5.31.2011

Bugs, Stay Away From My Insects

Why do bees like Charlie's butt?
For a few days, Charlie left the bee girls alone. When it's warm, they're working. When it's windy and rainy, it's easy to get worried. They're up on top of a three-story building where, walking below, you can turn a corner and lose your hat, it's so gusty. They're nature, though. They don't need anyone poking around all the time bothering them.
You can check on them as long as you don't raise the bee roof and freeze them out. Charlie constructed his hives so there's a drawer-like pull-out he can open or shut to operate like cheap air conditioning (we call that a window): bottom boards. With the unusually cold weather, the bottom board has remained closed tight.
He's looked before and noticed what's fallen down in there. The bottom boards look like the ground under a construction project, which is what it is, with bits of pollen and shards of comb instead of wood and nails.
He started with the Golden Gate girls, the wild swarm he caught. They are the smallest, and their board was tidy and free of junk. Next he checked the Alameda girls, the bigger ex-wild swarm. Their bottom board looked like that of a big-city contractor, with lots of debris left from a hard day's work. The Oakland girls, two combined swarms, also looked pretty industrious if you were judging by the droppings.
The first of the store-bought bees, the Giants, had a normal-looking bottom board. The second, the Slackers', their bottom board was a mess and, worst of all, contained two dead varroa mites.
Varroa mites grab onto the back of bees' shoulders and eat their muscle tissue. They get everywhere and, like all parasites, eventually die when they kill the hive. Like all unwanted things, they breed like crazy. They’ll kill a hive within months. They’re said to be partially responsible for colony collapse disorder.
Finding two mites in a hive of 20,000 bees is okay, though. Varroa mites can come from anywhere, even flowers. They might have even found a free ride along with the bees' package.
Looking closer, Charlie saw more than mites. Crawling over the bottom board were little light tan, spider-like dots. Are these baby varroa mites? If so, he'd have to sugar-dust right away, or as soon as the cold air stops blasting the roof.
Sugar-dusting is the same as what you do to cake, and with the same type of sugar. The mites can't hold onto the backs of bees when they've been powder-coated with sugar, so they slip off. You have to do it a on a regular basis to get the baby mites and even then there's a good chance this hive is screwed.
Baby varroa mites don't look like this, though. They had fatter abdomens, were a different color and a different shape. Phew. They're something else.
He asked for help from the Organic Beekeeper's Chat Group. Even if you don't want advice, beekeepers on chat groups will give it to you. And none of it will agree.
"You're going to get spiders," people wrote in reply, "and all kinds of insects like that. It's a dark, warm place. They'll hang out inside the hive, mostly on the bottom board. If the bees don’t want them, don’t worry. The bees will get rid of them."
Spiders? He looked up photos of baby spiders. They looked like garden spiders; harmless and non-venomous.
He was planning to sugar dust, only inside on the computer while waiting for the wind to die down, until this. Opening a hive now would be bee-abuse anyway. Across the street, branches were breaking and crashing. Gusts of wind slammed and shook apartment windows all over the building. The fog was so thick that even if you were energetic enough to go outside, you'd have a hard time not being hit by flying something. Being in nature is like being unemployed: sometimes the best course of action is no action at all.

5.26.2011

How Exciting Is a Bee Meeting?


When you tell people you're going to a bee meeting, they ask you a lot of questions. Like, what the heck do you talk about? What kind of person goes to a meeting about bees? How long can a meeting about bees last? And, what the heck do you talk about?

The bees' view from our roof. Randall Museum's is much better.
We meet at 7:30 pm at the Randall Museum, up high on a hill with a three-quarter view of San Francisco. If it weren't so exciting to go to a bee meeting, the view would be hard to abandon. In summer you can see all the landmarks, most the neighborhoods, and the way to the Bay. In the winter, the city lights remind you how lucky you are to live in the twenty-first century with luxuries such as buses to get you uphill and electricity like stars on the ground. There's no better view unless you're up at Sutro Tower, and if you're there, you're getting blown away by the wind, you're chilly cold, you're trying to ignore stupid tourist comments, and the landscaping consists of weeds.

