Habitat for Honeybees

We've made it official: we're a non-profit association, pending 501(c)3 approval. (The paperwork is done, filled out, stamped and mailed, and now it's all in the IRS's hands.)

We're Habitat for Honeybees, and you can find our new website here, or at habitatforhoneybees.org.

A little more information, you say? Here you go:

Our mission is to create opportunities for disadvantaged honeybees.

Habitat for Honeybees is a non-profit association located near Golden Gate Park and Ocean Beach in San Francisco, and in the rural hills and open space above Saratoga, California.

We are dedicated to capturing feral bees and relocating them into mutually beneficial habitats. The world is a better place when bees are allowed to thrive and pollinate in organic farms and neighborhood gardens, rather than stow away in residential rafters or sneak through the crack in your ceiling skylight.

If you find yourself in the midst of a swarm of ten thousand bees, relax. Bees swarm when they've outgrown their hive, stuffed themselves with honey and taken to finding a new home. Without a hive to defend, they're not likely to sting. If they need to be captured, this is the easiest time to do so. Once they find an empty space behind your bathroom wall, they're not going to leave even if you ask nicely.

You can ask us nicely and we'll remove them for free. We have extensive construction skills and a bee-friendly bee vacuum that gently removes the bees without hurting them. Once dislodged, we house the bees into one of our hand-made Langstroth hive boxes and set them out in a secure location near good food sources.

In this way, wild, local bees become useful pollinators at family backyard gardens and small organic farms, creating natural honey from pesticide-free flowers.

Seventy-five percent of swarms don't survive through their first winter, mostly due to starvation. A swarm must find a new home, create frames of honeycomb and fill each cell with enough honey to last until flowers begin to bloom again in the spring. This is why we harvest our bees' honey only in the spring.

Please check back in Spring 2012 for information on honey availability.


Sucking Up Swarms

Real gardeners can tell right away that we're poseurs. Lettuce we can grow if we buy seedlings. With seeds from my mom, we accidentally grew enough peas to share. Our squash, grown from donated seedlings, looked healthy in the spring. When the sun disappeared for summer, the squash plants shriveled up and got mushy. The leaves acquired a pretty coat of powdery mildew and we gave up on that box of dirt.

It's Charlie's job to water the roof beds and it's not one of his high priorities: probably another one of the reasons the squash became squashed. After almost a week, right at dusk, he decided to put on his shoes and gardening hat and see if there was something alive in the raised beds that he could pretend to save. It's been so foggy and wet this summer that watering seems redundant.

What do you think was clumped to the squashed squash? Again?

We were told in our beekeeping class that swarming in September didn’t happen. 

Charlie recently created a bee-vac out of paint buckets and a shop vac motor to use for sucking up swarms. He could be heard whining that he was sad he couldn't test his new bee-vac out until spring.

He wasn’t sad anymore. This big, fat swarm was huddled together as if they were tucked in for the night. They looked cold. How, you ask? They weren't moving. Like, not at all. Bees not moving seems wrong. Looking closely, very closely, the outside bees seemed to be tightly shaking their wings to keep everyone warm underneath. If I were a bee, I'd have picked somewhere less exposed to spend the night.

Charlie vacuumed them up with his new toy, without killing a single one. In the morning, they were granted a brand-new hive box. What are we going to do with these bees? Dump them into a weaker hive? Here, or down the valley at my mom's where it's warmer? At this late date, how could they make enough comb and honey to survive the winter?

At night, Charlie went up to the roof to water since he didn't get around to it the night before. This time, he found yet another swarm on the dead squash bed. He didn’t have enough time to do anything but suck up this smaller cluster, probably an afterswarm from the same hive, and toss them into the previous night's swarm hive.

In case they were from one of our hives, we placed their hive far from the rest and onto a different, far corner of the roof. If they were within smelling distance to their old hive, they'd just go back and create a big confused mess, and demand a do-over. 

Next time we opened the PGE hive, we noticed there were only half the previous amount of bees. That must be the swarm's old hive. They'd made queen cells, which we left, and hoped that it would be a calm, sunny day when the new virgin queen was ready to take her mating flight across Fulton. 

Charlie didn't stop whining, though. He was able to use his bee-vac twice with no fatalities. He stares across the street at the park, saying, "There must be a lot of feral swarms within sucking distance."

"Your extension cord wouldn't reach," I reply. "Besides, hunting with a vacuum doesn't seem right."

The bee-vac sits by the door, as ready as Charlie to rescue any swarm oddly attracted to our dying squash. At least the whining has slowed down a bit.

Replacing Royalty

When a hive swarms, the departing bees take their old queen along with them. The remaining bees will have a new queen once she emerges from her cell about a week later. If there are other new, baby queens, they’ll sting each other and fight to the death until there’s only one virgin queen.

