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.