Most the people who attend are new beekeepers unless there's somebody famous speaking, like Randy Oliver. He's Mr. Science: "Beekeeping through a Biologist's eyes," a quick-talker who uses lots of technical terms and can make funny, on-the-fly bee jokes. Really. He's well worth coming inside for, even without the bee jokes.

This month there was no guest speaker so the senior beekeepers spoke about catching swarms. When they talk about catching swarms, they are referring to containing the swarms that land somewhere, usually on someone's backyard tree branch. Charlie was the only one who'd hive-trapped a swarm intentionally, so he was singled out by name. Embarrassing. We're new. Getting attention is fun only when there are tourists involved and you're purposely dressed like you want it. 

New comb on an old frame
Bees swarm on anything and it freaks people out. You usually see a huge clump of bees on a branch, but also on weirder places. Philip had a call of a swarm in Potrero Hill on a woman’s car. She couldn’t even get inside. There's a great photo of it on the website.

He suggested putting lemongrass oil in a nuc box (a cardboard box used as a temporary hive) to attract them, and applying almond extract to where you don't want them (they hate the smell of it). You can cut a small branch or shake a larger one to allow them to drop into a box, but sometimes you have to use a scooper, like a gutter scooper, and scoop them in. Kirk Anderson at Backwards Beekeepers in L.A. has a shop vac he's modified so he doesn't even have to do that. He sucks them right up. When he's back home, he puts it in reverse, shooting them right into their new residence.

Swarms, all they want it a place to live. They have no hive to defend and no babies to protect so they're not aggressive. They're traveling light since they ate before they left. They stick together so they don't have to use all their energy to stay warm.

Around the room, older men stood up and spoke of swarms they'd caught. All of them seemed to like standing up and talking to a roomful of attentive people, giving advice about anything bee-worthy. "The first time you do it," one guy said, "you're intent on catching the swarm and you forget about your own safety. If it's forty feet up, it's not worth the $70 worth of bees if you fall and crack your skull." Most stories were about swarms knocked off tree branches until one guy shared how he pulled a swarm off a chain-link fence. That sounded pretty complicated since, if they won't go into the box, you can't simply saw off a piece of fence and shake it over the nuc.

A guy from San Mateo said when people call about bees swarming in their yard, they're frantic. "If you ask how big is it, they’ll say the swarm is huge. That doesn’t mean anything. A hundred bees is huge to someone who doesn't know. You want to ask how big is the swarm compared to a basketball. Ask how high it is too," he said, "but you won’t get a good answer about that, either, unless you ask in specifics. Is the swarm waist high? Head high? You'll need to know what kind of ladder to bring." 

Bees on frames in their hive
"Swarming is as natural as swallows heading to San Juan Capistrano every year," he said, "the same as salmon swimming upstream. If you give them a comparison, if you tell them it's natural, people usually calm down."

Somebody else mentioned swarming is genetic. They'll swarm once, taking a new queen and about a third of the hive. They might do it again, depending. "Some bees swarm so much you can’t stop them," he said, "even if you get rid of the queen eggs. With some bees, it’s in their genetics to swarm."

This guy talked for a while about killing all the queen egg cells but two, insuring that the hive will swarm but it won't swarm every time another queen happens to hatch. "You don't want your hives to swarm so much that you have a weak colony," he said. 

He had a lot of good information but by that time I was swarming myself, over by the cookies made by the wife of the most respected of all the beekeepers. They're both original members, but she's so allergic to bees that she has an epipen on her at all times. She's well respected, both for her willingness to support her husband's potentially deadly-to-her hobby, and for her amazing, benevolent baking skills.