The first thing that queen needs to do is to get laid. She flies off, and if she’s in one of our hives, that means she has to get across Fulton St. The wind builds heavily off the ocean all day long except for between about 1 and 3 pm. If she’s smart, she’ll wait until she doesn’t have to get blown eastward. Never having flown or been outside, virgin queens aren't skilled pilots. Complicating matters, once they’re done with their 12 to 15 one-night-stands, they have to get their head on straight and remember how to get back home again.

With two swarming hives, we’ve had two virgin queens. Both either couldn’t find the drone pick-up bar or couldn’t find their way back home. The sign of a failed virgin is no eggs after 35 days. Both our swarmed hives remain eggless.

The solution was Peter the queen breeder.  As long as we were traveling all the way to San Jose, we picked up a couple of extras. One of the Italian bee packages that we named Team Gelato, had a dud queen: Team Gelato. When you name a hive after an indulgent Roman dessert, you're begging for failure.

The Gelato queen acted like a laying worker. Laying workers are bees so worried about the lack of a queen that they try to take over the job. They lay eggs, but they're obviously unfertilized. Unfertilized eggs are males, and a hive cannot survive without women (males don't even feed themselves). 

Eggs from workers also don't have the queen's pheromone smell, so when the other worker bees notice, they remove these eggs from the cells. This results in a spotty brood pattern on the frames. In addition, laying workers don't have a long enough body to reach all the way down to the bottom of the cell so their eggs are typically half-way down, off to the side. These fake queens also lay several eggs in one cell; another indicator but not a foolproof one as new queens will do this too, until they get the hang of it. 

Societal collapse was inevitable with Team Gelato's barren queen. We didn't need a barbaric invasion to know the end was near. Thanks to Peter, she was replaced. 

Team Gelato's home base was a ten-frame hive but they stubbornly stayed out the last two frames on either end.  It’s genetic with some bees. They’re used to living in trees. They like the close-in feel of a condo, rather than the space of a stretched out mid-century ranch home. 

Charlie noticed their preference and, since they've gone through enough pandemonium already, moved them to a more tree-ish, urban loft-like, eight-frame hive.

After doing so, he returned to his shed to take off his bee suit. With his pants around his ankles, he noticed something fat and wiggly, perched on his shoe. Since Team Gelato was the only hive he had opened, this big, dumb bee must be their queen.

He dumped her back home and the rest of the bees seemed okay with her. They weren’t attacking, so she must be theirs. She must have fallen off while Charlie was transferring her frame. Queens are the heaviest thing on the frame, so it’s natural that they’d be the first thing to drop. This is one of those close calls you get to brag about in bee meetings.

We checked the first thing next morning, just because we're that kind of beekeepers. Team Gelato was going great. The fallen queen was making up for lost time, grateful for a second chance, and laying eggs everywhere.

As long as we were checking hives, we went next door to the Espresso Girls. These were the other Italian package bees we bought at the same time as Team Gelato. They were always strong like the beverage they were named after, but it didn’t hurt to check.

The first thing we saw was a dead queen on the bottom board. Your sense of justice takes a hit when you see such a benevolent, hard-working leader lying dead at the feet of her former followers. This was going to be dead Espresso without a quick, strong replacement.

Charlie begged Peter for another queen. “Sure, I’ll save you one," he said. "They’re being fed by nurse bees in my back yard. Call before you get there and I’ll make sure I’m there.”

Charlie called but couldn’t get through. When he arrived, Peter wasn't there. Instead, Peter's dad answered the door and wasn't too excited about digging out a queen. Peter, on the phone, talked him into it. “You’re going to take a few stings, dad,” Peter said. “You know that.” 

Dad, grumbling, put on a bee suit and went out back.

There was no honey or brood in Peter's queen box - just a lot of queens and a few angry, Nurse Rached-like nurse bees feeding them. They were furious because the queens weren’t laying. They want to take care of eggs and brood, so going against their nature like this is a sure way to get them to impersonate Africanized killer honeybees.

Dad pulls out a queen cage and drops it into a plastic container. The killer nurse bees are all over him, bumping him, stinking his hands, and loudly buzzing everywhere. Now they're doubly angry: first about no babies to take care of, and now about this big, white, cloth-covered bear stealing their queen. 

As soon as Peter's dad completed his assignment, he turned and walked as quickly as he could straight to Charlie. Charlie, not wearing a bee suit, had been hiding as far from the queen box as he could get. Peter's dad, covered with angry, stinging bees, thrusts the queen into Charlie's hands.

Now the nurse bees have a new target: Charlie, the possessor of their queen, and specifically Charlie's eyes. They sting him wherever they could get him. The left side of his face didn't move. From the side, he looked like Joan Rivers.

