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.
Here’s Grandpa, the man who taught me beekeeping when I was five, touring the inside of his World War II Army Bus – turned honey factory in his Carmel Valley backyard. He expounds on honey harvesting, why the bees are disappearing, and the proper way to remove a stinger.
This is one of the last videos I took of him before he passed away earlier this year. Note he wears no gloves when he sticks his hands in a hive!
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.
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.”
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.
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.
The frames crumbled in places when I lifted them. I carefully searched, and found eggs and larvae. And a spot of honey.
Then I saw the queen! (6 o’clock)
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.
I used mesh drawer liners and duct tape to cover the entrances for the trip to the Bay Area.
I secured the lid for the two-hour journey.
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.
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.
Franklin Peace, 1926-2015
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.
You move it miles away.
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.
Welcome to your new home! Here is video of the bees checking the place out:
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.