4.26.2011

Blue Sky in the Richmond District

A queen in her box
It was like a bike fest out there this morning, there were so many bicyclists riding through the park this morning. That's what waking up to clear, icy blue sky and temperatures close to sixty will do. Dylan rode with me through the park, always the breeziest part of the ride, along the Ocean Beach path where it warmed up, and halfway around Lake Merced where he broke off to head to school.

It's been a while since I've ridden with anybody beside Scott Simon on Morning Edition in my ear buds. Getting out of my own head, or Scott's, was nice. The ocean seemed sparklier, the air fresher, and I felt like I was part of something rather than just another person with a mental list of things to do to get through another day.

On the bees' third day, they get great weather and a free queen. The queens come from a different colony in their own separate box. They've been bred with drones from another colony to strengthen the new hive's gene pool. If you put the new queen directly in with the hive of foreign bees, they would kill her. They need to be separate - within smelling distance - for three days.

The queen's box is mesh on two sides and has a hole drilled into one side. When we got her, the hole was corked up. Charlie replaced the cork with a mini-marshmallow. The idea being that the queen will eat away at one side of the marshmallow and the bees in the hive will eat away on the other. A mini-marshmallow is just big enough to last exactly three days, perfect timing.

As with the bees' mobile home, if you don't take the queen's box out quickly, they'll build comb all over it. They're eager to get busy building their comb, for good reason. The first comb is the brood chamber where the queen lays her eggs. The normal life of a bee is six weeks. If they don't start having babies, no one will take care of them in their old age.

Earlier, while eating his oatmeal, Charlie saw the bees hovering out our third-floor apartment window, watching him. He knew then that they were already out, awake and exploring.

They looked calm but he put on his suit anyway. He bought it, he might as well use it. The more he wears it, the more it'll get dirty and the more he'll look like an experienced beekeeper.

Once up on the roof, he saw the bees circle the hive and float across the street toward the flower garden at the corner bench seat by the entrance to the park. As he removed the first hive roof, not one bee crawled on him or flew toward him. He pulled out the queen box and brushed off the hitchhikers with his fingers. They flew right down into the hive as they should.

He was nervous taking the roof off the second hive. You never know quite what the Giants will do. You can't control nature.

He pulled off the roof. This time they acted like he wasn't even there, as if they were thinking, "Oh, this guy again. He's not going to hurt us."

Yesterday, the Giants circled in a big tornado that blanketed the whole street corner where we live. Today, only half the bees were even in their hives. That's how many were out exploring. Exploring means they're out after pollen. Pollen makes honey.

Blue sky is sweet!

4.25.2011

Every Little Thing Gets Grumpy During Remodeling

You don't want the bees' mobile home to remain inside the hive, just like you don't want your storage boxes lining the walls of your new home forever. Leaving the bees' temporary home in their hive  gives them the idea to start decorating, in this case with honeycomb. They'll make comb all over the place instead of on the frame. Frames are easily lifted up for honey removal. Mobile home comb - nobody'd eat that honey.

One day is all you get, bees.

As Charlie approached, he saw that the bees were hanging out on their front porch drinking sugar water. Sugar water in an upside down glass jar with holes poked in the top is their food for now. They're disoriented from moving so they don't know where to find flowers. Without sugar water, they'll starve.

Charlie lifted the top off the hive and saw that half the bees hadn't even come out of the mobile home, thinking let's just live here. The big move is over. They're in their new home, making the beds, consulting with the decorator bees, thinking about comb placement.

He picked up the mobile home, turned it upside down, and the lazy bees hung on. They didn't get the hint. He had to shake the box to get them out. What happens when you push a passive creature too far?

They stopped being passive and went straight for aggressive. First they landed on Charlie's veil, looking through as if to say, "What the heck are you doing?"


When he didn't stop shaking, they went for the veil. Straight for it, Kamikaze-style. The more shaking, the more attacking.


Once most of them got the hint, Charlie put the mobile home on the front porch of their hive so the stupid, stubborn ones would realize they were now outside instead of inside, and get moving. He put the roof back on, left them alone, and moved onto the next hive.

We refer to the second hive as the Giants not because of their size but due to the sticker on the box. From the moment they were shown their new home, they became those rowdy neighbors everybody crosses the street to avoid. When Charlie first opened their mobile home, they went nuts. Unlike the first hive, they raced to the queen's separate quarters and tried to barge in. The ones not breaking into the castle acted like they were breaking out of jail. They went everywhere.

One of them found her way into Shelly's hoodie and buried herself in her hair. Shelly is like me - we do the important job of observing and hanging back; Shelly even more than me. So this little bee had to really hunt to search out the one of us who was the least bee-excited. Once her goal was met, the bee panicked. When you're a bee and you panic, you have but one option. Shelly's forehead became first casualty. Thus the Giants' reputation was born.

