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.
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.”
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:
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.
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.