Catching My First Swarm

Robert, a Sonoma winemaker with an awesome tiki lounge in his SF backyard, heard some buzzing and noticed a large swarm was living high in a neighbor’s tree. He called my beekeeper friend Aaron, who unfortunately was on a big deadline at work, so Aaron called me. I had a stirring spoon in one hand and a glass of Cabernet in the other, when Aaron asked, in the fading light … want to go get a swarm?

For beekeepers, this is like getting to play superhero. (Woman! Where’s My SuperSuit!) I turned dinner off, turned to my wife, who sweetly hid her grumbling at our delayed dinner and we put on our bee suits.

Here was the task, about 12 feet up in a tangle of ivy and tree branches:

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Note the honeycomb on the left. These bees had been living outdoors for quite some time. It takes several weeks for bees to build wax, and they were already storing honey, and brood (!) in their al fresco comb.

I assessed the situation with Robert. We’d need a ladder. And clippers. And lots of prayers.

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We set my empty hive box on one of Robert’s wine barrels and I climbed to the top of the ladder and began snipping here and there, pretending I knew what I was doing. I’d seen my grandfather do this dozens of times. Most importantly, I needed to get the queen into the box, and the rest of the bees would follow.

I had a hard time seeing which branches I was clipping, so I yelled down, “It might happen fast!”

I’d barely finished saying “fast” when the whole she-bang tumbled down into the waiting hive box.

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I placed the wax honeycomb on top of the box to entice the bees. I’d caught half the colony, the rest of the bees were flying in wild circles, trying to figure out what in the hayell had just happened.

When I saw bees fanning on the box, releasing a lemony scent from their Nasanov gland at the tip near their stinger, I knew I’d succeeded. The scent is bee-speak for, “Come here, everybody!” So I had the queen in the box.

For the next hour, I sat and waited, watching the bees march from the ground, up the barrel and into the box.

When the majority had settled into the box, I drove them home. I called my friend Liz who wanted a hive, and she picked them up that night on her way home to Oakland from work.

Now the bees have a warm, dry home and will not perish in winter. Here’s a photo of their new digs:

IMG_1342Please pass the word – if you see a swarm, call a beekeeper who will gladly remove them for free and keep the bees safe. DO NOT CALL AN EXTERMINATOR who will charge you and kill the bees. You will be saving money, and the planet, and karma points. Thank you.

Sugar Shake

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.

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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.

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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.

What Do Bees Taste Like?

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.

 

A Tour Inside Grandpa’s Honey Bus

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!

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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Relocating a Beehive

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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.

OR

You move it miles away.

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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.

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Welcome to your new home! Here is video of the bees checking the place out:

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.