Back home, with both Italian hives properly queened, people were more interested in Charlie's face. "What happened?" everyone asked. 

Unfortunately, this happened to be the week where several Killer Bee stories were in the news. Africanized bees can't deal with cold, so they'll never be this far north but that doesn't stop people from asking about them. All. The. Time. Charlie, therefore, was reluctant to say he was a beekeeper and he was stung in the face. This admission could make you sound rather stupid.

Instead, Charlie said, "Botox."

"One only one side of your face?"

"That's the side where the wrinkles were bad," he said. "I thought it was weird, too."

Almost everyone knew he was joking.


Bee Links

Chicago's O'Hare Airport had some unused land and since airports are all about flying, made this a new home for one and a half million bees. Sweet Beginnings, the organization that trains felons in the art of beekeeping and bee products, is managing the project through a local economic development agency. The airport beekeeping movement began in Germany, in 1999, when scientists used bees to monitor air quality. O'Hare, however, is the first American airport apiary. Cocktail party fact: O'Hare was once an apple orchard, which lives on in its three-letter airport code, "ORD."

Click here for the story.

Four Not-To-Be-Missed Marvelous Bee Movies (and one Bee Viddy):

1. Queen of the Sun: What are the Bees Telling Us?

This is the most recent effort from Taggart Siegel, the filmmaker who gave us the wonderful and one-of-a-kind, The Real Dirt on Farmer John. Full of gorgeous photography, eccentric beekeepers, and rational scientists, this film is mostly about Colony Collapse Disorder. Regarding CCD, most people are unaware that:
  • Artificially bred bees are malnourished on a diet of high-fructose corn-syrup.
  • Many are confined in plastic hives and transported thousands of miles (as they are bombarded by exhaust fumes) only to be forced to work in crops soaked in pesticides.
  • Because of these conditions, exhausted and weakened pollinators become easy prey for mites, climate change, environmental radiation, viruses, air and water pollution, and the challenging effects of genetically modified crops.
  • In order for urban beekeepers to thrive, certain antiquated laws need to be changed.
Don't get the idea this is a downer, boo-hoo, what can we do? kind of a movie. It's not. Even the movie website is fascinating and educational without being boring. Click on the title above, go to the movie website link, and scroll down to read their Ten Amazing Bee Facts. If that doesn't give you scintillating cocktail party conversation, you need to stay home (and watch a good bee movie).

2. Vanishing of the Bees

This documentary really gets into the issue of Colony Collapse Disorder, explaining what caused colony collapse disorder, how the cause was identified, and what people can do to prevent its spread. The approach is quite scientific and includes an interview with Michael Pollan, among others.

In France, you learn that the government uses the "precautionary principle" regarding the use of pesticides: a pesticide must be proven not to have harmful side effects. In the United States, most of the studies are conducted by the manufacturers of the very same pesticides that are causing the problems.

Even so, the filmmakers are conservative when it comes to drawing firm scientific conclusions and placing blame even though neonicotinoids, pesticides made by Bayer, obviously negatively affect bees. All you have to do is watch a bee on a pesticide-treated sunflower: she loses her orientation, can't work, and falls to the ground. That alone is worth the extra effort to go find this movie.

3. Colony: No Bees. No Honey. No Work. No Money.

This might just be my favorite bee movie, ever, thanks to the Seppi brothers. These are the boys who decide to start up a bee pollinating business at the exact wrong time - at the beginning of Colony Collapse Disorder - and are the thread running through this movie that holds it together. They live in a deeply religious family with a mother who understands nothing about agricultural economics or even basics about farming business. With these two strikes against them, you can't help but get attached and watch with the hope they can persevere.

As with the first two documentaries, you get a healthy dose of David Hackenberg and David Mendes, two professional pollinators who pack thousands of their hives onto trailers and travel across the country, renting out their bees to farmers for weeks at a time. They're both quirky, honest, fascinating, and seemingly just trying to make a living at something incredibly difficult. Mr. Hackenberg is known for first identifying Colony Collapse Disorder when he mysteriously lost 80 million bees from his Florida hives. Mr. Mendes is shown selflessly trying to save his, as well as the rest of the world's, collapsing hives. They are a couple of interesting characters in a movie full of interesting characters, but the characters who stick with you for days later while you wonder and worry are the Seppi brothers, Lance and Victor. I still worry and hope the best for them, even now.

4. Nova: Bees: Tales From The Hive

This is an older documentary and, as you'll find if you click on the title, available through Amazon (and Netflix), rather than on TV or at a screen somewhere, so Colony Collapse Disorder isn't discussed. Instead you'll find the most unbelievable close-up footage of bees in flight, foraging, fighting, mating, and dancing.

