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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s been three days since we installed four new beehives at Little City Gardens in San Francisco – enough time for each colony to start foraging in the tall fennel and blackberry vines and become accustomed to the scent of their new Queen. So we returned to the bee yard to release the Majesties from their confines. Rather than jabbing the cork plug of her cage and pulling to release her, which might unintentionally injure her, we pried open the staple and screen from the side of her cage and let her amble out. Here’s a video of the process; listen closely and toward the end you can hear the Queen “pipe” — make a squeak to announce her arrival. It’s like a bee version of, “Yo!”
I prefer “controlled release” because you know for sure the queen is healthy and the bees like her before she’s let go. Putting a sugar plug or marshmallow plug in her cage isn’t as secure, because if you show up to an empty cage after the bees chew through the sugar, you’re never certain if they ate through it too fast and killed her, or if she died in the cage and the bees flew off with her to dispose of her far from the hive. You’ll discover it eventually when no eggs appear, but by then you’ve lost precious time to correct the situation.
Next up: We return in five days to look for eggs in the honeycomb. To know The Lady Doth Bear Fruit.