Other senior beekeepers shared their swarm stories but by that time only the most serious and most patient members were sitting on the edge of their seats with raised hands and excited-sounding questions. The rest of us tiptoed to the back table and hovered, finishing off the five different kinds of cookies. Some of us at the meeting here appreciate nature and bees, and the cycle of life. Others of us are more respectful of the results of beekeeping, particularly when made into luscious home-made cookies.

Peeking Into Beekeeping

Three weeks ago we brought the Slacker bees and the Giants to their newhome. That's plenty of time to settle in, make some babies and create a population explosion up on our roof. Unlike people, more babies are better; bees only live four to six weeks.

What doesn't reproduce best when left alone? Even though you might be itchy curious about what's going on inside your hives, you have to resist the urge to peek for the first three weeks. Just like with teenagers, if you give them the opportunity, they'll do what comes naturally.

At three weeks you can act like the mom and see how the kids are doing. You check to see if babies are being born, if the queen is laying eggs, if there are honey stores and pollen. You observe the brood patterns on the frames, making sure the queen lays her eggs in a regular pattern from the middle to the edge and the color of the brood light cardboard brown.

Our store-bought bees looked fine. 

The wild bees are too new to bother just yet but the San Francisco girls hadn't been moved from the hive trap box. It's time they found a permanent home. Charlie rounded up Dylan - another opportunity to wear his bee suit - and they both took all the frames out of the hive trap box and put them into a new, fresh box. The bees in residence moved when their babies were moved. They were excited, flying all over the place, and that means they're happy. When they're depressed they stay inside, acting lethargic, just like you and me.

The forager bees were out collecting pollen when the rest of their family moved. To let them know where their new home is, Charlie put a piece of their familiar-smelling comb at the entrance to the new box. You can watch the forager bees fly toward the new, different box, wondering what happened. Once they sniff at the comb, they recognize the smell of mom and family, and confidently fly through the front door as if to say, "Honey, I'm home!"

5.15.2011

Free Bees, Hella Oakland

Michael, who trapped and gave us our Alameda colony, told Charlie "If you want more swarms, post on our website."

Two days later, Pat from Alameda Bee Club called. "I captured a swarm but it took a lot of work to get it, so I'm going to charge you," he said. "If you want it, come and get it."

"Do you know for sure if you have the queen?" With a wild swarm of bees, you never know if you capture the queen. The queen is the worst flier.

"I don't know," Pat said. "But if you want them, come and get them. I'll charge you $50."

Charlie wanted Dylan to come since he's unusually calm around bees. "Let's go to Oakland and pick up some bees," Charlie said.

Dylan agreed to go even though we don't have a truck. He'd be riding home with them, holding them in his lap. Pat caught them in a paint bucket in which he'd drilled tiny air holes. All the way home, the bees peered out at Dylan through the air holes, probably wondering where he was taking them. To cold San Francisco, that's where.

In the cold, foggy morning, Charlie dumped the bees out of their old paint bucket and into a fresh hive. He left the bucket near the entrance so the stragglers could make their way home, too.

It looked like a lot of bees in this colony, more than what we got in the bee packages. For the packages, the sellers measured out three pounds of bees and that adds up to about ten thousand. Don't ask how you weigh bees. That's why they're professionals. This Oakland colony seemed to be at least another pound's worth, justifying Pat's payment.

You can't see the queen when you dump them - there are simply too many bees. You're too busy doing dump and cover. With weather like this, they needed the rest of the day to adjust. Oakland, among other differences, definitely is more plentiful with the UVA and UVB rays.

When Charlie checked them again they were bearding around the entrance to the hive; congregating on their front porch. That's not normal. They should be doing orientation flights, looking for food sources and checking out the new scenery. When you see bearding, either one of two things is happening: it's too hot so they go outside to cool off, or they are queenless and they don't know what else to do. Why build comb or look for food if they have no babies, no future?

Charlie called Pat and told him "Fifty bucks is too much for a queenless colony."

