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.


George's Swarm #2

"It happened again," George said. He called Charlie about a week ago when a huge swarm landed on his cherry tree. Now he's calling again. "They're on a lower branch this time. Come on over."

It was cold and almost dark. The bees would want to stick close together for the night to keep warm, so Charlie wouldn't have to wait a long time for the bees to march in, once he got the queen. Rescuing them would be a snap.

Don't tell me bees aren't smart. George's garden is stunning, lush, and probably the most beautiful piece of greenery within a mile. They picked the best place they could find to swarm.

If you want to attract bees (maybe not this many) plant a beautiful garden.

Crutches, Compost and Yellow Jackets

Ants on a yellow jacket trap
“I’m on crutches,” Philip said. “While removing a colony from a roof in Petaluma, I took a fall. Would you mind helping me inspect my hives?”

Who wouldn't want to see what a real beekeeper’s hives look like? “Sure,” Charlie said.

Arriving at his house, the first thing he said was, “I have something to show you. I did a couple of yellow jacket rescues. They’re out on the compost pile.”

“You rescued yellow jackets? I would have sprayed them with Raid.”

“I don’t like releasing that kind of poison in the environment. I do it a little differently.”

“Why are you rescuing yellow jackets?”

“I get bee calls. I arrive and the bees turn out to be yellow jackets. I don’t want to say, ‘they’re yellow jackets, sorry,’ and walk away. Yellow jackets are dangerous.”

“How do you capture yellow jackets?”

“I spray them with this powder that stops them from flying. Next, I cover them with a cloth laundry-type bag, pull the drawstring and take them home, out to the compost pile. Grab the butane torch on the table and I’ll show you.”

“This ought to be good.”

On top of the compost heap is a paper nest the size of a watermelon.

“What I like to do is torch ‘em. You want to do it?”

“Of course.” Charlie, the undercover pyro, lit the torch.

“Start with the wasp nest. You’ll see the layers burn away. After that, you’ll see the comb.”

The yellow jacket nest walls are extremely thick. Even with a butane torch, it took a while to burn through. As it did, the layers of comb began to appear, like a cut-away view of a house. Everything in the yellow jacket nest is made out of paper, but a paper that’s impervious to weather. It looks like a rolled asphalt roof with one layer overlapping the next, using gravity to shed water.

The yellow jackets, of course, came flying out when their house began to burn. Charlie made sure to torch each one as they escaped, so they wouldn't survive to sting him.

Inside the comb were larvae and - thinking of how much yellow jackets were making his bees' life hard - Charlie became even more enthusiastic in the process of killing them.

Once the nest was toast, Charlie concentrated on the dirt nest also stored in the compost pile. He used the same vigor and excitement to spray each and every single one of those flying evil bee killers. They sting multiple times while bees only get one chance. It's not fair.

Soon the compost pile was scorched earth, but that didn't slow him down. Knowing yellow jackets, there could be more hiding somewhere. Charlie sprayed as if his life depended on it.

Philip, not as interested in the yellow jackets as Charlie, said,  "That's probably enough."

Worth A Fly?

Healthy Saratoga bees
At the Santa Clara Beekeepers Guild, Serge Labesque got us enthusiastic about getting our hives ready for winter. That's not easy. Getting beekeepers excited is easy - just ask us about our girls - but winter? Some of us get the shakes just anticipating all that down time we'll have while our bees stay inside their hive, snuggling up in a tight ball to keep warm, eating honey and relaxing.
Serge showed slides of top boards to create proper wintering ventilation flow, racks to make to keep frames dry and moth-free, and explained how to stack two hives on top of each other with a queen excluder between. This way, he said, the worker bees can move freely between the hives without the queens killing each other.   

Often weak hives starve over the winter as they can't eat cold honey even if it's nearby, and they can't get to honey if it isn't nearby. With a two hive colony, the starving bees send out distress signals and the warm, healthy bees fly up and feed them. You use nature to keep them alive.  

