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.