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.