However, when Charlie asked a question about swarms, Serge answered with, "Swarms? I don't waste my time with swarms. They're not going to make it anyway."   
Notice swarm hanging from top

The first thing a beekeeper learns is that 75% of swarms don't survive winter. In fact, there's a saying, "A swarm in May is worth a bale of hay, a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon but a swarm in July isn't worth a fly."   

It's August. There's not enough time to build up comb and store enough honey for winter, all while making enough babies to keep the hive alive.     

Stopping by my mom's before the meeting, Charlie got around to doing some cleanup. When you have a lot of pretty property to leave extra hive traps lying around, you do.  There's no use bringing them home.  Who needs another tiny, frail swarm caught from Golden Gate park? We had to merge the two swarms we caught on the roof together, being so small.   

They weren't thriving - even then - so we brought them to the Saratoga bee hospital at my mom's, to recover.  Better but still sickly, we merged them with the Alameda girls - a third, healthy swarm. After all that, they're going strong. No wonder Serge doesn't have time for swarms.     

When Charlie lifted the hive trap, it was heavy. You know what that means: another swarm had moved in. This is the fourth Saratoga swarm we've caught since Father's Day. Where were all these bees before?   
Inside the Little Giants hive
During his last inspection, Charlie noticed the Little Giants - the bees from our Giants hive with the too-fat-to-fly queen that swarmed ten feet from their hive onto our squash plants - didn't have any eggs. Maybe that fat queen couldn't make the trip down to Saratoga, or she didn't like the warm weather, or the virgin queen injured her during their battle for the top job. Either way, they needed a new queen. 
Charlie added a frame of babies stolen from another healthy hive so they could make a new queen, but that would take a while. If they were going to survive winter, they needed a push. 
They got it. Charlie didn't have time, being late for the bee meeting already, to do anything but dump the new swarm into the Little Giants's hive, queen and all. Usually you put a sheet of newspaper between the two colonies. That way, during the time it takes for them to chew through, they get used to each other. We'd rather talk about bees than deal with these here. 
Cleaning each other
The Little Giants, at first, chased the new Saratoga girls away. That didn't last long. 
Bees on top of the frames began to clean each other, as if to say, "Come in, we have plenty of room. And let's clean you up a little before you meet the rest of the girls." 
We put the top back on, hoping this new queen stays and lays, being August and all. If not, a guy at the bee meeting introduced himself to us by saying, "If you need good queens, I'll have a few for sale soon." We got his number.


We're In Business

Cat, our new best bee friend, called to say, “Would you mind responding to a swarm call? It’s in San Francisco and I’m too busy to drive all the way up there.”

A real swarm capture? Not just reclaiming our own bees? 

“Sure,” Charlie said and put down his mouse for the first time all morning. He now had an excuse to quit hanging out on the bee chat groups, writing passionate comments while drinking strong coffee: his morning routine until, well, lunch.

When he arrived, George the homeowner told him, “I was out in my garden yesterday. I heard this thunder-like sound. I looked up and there was a cloud of bees landing on my cherry tree. It was so exciting to watch but now I feel sorry for them. They’re not moving.”

“This is perfect,” Charlie said. “I've got a queenless hive.” 

The first swarm Charlie ever caught, our Slacker swarm that escaped across the street, don’t have a queen. After capturing them we gave them a new box on the other end of the stand and named them Slacktivists. They never got around to making babies so we wonder if that queen, the one who swarmed, gave up her wild ways and went back home to her old, familiar hive. 

The rest of the swarm stayed in their new box and started building up honey, hoping she’d come back. She never did. She most likely killed the Slackers' new queen and went back to work laying eggs. Somebody’s laying a lot of eggs in that hive and from the looks of it, it’s someone who knows what she’s doing. There are frames full of babies.

Back at the swarm, George took Charlie back to his garden, a beautiful sunny oasis with huge pots of flowers, planter boxes lush with trees and green growing vegetation everywhere, like only a garden with lots of sun can be. No wonder the swarm stopped here.