"It's all good," Pat said. "I captured another swarm. They're really sweet bees, really gentle, about two pounds. Come get them for free."

This time Charlie brought a hive box with him so he could dump the bees right into their new home, right away. It's less traumatic to move once.

Inside the bucket, Charlie sprayed them with sugar-water. If this were an established hive, he'd use smoke. Without a hive to defend, smoke wouldn't calm them. He's hoping they'll eat the sugar-water stuck to their bodies rather than sting him. It's the same idea as if someone dumped cookies and cream ice cream all over you. Yeah you might be annoyed, but only after a few delicious sugary-sweet bites.

With his veil on, Charlie dumped the bees out of the bucket and into their new hive. He figured the veil would be good enough, what with Pat advertising their gentleness and the sugar water they'd be licking off themselves.

Wrong. With the first bump of the bucket, three bees flew out and attacked his left forearm. He kept shaking and bumping until the bucket was empty. Twenty or thirty fell to the ground outside the hive and he didn't want to abandon them. It's not like bee stragglers can just join a new colony. Even if they found one, they'd smell like strangers and wouldn't be accepted. So single bees are always dead bees. Beekeepers don't have the heart for that.

He closed up the hive, left the entrance open and waited to see if the stragglers would find their way into the hive on their own. If they went in, he'd save the stragglers and he'd know he got the queen. They can't resist the way she smells.

Pat and Charlie watched while Charlie pulled stingers from his forearm. If you scrape them out in the same direction as they entered and you don't squeeze the poison sac in the process, you won't feel the wound. The poison takes about twenty or thirty seconds to empty into the host.

Without hesitation, the stragglers marched straight into their new home. Charlie had a real queen.

At home, he removed the floor of this hive and the roof of the queenless hive, put the new hive on top of the old, separated by a sheet of newspaper. That way the bees could get used to each other, get familiar with each others' smells, before they chewed through. If you force them together without a proper introduction, they'd just argue.

The next morning, there were no dead bees at the entrance to the super Oakland hive duplex, and best of all, no bearding. Unfortunately, it's been rainy, foggy, and miserably cold since their arrival from the balmy East Bay. Sorry Oakland girls. San Francisco is the U.S.'s number one tourist destination, but this has nothing to do with the weather.

5.13.2011

Catch Some Local Girls: They're Wild and Free

Charlie's hive traps seemed to be compelling only to the dine-and-dashers. For about a month he noticed ten to thirty bees dropping by, checking it out, but not making the commitment to move in. They didn't want to sign the lease.

After he got the two packaged hives and the Alameda bees, he took the bigger pink trap down. Nobody in San Francisco has had success with hive traps, especially not in the foggy side of town. With two store-bought hives and one wild catch, he's already earned his "A" in beekeeping. Besides, there's only so many times you show a prospective tenant the apartment before you stop taking their calls.

He pushed the blue hive trap over to the low-rent side of the stand, the windy side, and ignored it. "See?" he thought. "I've got real bees living here. I don't need your pity visits."

When he checked on the Giants, the Slackers, and the Alameda Girls, that blue hive trap box got a sneer. Teasing girls aren't welcome anywhere. He wanted someone willing to settle down, to give up the wild life and put down some roots.

You're supposed to check your hives after two weeks to make sure you can see eggs. The queen needs to prove she's doing her job.

Charlie suited up and pulled the roof off the Slacker hive first. It took no time to find the queen. On the packaged bees, the queen has a white dot on her back. Even without the dot, she's pregnant and huge. As a big, beautiful woman, she's hard to miss.

He watched her drop her ass end into a honeycomb cell, deposit a rice grain-looking baby, situate herself at the next cell, and repeat .

Proud of his girls, he put the roof back on. Topless, they quickly lose heat. They get annoyed, they slow down, and if cold for too long, they'll die.