The Giants hive didn't go immediately crazy when Charlie raised the roof. They were already on edge, like they had their armaments ready and waiting, but they didn't strike without provocation.

Once provoked, that is once Charlie removed their mobile home, they went straight-up Kamikazi. No hesitation. These weren't contemplative bees.

Not all the bees went full combat. In fact, both hives had about the same percentage of attack bees.

After Charlie returned their roof, unlike the first hive, the Giants didn't calm right down. They had to burn off some of that excess irritation by pacing back and forth, racing, acting like a bunch of old men pissed they couldn't make the yellow light.

When it was time to pick lettuce for lunch, the Giants were revving their engines. With the fog clearing, they had another excuse to get out and show their team spirit. Charlie's veil came in handy once again. No bees were harmed in the picking of our salad.

The Suit Makes It Serious

When you get a box of bees, they come in a little mobile home. You drop the whole thing into your hive and slam on the lid. The next day, you have to take their mobile home out. If you don't, they'll think it's part of the hive and you'd have a mess. Or they would. Either way, it'd be a lot harder to extract honey. That's why we're doing it.

The bees don't like you messing with their little trailer and their new home, so for this task Charlie put on his full beekeeping suit and veil. This is the first time he's had to wear it. It's so clean and business-like, as if it's his first day on a real job.

What do you do on the first day of your new job? Take a photo. So I did from the comfort of the living room. It's cold outside!

He left about an hour ago. Dressed like this, there's not a lot of places he'd go. He must be up there, like he was last night, simply watching his new pets. Last night he had a cigar and beer up there, watching and celebrating. I hope that's not what he's doing now.

4.24.2011

What's That Buzzing Sound?

With no kids, no jobs, no pets, no mortgage, and a sucky economy, the natural thing to do is start a rooftop garden and get bees, right? Especially since we live in a third floor apartment building that we don't own, and in the outer Richmond district where it's foggy all the time.

Okay, not all the time. On a good day, the fog burns off at 1:30 pm and if it's not raining - meaning not summer - we get glorious sixty degree sun until the fog blows in like steaming tea kettle no later than 3:30 pm.

First, the garden boxes. Anybody can find a container, throw some dirt in it and grow something, even kids. My kids grew beans from seeds they planted in old cans. They grew rapidly, just like in Jack and the Beanstalk, the book they were probably tying into this little nature experiment. Unlike Jack's beanstalk, my kids' plants grew spindly and ugly, and the kids forgot about them after a week. When they weren't looking, I threw them out and they never once asked where they went.

Charlie likes using his tools, so he built three big boxes and somehow lugged them up to the roof. Somehow he managed to get big sacks of soil up there, too, while pulling a muscle in his back. When he could stand upright, he planted lettuce and strawberries: seedlings instead of seeds since we need more immediate gratification than kids.

Why lettuce and strawberries? What are the two things you don't mind having in excess? Not carrots: if you eat too many, your nose turns orange. And anything taller, like corn, wouldn't survive the gusty ocean wind.

Now for the bees. We ordered two packages of bees, thinking one would be good since we don't know what we're doing, but two would be even better.

Two-is-better is the same philosophy I have with cookies, too. It works perfectly, up until my pants get tight. Then it works to give me motivation to increase my running mileage. If I had any discipline, I'd be so freakin' lazy.

The bees have their own busy schedule and you can't get them until they're good and ready. They waited until the next available holiday to be ready: Easter. That means we don't go to my sister's house and she tells my dad, the owner of our apartment, the specific reason why we're not coming.

She didn't have to be so honest, but that's my sister. I could have confronted her but the good thing is now my dad knows. The other good thing is that my sister told him. I wouldn't want him stumbling up there lifting the hive lid wondering what was going on in the boxes, but I sure wasn't going to tell him. He doesn't have pets, he pays someone to mow his lawn, and in order to be the property manager for this apartment, he made us give away our dog. I don't think he's the type, like Charlie, to call bees "cute."

So this morning, Easter Sunday, while other people celebrate joy and new life in their church, we drove home with six pounds of bees in the back seat of the car to celebrate joy and new life on our roof.

Charlie sneaked the bees up through the service stairs when nobody was looking and set them up. He's the one who spent hours every day looking at YouTube videos and, at bee association meetings, took notes instead of seconds and thirds at the cookie table, to figure out how to do it. He didn't use gloves (don't ask me why), he didn't get stung and the girls are buzzing around up there, adjusting to their new home.

Charlie hasn't been down from the roof in hours. He has had a hard time since we gave away our dog, so he could be excited to have pets again. Or he could be excited to have something to do besides listening to me complaining about my pants getting tight.