The bees made their temporary home up thirty feet high, even though Cat was told it was fifteen feet max. Bees balled up about the size of a volleyball.

“I have a big extension ladder you can use,” George said.

Charlie propped it up against the neighbor’s fence and brought out his nuc box. A nuc box is a cardboard box in which frames can be put in, used only to capture swarms or starting a nucleus colony. He’d only used it once before to capture the escaping Giants girls who swarmed ten feet from their hive onto our squash plant. The box was barely big enough to hold all those girls, so it probably smelled a lot like sweaty bees, like an apiary gym locker.

Charlie held the box under the swarm and lifted it up until the whole swarm was inside the box to minimize the drop distance and the potential bee trauma.

Thwap! Charlie hit the branch and they all fell in.

He put the lid on and held it in place. A couple of tiny clusters congregated by the entrance, proving there was a queen and she was inside the box.

He couldn’t stand there for the several hours it would take to make sure the stragglers got in. Instead, Charlie left it tied onto the highest part of the tree that would support the box, about five feet off the ground. It’s better to do that than have them fall. That happened already with the first swarm Charlie caught: the Slacker swarm. A gusty wind came up and knocked the whole nuc to the ground. Perhaps that had something to do with the reason the Slacker queen went back into her old hive?

“I’ll come back tonight about 7:30 to collect the box," Charlie told George. "It’ll take that long to make sure they’re all inside.”

“Do you get paid for this?" George asked. "How are you spending all this time without earning any money?”

“As long as people call me instead of an exterminator, I’m happy to do it for nothing.”

“Well," George said, holding up a hundred dollar bill. "I thank you and Ben thanks you. I can’t wait to tell all my gardening friends about this.”

Whacha Gonna Do With All Those (Chilly) Bees?

We have an obstacle and it’s called fog. We have another called cold, as in summers never getting above 60 except for the rare days when it hits 62 and we all rush outside, get sunburned and, for a day, look like we live in California. 

Otherwise, we and our bees practically hibernate. We can travel to get our Vitamin D but the bees aren't joining us in the car. On their own, they can go about three miles. Three miles east doesn't get them to the sunny side of San Francisco, and twenty blocks west is the Pacific Ocean. We feel like bee scientists, pushing the limits of bee toleration when it comes to living in adverse pollen-gathering weather conditions.

To survive winter, bees need a summer. Our girls need a better spot.

They have the best spot possible at my mom’s, but she agreed to a few hives. A few is two, and she's hosting that many hive stands, both full. She's not complaining, yet. In fact, the first thing she does every morning is to hike up her hill and say hello to the girls.

Less than six months ago a car rolled down from the house above and landed in her pool. The area all nicely cleared off, all ready for bees? A car ran through it. Sure it's only happened once in 39 years, but doesn't lightning strike twice in the same place?

We asked our CSA if they wanted bees and they said, “There’s a hive here already but if you think we should have more, go ahead.”

Charlie was ready to load up a hive and go, but I thought it'd be best to visit first being that their location was warmer, but just as foggy. While touring all their acres of broccoli and cabbage and so many different vegetables that I couldn't recognize, the hive's owner came by. We knew she was the hive's owner because who else would get out of a car wearing a full bee suit, including veil?

Cat said she's on a mission: to catch swarms and install them on organic farms up and down the coast. She wasn’t doing it for the money – is there money? – but to help establish bees on the coast, and to support organic farmers.

Later on we learned we weren't able to put one of our hives on the CSA property. The CSA only leases, so they didn't have the final say. Cat found out and told us, “There are a lot of other farms needing hives. Let’s keep in touch. We'll work it out.”

She mentioned she sold her honey at the Pacifica Farmer’s Market. “You ought to stop by,” she said. “Farmer John will be there. He’s a good guy. Maybe he'd want one of your hives.”

Farmer's Markets are the best excuse to buy cookies, so we stopped by. With a mouthful of cashew creams and whoopie pies, we were introduced to Farmer John. 