If you ever wanted to be a bee, this is your movie. It's the closest you'll ever get to carrying pollen on your legs.

5. TED Talks: Dennis vanEngelsdorp: a plea for bees

One more little video, back to the subject of Colony Collapse Disorder. This is a TED talk from 2008 given by the Acting State Apiarist for Pennsylvania's Department of Agriculture. Mr. VanEngelsdorp describes the role that bees (and beekeepers) play in our lives, their importance, and their future given this massive and frightening bee colony death called Colony Collapse Disorder. It's less than twenty minutes long and, like all TED talks, worth every second of your time. Every third bite you take is thanks to a bee, and if there's a better cocktail party conversation starter than that, you're going to better parties than me.


Bee Ambassadors

When you're as excited about bees as my mom and Yo, you invite your friends over to look at your new pets. Whenever we schedule a time to come down to do hive inspections, my mom asks her friends if they want to come over and watch. We get a good lunch and they get the potential to get stung.

Last week, not only did her friends stop by for a visit, but they brought along visitors who happened to be visiting them, too. My mom's friends wanted to show their guests something different and exciting. We got the idea of what it's like to be one of the stops on a wine-tasting tour. Except there's no wine - there's not even honey yet - and you have to wear a veil.

Yo gave them an overview while we finished our lunch. After that, we got them ready to stand in the hot sun in front of a million bees. We made them wear lighter clothing, which meant putting on sweaters during a 90 degree day, since bees think you're a bear if you're wearing dark colors. At least that's what we've been told. We made them wear veils, too, since a sting in the eye means you're now blind and that would ruin anyone's vacation.

Charlie opened up a hive and showed them a frame of bees. They took photos and asked lots of questions. One woman said, "Oh my gosh, look at all those bees!"  She said it many times, just as if we really were a stop on someone's fun vacation tour.

Not only did we get to also talk about bees, but they left us with a video of their trip to the Kalahari desert. Maybe next time we can trade vacation tours.

Hit The Road, Drone

Pushed out drone
Male bees - drones - are so lazy they don't even feed themselves. They don't clean themselves and they don't do any work, ever. All they're good for is just the one thing.

Otherwise, the girls have to take care of them like big babies.

When the bees begin to get ready for winter, they're making as much honey as they can to build up stores. The slacker drones start to become as annoying as lazy teenagers so the girls escort them out the front door and won't let them back into the hive.

Watching the hive entrance around this time of the year, you'll see huge, wandering, teenage-boy-looking bees. You can pick them out right away because all the other bees are scurrying around looking busy. These big guys walk from one bee to another, as if they're asking for a handout. They never get one. Often they get pushed off the porch and fall onto the ground, and that's where their story ends.

One of our hives on the roof has a virgin queen. Or she was. Charlie found a drone recently kicked out, on the ground in front of this particular hive. You'll notice this guy has a different look. He looks like he died with a smile on his face.

The virgin queen is no longer virgin.

Pocketful of Bees

What is good for bees is good for everything else. Once we put the bees out in my mom's back yard, it seemed as if everything that could hop, crawl or fly over, did exactly that and moved in.

Along the ground, armies of yellow jackets hover even though there are thirteen traps hung along the nearby trees, and those are filled within days. Sometimes they're filled within hours if the traps happen to be particularly situated or if they smell like really good, dead things.

But the worst problem are the ants. We've had some success with painting Tanglefoot around the legs of the hive stand. Ants are smart, though. They'll stack up leaves and debris over the sticky Tanglefoot to crawl over it. They'll even crawl up over their stuck, dead relatives to get to the honey.

And they do. Get to the honey, that is. Beekeepers say, "You'll only have ant problems with a weak hive." They haven't been to my mom's. It's like the Amazon: there's so much life that it's impossible to clear out an ant-free zone. They could take down coyotes.

Charlie bought another bottle of Tanglefoot and reapplied our sticky defense. We knew that wasn't the end of the story.

He needed to move the lower hives. He made a new hive stand, a taller one this time, and placed it back further into the hill. This way the yellow jackets would have to fly out of their comfort zone and, more importantly, the ants would have to traverse over a retaining wall and up the legs of a taller stand. There'd have to be a lot more dead bodies to climb over if they were going to get into these hives.

Once he built the stand, he moved the hives. This created a problem for the bees. They'd been out foraging and when they came home, home was not there anymore.

Instead, they found Charlie's hive toolbelt. In the pocket was his hive tool, which he'd just used to open their hives for the move. Smelling the smells of home, that was good enough for these tired bees. The rest of their sisters flew around in the general area, as if they were circling the block, thinking, "This has to be the right place."

After emptying his belt pocket a few times, the bees got the idea and fanned their wings to let their sisters know where to go. If all goes well, the ants won't catch on.