More carefully, he opened up the Giants hive. Those Giants don't do anything half-assed, and neither does their queen. She was squatting and giving birth like a professional, dropping clear rice grain babies into cells like Lincecum pitching scoreless balls.

Onto the Alameda Girls. How different would natural childbirth be for a bee? Even without a white dot she was hard to miss. Energetically crouching and spewing, she was giving the Giants' queen strong competition for Mother of the Year.


All three queens were alive, accepted by their hives, and squirting out kids. Worker bees were flying in from the park with leg sacs filled with loads of pollen. Unlike in his previous career in law enforcement, these citizens followed the rules without fear of penalty. The less he made his presence known, the better they did their work. There are so many stories about new beekeepers: the queen couldn't mate and wasn't laying eggs, the queen wasn't accepted by the colony and therefore killed, or the beekeeper himself killed the queen while putting the roof back on.

Charlie felt pretty smug until he spied the blue box at the end of the stand. The usual few bees hovered around the entrance. Don't move in, he thought. See what I care. I've got accomplished, upmarket bees from such exotic places as Orland and Alameda, and unlike you moochers, they like it here.


He lifted the roof to put more lemongrass oil in, hoping to attract a better class of bees. Right there, in the middle of the trap, was a football-sized clump of bees. A couple of bees flew out and up toward him, bumping his veil Kamikaze-style. It freaked him out enough that he dropped the roof, right down on top of the new tenants; something a new beekeeper would do.


Lifting the lid a second, more careful time, he removed the lemongrass oil and added frames to make this box into a real hive. In the process, more and more bees bumped his bonnet, acting assertive and bossy as if to tell him to hurry up and get out of here. When you're wild, you need to be spunky to survive. And with beekeeping, it's all about survival.

Even on the windy, foggy side of the city, you get lucky sometimes.

5.03.2011

Alameda Bee Girls

In L.A, beekeepers catch swarms every day. On a good day, they'll pick up three or four free swarms of local, healthy bees. People call Backwards Beekeepers from all over the greater L.A. area, begging them to come pick up bees. They pick swarms off trees at the Home Depot parking lot, off electric meters, barbeque grills, all free for the taking. It seems so easy.

Here in San Francisco, nobody ever catches bees. If you want bees, you have to buy them from breeders in Orland or from nowheresville, Central Valley, or get them sent in the mail. Charlie's inquired to all different types of beekeepers around here. Nobody has a good capture story. Not one, not here, not yet. Not good.

L.A. and San Francisco have this competitive nature - it's always been this way, at least to us northerners. The rest of the country lumps us together but we're two different States, joined together in self-absorption and sunny weather. When a SoCal girl moved to our high school, we'd imitate her Valley Girl oh my God! articulations, we ignored her bleachy, dry blond hair and too-browned bikini body, and we rolled our eyes at her knowledge of absolutely nothing useful, like how many calories were in Life Savers or Tic-Tacs. We're Silicon Valley. They're Hollywood. Of course we're better.

Charlie has been hanging around the Backwards Beekeeper chat groups in L.A. trying to learn how they're capturing all these swarms. Free wild bees are the best. They've already proven they can survive in the wild, coming from survivor stock specific to the area. They'll be most immune to colony collapse disorder. Why import when you can grow your own? It's like farming versus shopping. We want to be farmers: bee farmers. Shopping is more L.A.

After much research, Charlie put out a couple of hive traps. A hive trap is an old bee hive box. For bees, an old box contains familiar smells. It's like going to Grandma's house. It smells like home.

He put them out a month ago when all the L.A. beekeepers were buzzing about all the bees they were catching. He was jealous, like we were of the SoCal girls' tans and blond hair. We should be able to do anything they do in L.A. Silicon Valley is at least as important to the world as Hollywood.

Better doesn't mean first. Being south, when it comes to nature, L.A. gets everything first. Their flowers bloom earlier, their produce ripens sooner, the back of their hands dot with age spots sooner.