“Cat’s crazy," he said. "You can do whatever you like, just go through her. You beekeepers are crazy.”

We were too stuffed with sugar to argue.


What Happened to Worrying about Mites?

Golden Gate/Alameda Girls Defending their Hive

One good thing about rooftop beekeeping is the lack of ants. Sure, there's enough high winds and beefy fog to make you think you're on a seagoing vessel in Ireland the middle of March, but that's just summer in San Francisco. Wet streets, bad hair days, but no ants.

At my mom's a few visits ago, it seemed like there were more ants than usual. Usual to us is no ants. Like I said, we don't have ants at home. We don't think to look for them.

We asked around. People told us, “Ants only pick on weak hives," in a tone that implied we were obviously bad beekeepers with scrawny, 90-lb. weakling bees who couldn't even defend themselves against wingless, stingless ants. “There’s nothing you can do.”

We visited the farm at our CSA, Greenhearts Family Farm, and met their beekeeper. She was anything but judgmental so we weren't embarrassed to admit our ant issues. “Sprinkle cinnamon," she said. "That’s what I use.” She had ants? But she seemed so normal.

Santa Clara Beekeepers Guild gave us a free guide, Beekeeping with Essential Oils, when we stopped by their meeting. If cinnamon worked, they would know. Instead, they recommended using Tanglefoot, something so disgusting-sounding that having ants might be preferable. What is it? Where do you get it? 

They warned you have to throw out whatever clothes and tools you used to apply it. The thought of something that gloppy made me not want to even google it. Their second solution was to soak strips of cloth with 3 in 1 oil and wrap it around each hive stand leg. Didn't they have any pleasant-smelling solutions?

Charlie’s chat group suggested setting the hive stand legs in tin cans and pouring in an half inch of oil into the can. Ants will climb in but perish in the deadly, but not stinky, oil moat.
Killing a Yellow Jacket

My mom's organic, natural gardening book recommended spraying the hive stand base with white vinegar. Ants apparently hate the smell of pickles, which is what vinegar smells like to me, or feet.

Since we were at my mom's and she had both vinegar and a spray bottle handy, it was about time somebody did something. (Bees come alive during warm weather. I'm the opposite.) 

We squirted randomly around the base of the hives, staying far away from the bees as best we could. Bees don't like the smell of pickles, either. My mom found some cinnamon and sprinkled it around the hive stand base, too. In this warm weather, she is very much like a bee.

Nothing happened. Ants continued to march up the hive stand legs. Charlie swore at them and shot them with the spray but they kept going, undaunted. Ants can destroy a colony. We should have gone shopping, or at least googled Tanglefoot. Before we left, my mom found three natural, no-pesticide ant traps in her garage and put them down. That was easy enough.

When we returned, the ants were gone. It could have been the cinnamon, the vinegar or the natural ant trap contraptions. When you throw everything at a problem, next time you have that problem, you have to throw everything all over again.

Instead of ants, something else was terrorizing the Golden Gate/Alameda girls hive, our weakest colony. The girls were flying in tight, frenzied circles in front of their front porch. About twenty were flying in and out of the hive entrance, back and forth, pacing nervously. On the front post in front of the hive was the weirdest thing yet: a dozen bees shaking in a tight, little ball.

Yellow Jacket Catchers
There was something strange in the middle of the vibrating ball, something yellow. “It’s a yellow jacket,” Charlie said, looking over from across the hive stand. “They’re being invaded by yellow jackets.”

“Quick,” my mom said to her husband, Yo, standing by. “Get the wasp traps.”

He raced down the stairs with my mom following. Charlie and I watched as yellow jackets flew under the hive to try to get in through the screened bottom boards. "They smell the honey," Charlie said. They figured out they couldn't get in that way so they began to dive-bomb the front porch. We watched without knowing what to do. It was like watching murderers come into your home wanting to kill your children.

