Power Bees

Dylan, Mom and Charlie

If PGE finds a swarm in a utility box, they call Philip. Philip is our bee Maharishi, and if there’s anyone who is calm enough to remove thousands of wired bees from a public place, it’s him. He has ten hives in his yard, as many as he wants, so he shares what he seizes. All you have to do is bring over a box. We dropped off two.

If you’re going to stress out the bees by sucking them out of a utility box, stress them once. People often catch swarms by knocking them off whatever they happened to land on, usually a tree branch, and into a bucket. After traumatizing them once, they shake them from their bucket and into a hive box for a second round of trouble. That’s more stress than necessary, Philip says. When he removes a swarm, they go from utility box to hive box, leaving the bucket under his sink.

Philip caught us two PGE swarms. The first one, a monstrous seven-pound swarm, came home to our roof. The second was a combination of a couple of small swarms he’d collected.  These girls were going to my mom’s. They’d build faster over there, in her lush garden acre with real, authentic summer weather (sun instead of fog, in other words).

As long as we’re bringing a colony to my mom’s, we put our two struggling hives in the car and brought them along, too. These two hives were swarms we caught: the Golden Gate girls and another one too small to have their own name. Combining them in to one hive would make them stronger. Warming them up would make them stronger still. Everything does better in the sun.

Smoking bees
Both of Philip’s colonies seemed bitchy. Even inside the box, they were bumping and buzzing, clearly cranky like teenagers on a road trip. The last thing they remembered, they were in a PGE utility box, getting comfortable. Without any kind of warning, they all of a sudden got sucked into a shop vac (okay, a “bee vac”) and now they were trapped in a box with a mesh screen stapled to the entrance.

Looking at the mesh screen, the bees stare back as if they were in jail. They stay close against the mesh, their faces pressed to the screen, their tongues lashing out. It’s like they’re at the starting gate, waiting for the gun to go off, hyped up on ‘roids, saying, “Let me at ‘em! Let me out!”

Hoping to get it over quickly, Charlie yanked the entrance screen off like a band-aid, but one of the staples stuck. They didn’t care. They poured out of the half hive entrance like water out of a faucet, dive bombing Charlie’s head and face while he struggled with the staple. Seeing how angry they were, he ran off. Half open was good enough until they calmed down. Twenty minutes later, the rest of the screen came off in the midst of World War Bee, the bees not letting up on the dive-bombing. They made the Oakland girls look like kittens in comparison. Charlie didn’t get stung but it’s a good thing these bitches were staying here on the roof, far away from my 80 year-old mom.

Before Charlie pulled the screen off the second PGE hive we were setting up at my mom’s, he put his bee suit on. He’d learned his lesson.

Playing with hives
He ripped the mesh screen off with one strong yank, hoping these girls weren’t as aggressive. They were, and worse, they were smart enough to know Charlie was somehow responsible for their entrapment. They escaped and raced after Charlie like they were after their kidnapper. He raced down the steep, wooden stairs on my mom’s hill, a dark cloud of bees chasing closely after him. This wasn’t what we envisioned when we wanted to keep bees at my mom’s.

For the rest of the day, there was a huge swirling black tornado of bees surging above the PGE girls’ new home, over fifty feet in the air like a bee eruption. They never calmed down. We told my mom to stay away for a few days but she wasn’t listening. She really is one with nature. “At least don’t wear dark colors,” we told her. “The bees will think you’re a bear. And don’t stand in front of the hive entrance for the same reason.”

We knew she wouldn’t listen but there isn’t much you can do. If she gets stung, she’ll learn. Knowing her, she’ll be standing in front of the hive wearing dark colors tomorrow morning. Without getting stung.

In the midst of the PGE bee tempest, we had to set up and combine the two struggling wild colonies. Had we known we were bringing down a fusillade of angry power- infused bees, we would have done this first.

The Golden Gate girls, our first trapped feral swarm, weren’t growing at all. In fact, they were barely maintaining. The other swarm we caught recently was just a tiny colony and worse, wasn’t laying. They had a virgin queen, Philip surmised, and they were going to meet a worse fate than England.

Philip’s advice was to dump them in with the Golden Gate girls and let their queen kill the virgin queen. You can kill her yourself, if you want.

First you have to find the queen. Virgin queens are skinny, so even if you happen to see her, you might overlook her. Besides, try finding one bee in a baseball-sized clump of wiggly insects, all squirming on top of each other. You want to pick them apart to get a good peek, but that would be too disturbing.

We gave up and, instead, dumped both hive boxes together. They’ll both die on their own. Let’s join them up and see what happens.

What happened was the opposite of what we expected, once again. Philip says, “Bees like numbers. They like to be part of a big, successful group.” It must be true. The bees approached each other like long lost relatives, touching each other and sniffing each other like puppies. They seemed to enjoy their new family.

After a few hours, we watched the entrance to see if the undertaker bees had brought out their dead queen. Nothing. All we saw were forager bees going out to collect pollen, and we saw more of that than at their old, foggy, home on the roof: a normal colony, finally.

We left for our foggy home, the PGE girls still swirling in a blizzard above the tops of my mom’s huge oak trees. It’s a weird feeling drive away after leaving your own mother with the gift of a back yard full of terrorist bees.