It wasn't as if Charlie had no visitors to his hive traps. On sunny days, bees took a drive across the park. They hung around for a couple of hours and went home before dark. Every sunny day they showed up for the free retreat. But they wouldn't commit. Before we left for Florida, we'd see one or two bees flying in for a quick visit and that was it. There was no reason to think we'd be catching wild bees.

Charlie gave up, left the hives out on the roof because he didn't have anywhere else to put them, and turned to Craigslist. What happened if he lost a queen? He'd be down to one hive. Since this is all he's got going in his life, it's not like he could even pretend it's a job. One hive is pure hobby.

On Craigslist, a beekeeper in Alameda, where it's sunnier sooner than San Francisco, had a swarm move into one of his old hives. Charlie asked if he could pick it up when we returned. He did, after getting lost for an hour in the Webster tube and having to call Michael the beekeeper for directions, again and again.

Michael helped Charlie put window screen over the hive entrance. He wanted the bees to breathe but not escape during the car ride home. Once home, he opened the trunk. It was quiet: no bees excited or angry, nothing lying dead anywhere.

Up on the roof at ten at night, he set the hive on his stand. He whipped up a tasty batch of sugar water - his specialty by now - and left the girls to sleep. They had a big day, moving to the big city.

This morning, they were still bashful. The slackers and the Giants brought in the Welcome Wagon to greet their new neighbors but no matter how many times they rang the doorbell, the Alameda girls pretended they weren't home. He kept watching all morning and only saw a couple of the Alameda bees come and go. Being Charlie, he panicked. What if they swarmed and left? He'd be a bad beekeeper. He wouldn't answer Michael's calls, asking how the girls were. He'd hide in the back at beekeeper meetings. He'd stick to growing arugula, which, being like a weed, he could grow pretty easily even if nobody wanted to actually eat it.

Bravely, Charlie put on his suit, lit up the smoker and went in to wake up the new arrivals, if there were new arrivals. He stuck the smoker tip into the entrance of the hive, squeezed the puffer and felt one step closer to a dirty uniform. Dirty uniforms, unlike in law enforcement, equal professionalism.

He was nervous there'd be no bees. That's all he envisioned. First he worried, then he got annoyed: why would they do that to him? He'd never live this down. Getting lost in the Alameda tube for an hour is embarrassing enough, but now this?

Calming down, he popped the lid. Inside, to his surprise, there were thousands of bees, all of them eating honey made from Alameda flowers, gorging themselves in response to the smoke. They didn't care they were in San Francisco. They acted like "We're from the East Bay. We don't need your pampering. We're big girls. We got this."

Bees build bridge comb between the frames, which these bees had started to do. You don't want that. You have to clean it up so you can get the honey out later on. This gave Charlie something important to do to help them.

He didn't wait around to look for the queen afterward. It would have been harder with these wild women: she wouldn't have the white dot on the back of her neck like store-bought queens. There was no question she was there. He could see eggs, shaped like tiny white bananas. That's all the proof you need.

He put the roof on and let nature do what it does best: create life, swarm and breed, even in cool and foggy San Francisco.

Back to the Bees

Stella and Dylan
We returned home to a flurry of emails from SF Bee Association members. Several people, who received their bees when we did, found dead queens outside their hives. If you don't have a queen, you don't have a hive. They need an egg they can make into a queen but without a queen, how would they reproduce? We wondered: what happened to our hives while we were gone?

Dylan was our backup caretaker and for payment, Charlie bought him his own suit and veil. Charlie is a little too into uniforms if you ask me. It must be some kind of remnant from his former work life in law enforcement. In that field, if you aren't wearing a uniform, you aren't working. Uniforms for everybody! If you're working, make it official. Wear a uniform and you can call it work, and call it important even if you don't get paid.

Dylan went up all four days to check the sugar water levels and called Charlie right away with a status check report. The laid back hive, the one with slacker bees too relaxed even to stress about their move, had emptied their whole jar of sugar water. That's a lot of drinking, but that's what slackers do, right? Over the phone, Charlie walked Dylan through the steps of making more.