I found a block of wood and tried to crush the stupid yellow jackets still trying to get in through the screen bottom boards. It took a lot of concentration to even crush one against the soft earth a few inches below - their flight patterns were so erratic and quick. When I let go, no matter how hard I pressed, they flew off like they'd had a nice massage.

Charlie got down on the path in front and began to stomp. The yellow jackets thought they were escaping by hovering close to the ground but he got one, and smeared it until it was just yellow, stripey pieces in the dirt. I gave up on the wood block and found it was easier to stomp them, even with flip-flops. I flattened two. It felt good, but only until I looked up and saw a yellow jacket fly past security and right into the Golden Gate/Alameda girls' hive.

My mom and Yo returned with three plastic upside-down cup-looking things filled with pieces of bacon and other meaty treats. "The yellow jackets smell the bacon and enter through a hole at the bottom," my mom explained. "They can’t get back out. Sometimes the whole cup is full of yellow jackets." 

As soon as they hung them, the yellow jackets ignored the bees. We ignored all of it and had lunch. While getting my mom a Klondike bar, Yo made a detour and checked the trap closest to the hive. "Seventeen," he said. "I counted seventeen yellow jackets already."
After the Yellow Jackets

People were right - this is our weakest hive and anybody who watches the Discovery channel knows predators pick the stragglers. This hive began as the first swarm we ever caught up on the rooftop: the Golden Gate girls. Being small, we combined it with the second, and last, swarm caught up on the roof. They still weren't thriving so we added the Alameda girls, a swarm we acquired in exchange for a six-pack of IPA. On the roof, they were still the scrawniest, so we brought them down to my mom's. What else can we do? 

After the yellow jackets left them alone, we had to peek inside to learn what kind of bad beekeepers we really were. Were they making babies so they could grow big enough to stay warm over winter? Were they storing enough honey? Were they overtaken by ants, or something else? Did they have mites? Mice? Lizards? 

Nope. They looked like a photo from Good Beekeeping Magazine. So there, people.


Swarming on Squash

Charlie has been cutting out swarm cells, queen bee baby cells, from the Giants hive for a while now. The bees create baby queens by feeding  royal jelly - bee steroids - to a regular baby girl bee and they grow into great big, long queens.

They're easy to find, swarm cells. They're big, droopy blobs stuck along the bottom of the brood frames. Drone cells are big, too, but they don't droop. Bees make new queens when they're unhappy with their old one or when they feel cramped and need to divide and swarm.

Charlie realized cutting out swarm cells wasn't going to work. They were determined to swarm no matter what. He realized he needed to split the hive.

He built a nuc box - a smaller version of a regular hive box - to take the queen and five frames from the Giants to fool them into thinking they’d already swarmed. It was too late and therefore too cold to split it when he finished, so he brought it up in the morning. He opened the door to the roof and saw the sun for the first time in over a week.

He saw something else: a huge black cloud of bees hovering over the raised vegetable beds.

Out loud, Charlie said, "Seriously? You guys couldn't wait another hour?" When you're on the roof, beekeeping and tending vegetables by yourself for hours on end, talking to yourself is the least of your acquired bad habits.

He assumed they were rallying to head across the street to swarm there, but the longer he watched, the more he realized they weren't going anywhere. In fact, they were lowering their cloud onto the squash box, right in front of their favorite saucer of water, and less than ten feet from their old hive. 

"That Giants queen is a fat ass," Charlie said to himself again. "She probably couldn't fly much further."

The cloud landed and split between a zucchini plant and the wooden wind barrier right behind it. The Giants are our second package bees, healthy enough to swarm - duh - and there were at least 30,000 to 40,000 in this split. The original package contained no more than 10,000, so we must not be killer beekeepers (yet).

Charlie told himself, "If I can find the queen and get her into this box, they’ll all follow and this will be the laziest way to capture a swarm." 

He inspected the small clumps beginning to form into clusters and easily found the old queen on a zucchini leaf. She'd been marked when we bought her, painted with a big, bright white dot, but that's not what he found on her now. Queens get a lot of cleaning and crawling on so all she had left was a little shadow of a speck.

