5.03.2011

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.