The Giants, by contrast, hadn't touched half of their liquids. Dylan thought that might mean they're relying on their natural pollen rather than the man-made sugar water, since they seemed to be busy, happy, productive, and flying around a lot. It's nature, this bee business. There's nothing you can do to change nature, especially when you're enjoying litter-free Florida freeways. Even if we were home, what could we do? You think cats are independent - try insects.

Four days later, Charlie raced upstairs first thing in the morning to be reunited with his darlings. Both hives were extremely active, meaning bees were racing around, working as if on a mission. The sun was out and, like everyone in San Francisco when the fog burns off, they were buzzing.

Dylan was right about the Giants' sugar water drinking habits: they were like Mormons in Las Vegas. The slackers, meanwhile, had already gulped down half of Dylan's replacement batch. What did this mean? Were the Giants dying or were they adapting?

Leaving sugar water out too long creates real alcohol. Charlie made up a fresh batch and brought it upstairs. It's the only thing he could do to help, if help was needed.

In nature, you can only guess: it's not foolproof. You learn by asking around and listen to everybody's different and sometimes opposite opinions. Then you observe; you do original research like any academic scientist. You figure out what's going on by putting the two together.

To prepare for the academic aspect, and on the pretense of calming the bees, Charlie brought up a chocolate cigar. We'd purchased these cigars for Evan, my oldest, in Hawaii on our last visit per his request. Since he hasn't visited us to claim them, Charlie's been pilfering the stash. Chocolate in our house quickly disappears, and cigars are no exception. This was the last of the chocolate ones. You'd better hurry up, Evan, or we'll have to go back to Hawaii and get you some more.

Oddly, bees really do calm down around smoke. Their natural reaction when they think there's a fire is to gorge themselves on honey, thinking they're going to have to move. Their focus is on eating rather than defending the hive. Just like anyone after a heavy meal, they get sluggish. They're like Grandma after Thanksgiving dinner. Murder is the last thing on her mind.

Before lighting up, Charlie poked around the gravel in front of the beehives, searching for a queen with a big white dot marked on her neck. Bees only live for six weeks. When they die in the hive, their sisters carry their bodies out and drop them out beyond their front porch. Charlie found a few big, fat drones, easily recognized by their big fly-like eyes, and some old, tired little grandmas. No big white dotted dead ladies, though. That's a big relief.

Reclined on a white plastic chair, three floors up, across from the park, under a clear blue warm sky, watching bees while smoking a chocolate cigar, Charlie tackled the important business of his personal academic bee research. Research involves counting, so Charlie counted how many bees flew into their hive with full pollen sacs. If you know what you're looking for, you can see pollen sacs. When they're full, it looks like the bees are carrying little bright yellow beach balls on the back of their legs.

Every fourth or fifth bee had full pollen sacs. Each hive was exactly the same. The Giants hive wasn't drinking their sugar water, just as Dylan suggested, due to adapting to their environment and relying on their pollen.  The laid back bees in the slacker hive must have been true to their moniker and, like all layabouts, simply gotten a good case of the munchies.

5.01.2011

Four Day Bee Break in Ruralsville, Florida

Four days in the deep, rural part of Florida closest to nowheresville, Georgia: what does that mean to you? To me, in a word, backwards. There's no cell coverage, no internet, no healthy food (believe me), not even a Starbucks within an hour's drive. Everything I hold precious, and I don't include Starbucks in that, was absent.

It's the first time I've visited Charlie's relatives in their home base. His brother retired here and brought along his mother and special needs older sister to stay in a nearby rest home. For four years, I've been too scared to witness the rural South first-hand.

