laying up to 1,500 eggs a day.

When I closed the hives, I spotted a handful of bees fanning their wings madly at the entrance. Bees can flap their wings more than 200 times per SECOND. Watch it on slo-mo video, where you can see the bees bend the tips of their abdomens to expose their Nasanov glands. The gland releases a lemon-scented attraction pheromone that helps foraging bees smell their way home. Think of it as sprinkling lemongrass on your doorstep to ensure that your family members remember which house is theirs.

Now if you smell bananas, you’ve got an entirely different problem. More on that in a later post …

20,000 Bees In The Back Seat

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What does it sound like to drive with 20,000 bees in the backseat? Like you’ve got boiling water back there, or a pan of sizzling oil. Every once in a while a straggler bee on the outside of one of the mesh/wood cages would fly loose in the cabin, then make its way out the window. Other than that, the drive from Healdsburg to San Francisco was sting-free as we transported four packages of spring bees to their new hives in a Mission District urban farm.

We shook the bees into hives of drawn-out honeycomb, suspended the queen in her individual cage between two frames, fed them lots of 1:1 sugar water and closed the hives. We’ll be back on Wednesday to hand-release the queen. By then, the colonies should have acclimated to her pheromone and will accept, rather than murder, her. I decided against swapping the cork in her cage for a marshmallow, because the bees were so hungry when I got them that I worried they would eat through the marshmallow in minutes. Colonies need at least two to three days to get used to their new queen.

Here’s a photo gallery of our trip, and a slow-motion video showing how to shake bees into a new hive. Images and video by Jenn Jackson.

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Stringing Beehive Frames, Grandpa-Style

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On a recent visit to Grandpa’s house in Carmel Valley, he gave me his handmade frame stringer. Before laying wax foundation into empty beehive frames, you must strengthen them first by putting horizontal wiring inside the wooden frames.

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This helps steady the wax sheets so the bees can make orderly honeycomb from it, and wires also keep the honeycomb from falling apart in the spinner at harvest time. I wasn’t sure how his gizmo worked, but I think I got it. I was able to string frames so tightly that I could play them like guitar strings. Watch and tell me if I did it correctly. 

BEE-Mail

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Finally, the long awaited e-mail came. On my birthday. My two new colonies of bees will be waiting for me in Healdsburg on March 29. I’ve been without bees since last fall, when both my queens began weakening, and I tried to save the hives by combining them into one stronger hive with one queen. But instead of joining forces, the two colonies dueled to the death. It was a horrible end to a rough season, and being without bees this long feels like losing a dog. I miss seeing them dart in the air, miss checking for eggs, miss feeling their vibration when I lift out a frame. I’ve been watching the flowers pop out early this year, and trying to remain patient for my order of two new colonies and two new mated queens to be filled. When I got the good news, the first thing I did was go grocery shopping for them.

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They will need sugar water in a 1:1 ratio while they scout around their new home, Little City Gardens in the outer Mission of San Francisco. And the marshmallows? The queen will come in her own individual cage that is corked in one end. I will replace the cork with a marshmallow, and dangle her between the frames. By the time the bees chew through the marshmallow to release her, they will have acclimated to her scent, and therefore not kill her. Bonus.

queen cage

If you are looking for bees too, I ordered survivor stock from April Lance.