Not wanting to lose her, Charlie cut the whole leaf off and set it in the box. Some of the bees followed, if you can call that following. They sort of meandered accidentally in that direction, as if they didn't want to go just yet.

While taking photos, I found what looked like a queen, too, a younger, thinner princess: a virgin queen. To be safe, we flipped her into the box, too. 

That did it. There was enough pheromones coming from the box to get even the most laziest bees excited about making the journey into the box.

Being such a huge swarm, it took them until 8 at night to get in the box. Once they were mostly in, Charlie had to screen it shut. They were so tightly packed that he had to squish some of them just to get the screen secure.

When he caught the swarm from the Slackers, our first bee package, he put them in a new box and back on the same hive stand from which they'd left. It must have confused them, as at least half the swarmers returned to their old hive. 

"It's better to move you," Charlie said, this time to the bees. "Guess where you're going?"

Again, we drove to my mom's, this time with a cardboard box tightly packed with loudly humming bees. If you told me they'd lifted off and were hovering above the back seat, I would have believed you. 

Charlie added a frame of honey and a frame of babies to their new home, once they'd been released. With honey and brood, they'd stay. They'd have food and something to take care of while getting settled in. They'll love it in this ritzy, pollen-filled, sunny neighborhood.

Later in the day, Charlie peeked through the entrance slot to see how they were doing. When you do that, you can see the bottom of the frames and the bottom of the cluster. Inside their hive, bees cluster into a ball to keep their brood warm. There were a few dead bees on the screen bottom board and that’s normal. There were well over 30,000 bees in this little box and they only live six weeks. He thought he would see more.

Having his hive tool and being nosy, he scooped out the dead bees to get a better view. One of the bees he pulled out had an unusually long abdomen; skinny but different than the rest. There goes the virgin queen they worked so hard to make. There can only be one queen and she didn't stand a chance against that old, big fat ass queen. 

Swarming in Sausalito

Philip belongs to the Marin Beekeepers Association and he's on their list for swarm response and rescue. Someone in Sausalito found a swarm had moved into their house, under the roof and behind the fascia boards. They called Philip, and Philip invited Charlie to come along.

When they arrive they see a little tiny hole, no more than an inch in diameter and twelve feet above the deck floor below, with only three or four bees crawling around. “I think this is a tiny colony," Charlie says.

“You never know until you cut away the wall,” Philip said.

Charlie isn’t convinced. It'd take a long time for a swarm to get inside there with that little hole, wouldn't it? And with only a few bees flying in and out, if it is a swarm in there, they must be pretty laid back.

Philip pulls out his heat sensor and points at the hole to take temperature measurements. "This is how I learn where the clusters is," he said. His readings were hottest right below the hole. “That’s where they are,” he said. “Right there.”

He began to cut away the outside of the house. The bees, few that there were, didn't mind that he'd powered up a circular saw and was opening up their wall. They didn't even bother to bump him. 

When he finished cutting, he pulled a piece of the exterior off and they both had a look inside. It's a huge cluster, like a basketball, hanging between the roof joists.

Time to begin sucking. Philip made a bee-vac, like a shop-vac, to extract bees. The machine sucks bees up through the hose and they land in the box. To lessen the impact, the landing spot is fitted with carpet padding.

The hose wasn’t long enough to stretch all the way to the ground so Charlie's job was to hold the box up high enough to reach.

Philip turned the bee-vac on and slowly, with a gentle, circular motion, started sucking bees. The bees, again, were calm. They seemed to be waiting for their turn to be shop-vac'd, watching as he went from the bottom up.

When he was done Philip said, “We’re going to have to wait for foragers to return, even though it’s early in the morning. We'll have to see if a new cluster forms. They may be in the next cavity over, too.”

They waited. Sure enough, a cluster began to form on the other side of the adjacent roof joist. Philip cut out the next section to see a softball-sized cluster. “I bet the queen’s in that cluster,” he said.