The rural South, in this case, is Sirmans Florida. Sirmans, if you don't know, is a town of about ten or fifteen farms that surround a dump and a Baptist church: the city center. The dump, Charlie's brother says, is where people get together when they want to be social. You'd think they'd want to go to the church for that but Charlie's brother said people, not him of course, ran the pastor out of town recently. He was too radical, voicing crazy ideas about starting a youth group.

Charlie's brother has a farm. Since we have bees, we're now open to looking at all kinds of nature and nature is what you find here, whether you like it or not.

Driving up to this farm, the first thing you see is a little fish house - a structure with windows and a porch - from which Charlie's brother ran a fish farm. He bulldozed the dirt around property the size of half of Golden Gate park and created lakes. He stocked them with fish that, no matter how many times I asked, I could never remember the names. They weren't salmon. People paid a dollar to fish and it seems like a good deal as you'd be guaranteed to at least catch something.

His aren't the only ponds, though. On the drive in, I spotted ponds big and small, with people fishing on them, everywhere. Who would drive all the way out to his property to fish? To fish at his lakes, you'd have to pass up an awful lot of free fishing opportunities.

We decided he must have wanted a reason to start a business. Either that or he really likes to fish and this was a way he could do that and take a tax write-off, too. Twenty years later, pretty lakes decorated with lily pads and generations of forgetfully-named kind of fish, a fish house with a porch, decorate the edge of his gorgeous property. I've started dumber, uglier businesses with less entertainment and good-eating value.

The next feature you see, the feature you see driving everywhere around Madison County, Florida, is Charlie's brother's herd of brown, lazy cows, if you can call twenty cows a herd. They were doing what all the cows along the drive here were doing: lying down, watching the passing cars along the road. The few who weren't staring at traffic were spread out on the meadows eating grass. It wasn't even hot and they looked like they were worn out.

Or like they weren't even trying. Coming from California, I'm used to driving by high-production Holsteins pumped up on hormones, steroids, and every other chemical known to maximize profitability. I've never seen a Holstein lying down or standing still. They even chew in a hurry. The herds are so huge and crowded in comparison that it's no wonder Cali cows don't lie down and watch cars. Keeping that growth hormone fed probably takes up all their energy, and the ratio of food to cow in a big herd must be a lot less. Even our cows are urban.

The last thing I noticed, the one that took me by surprise coming from the big city, is the lack of garbage.

I don't mean personal garbage. There's a lot of that. You know, the junk around peoples' mobile homes that looks like their house threw up everything inside and the owners gave up and decided to leave it there. Not all the homes in the area were mobile homes and not all of them had that fifteen-yard radius of crap all the way around, but too many did. When you think of people who are in real need, people who have nothing, you visualize people with an overwhelming amount of junk. Once that junk fills up their home's insides, somehow it migrates outside too. Is there a correlation between the amount of junk-surrounded mobile homes and the amount of "Repeal Obamacare" billboards? Yes, I think so.

The garbage I didn't see, the garbage we urban people have in abundance, is the side of the road kind. All the roads in cities, all freeways everywhere, have a lot of litter decoration. There are so many shoes along the sides of San Francisco city streets and highways that, if they had mates, we could give them out as souvenirs. There are clothes, too, on street corners all over the park so if you're cold you don't have to go far to find something to keep you warm. There are drink containers, broken glass from drink containers, cigarettes and packaging, other types of packaging, papers, notes that aren't interesting enough to pick up and read, plastic pieces and plastic shards of pieces, toys and newspapers, pacifiers, and anything you can throw out of a car window if you decide you don't want to own it for as long as it takes to find a trash can.

For four whole rural days I scoured the roads, spying. When the lazy brown cows and mobile homes with moats of broken cars and furniture became boring or sad, there was always the clean, mowed, junk-free side of the road to contemplate. Always. All the way from the Jacksonville airport to the innards of Madison county, a two and a half hour drive and all the time we rode to the Winn-Dixie and to Denny's, and all the way back to the airport where there was a Starbucks, it was verdantly, environmentally-friendly, extraordinarily, green.