“How do you know?”

“The bees, if they sense they’re being compromised, rush the queen off and hide her.”

After slurping up those bees, Philip and Charlie shop vac’d each other since there were bees all over them and that wouldn't make for an easy car ride home.

Philip took out the inner box where the bees accumulated. He showed it to the homeowner while explaining the swarming process. That little box was so full of bees that, looking through the screens on both sides, it was impossible to find a vacant spot.

The box rode in the back of Philip’s pick up truck, along with a few unsucked-up bees holding on along the outside. They must have held on all through Marin, all the way over the bridge, all through the Richmond district, to Noe Valley where they were transferred into one of Charlie's hive boxes.

It’s a crime to make such nice bees reside in the soppy, foggy side of San Francisco. Especially when they had the option to live the cushy life in my mom’s back yard. We brought them down the next morning. When Charlie removed the screen on their hive entrance, they they flew out like, “We’re here! We’re here! Yay!” 

Standing right in front of the hive and wearing inappropriate colored clothing, I didn’t get bumped once. Sausalito bees are too posh for that sort of behavior. 


Bees Like It Hot

Mom's back yard

Less than two months ago, my mom hadn't given a thought to bees. Now she called to say she caught a second swarm. "It's so hot here, over ninety degrees every day," she said. "They must want to come inside and cool off. There's a lot of them this time, too."

Are we here yet?
Our bees on the roof have been doing nothing but cooling off. Someone told me bees get grouchy when it's overcast. Don't we all? We watch them hang around on their front porches, tidying up, waiting for the sun so their little muscles can warm up enough to make it across the street to the pollen store at the park and back.

Our store-bought bee colonies are growing, even in this weather, but the swarm hives are barely hanging on.

The Alameda girls were the weakest, so why not give them a transfer to bee heaven?

When we drove down to check out my mom's new swarm, we brought them along. They were very quiet in the car, very good little travelers, unlike the PGE girls who seemed to power the car with their humming. With them, every bump in the road seemed to piss them off.

Charlie stealing a frame of Saratoga babies
When Charlie pulled the screen off the PGE girls' front door, they charged and swirled up into an ominous hurricane for the rest of the day. He was prepared to do the same when releasing the Alameda girls. But it was as if Charlie opened the back door of the minivan and the kids were happy they had arrived. They crawled out, flew around and inspected their new home. Even though we were all watching, standing too close, wearing inappropriate clothing, not one of us got bumped. They went straight for the flowers.

The second Saratoga swarm
After my mom fed us, another advantage to having a hive at her house, Charlie inspected the other hives. They all had grown, and grown more than twice as much as ours had on the cold roof. We're getting the idea why there aren't a lot of Outside Lands area beekeepers.

My mom's original swarm was doing so well, in particular, that Charlie took a frame of brood and gave it to the Alameda girls. We considered it a little gift to help them grow, even though they were already more active in this one afternoon than they had been all the previous week, thanks to good weather.

Healthy Saratoga bees
Opening up the hive trap (the pink box, the bigger of the two hive traps), we could see the new swarm was indeed a big one. The swarms we caught in San Francisco were like a few families coming down the Oregon trail in covered wagons compared to these huge, Irish potato-famine sized migrations at my mom's.

So that they wouldn't get annoyed and want to leave, Charlie stole a second brood frame from the original Saratoga girls and left it, along with some empty frames, in the hive trap for the new swarm. No matter how bothered the new swarm was, they wouldn't just up and abandon a frame full of babies. We're hard-wired, we women, to take care of babies, even if they're not "ours."

Marching in
Unlike last time, Charlie knew he had the queen inside the hive after all his messing around. Even though the bees were flying around the hive trap confused, they were also fanning their wings, signalling to their sisters that the queen was inside. They smelled whatever it is they smell, got their marching orders and, within minutes, moved in.

Unlike last time, my mom didn't call after we left with questions like, "Why are the bees clustered in a box under their new box?"

We're learning, or, more likely, we're lucky.