My mom called a few days later and said they were still bumping and buzzing her when she stood by to watch them. How many times do you tell your mom to stand off to the side, don’t wear dark colors, don’t act like a bear?

“Have you been stung?” we asked. That would teach her. That is, if she needed teaching.

“Oh, no,” she said. “But I think they might want to go back to San Francisco. It’s been in the high 90’s since you left.”

You had your chance, bitches. Now stay away from my mom.

My Mom, the Beekeeper

Yup, that's my mom with her tongue out!

We waited two weeks to check on the new swarm at my mom’s. Two weeks isn’t much time for a new colony to do much. Two weeks on our roof and our bees look like they’ve been on vacation. Besides, they need a couple of weeks to settle in. If they think you’re going to be disrupting them all the time, opening their hive and messing around, they’ll move out. 

We needed to get them into a permanent hive box. Charlie brought one, assuming that’s all he’d need. He brought Dylan, too, to help him move the bees, and three bee suits. My mom is so excited about her new girls that Charlie wanted to lure her into a suit, if he could. She might want to see what her girls are doing with all her pollen they’re collecting.

After suiting up, Charlie started up the smoker and they marched up the hill to where the hive trap sat in some dirt under a tree. He gave the girls a good smoking and opened up the top of the trap.
Feral hive filled frame

Thousands of bees filled the top of the frames. Even from this vantage point, you  could see that the girls had drawn out every frame with comb. There were eggs, brood, larvae, honey, and all you’d expect in a healthy hive after three or four months. Our very first package bee colonies don’t look this well-lived in and fruitful.

My mom had never seen so many little things working together so vigorously, so lively. Neither had we. Even Stella – only three - kept creeping closer to watch. If a package contains 10,000 bees, then this hive trap contained at least 30,000. Every frame hummed.

Mom's apiary
Carefully, Charlie took out each frame from the trap and put it in the new box in order, so they wouldn’t get confused. There was no room for more comb to be drawn. In two weeks, it was that full. We’d better schedule a trip to add another box. Soon.

With so many frames so thick with bees, it would have taken a week to find the queen. We tried but gave up and left the old box on the ground under the new one, hoping they’d get there on their own. Charlie left a piece of their own familiar-smelling comb at the entrance to make it easy for the less-trusting girls.

At about 8 pm, my mom called. “The old box is coated with an inch of bees. What’s happening?”

If the queen was inside the new box, they’d all be inside, too. Something’s wrong.

We asked around. “Either the queen is still in the old box ,” someone with more experience said, “or the scent of her is too strong and you’ll have to remove the box.”

Either way meant a trip back to mom’s.

When we arrived the next morning, it was 94 degrees and the old box was full of bees, like a thousand bees thickly layered in one end. While Charlie was opening up the hive, we looked for the queen. It was a lot easier with only a thousand bees. Easier, but not easy. She’s not that much different – just a little thicker downstairs.

Mom's hives
“Is that her?” my mom said, pointing to a drone. Looking for queens is pointless when you have bad eyes like me. I can’t tell queens apart from drones, even when they’re both dead stuck on a pin, side by side. Half the time, I can’t tell drones apart from females.

“No,” Charlie said. “See his big eyes, like fly eyes? That’s so the queen can’t hide from him when they’re on a mating flight. Look for a big one without the big eyes.”

“Like that one?”

“That’s a big lady,” mom said.

“That’s her,” Charlie said, scooping her up and flinging her inside the new hive before we lost sight of her. He put the top back on quickly before she could escape. She was so fat that none of this was probably necessary.

“Look,” mom said. “They’re all out.”

It was true: the box emptied as if we’d sprayed a can of anything by Monsanto.

“This must be normal,” Charlie said about the hive activity that was so bustling we could hear humming. We never hear humming on our roof – only screeching tires, honking horns, and, if we’re lucky, yelling homeless men. “This is beekeeping without fog.”

Our fog city bees are like the short, scrawny kids in class.

Buying Italians

Bees get busy when the sun comes out

It’s way past package bee season but when you get the itch for more bees, buying packages is a quick and dirty solution. A package contains a mated queen, bred for honey production, and three pounds of random bees. They don’t know each other like a nuc or a swarm, but they’ll figure it out.

On the bee source forum, Powell Apiaries in Orland advertised package bees for sale. Why? Is it an old ad? It’s so late in the season but it wouldn’t hurt to call.

“Hello?” a soft voice answers, sounding completely unlike a big professional business.
“Is this Powell Apiaries?”
“Do you have bee packages left?”
“No. I’m done for the season.”
“I’m from San Francisco. Our association chipped in and bought a bunch of packages from somewhere in Orland. Did we get our bees from you?”
“Doesn’t sound familiar.”
“Thanks for your time, then.”
“Well, hold on. How many you want? I’ve got the last of my packages going out in a couple of days. I always make a hundred extra.”
“A hundred extra?”
“What do you want? Fifty?”
“Fifty? How about two? I’m just a hobbyist.”
“I could give you two. They’re Italians.”
“I don’t have Italians.”
“Italians are the best.”
“So my Italian uncle tells me. How much?”
“Oh, how about sixty a piece. How’s that?”
We paid $70 each with the SF Beekeepers Association group discount. They usually go for $95. “That’s good,” Charlie said, and picked them up the next day. With this kind of a deal, waiting is torture. Besides, even people with soft voices can change their minds.

It was unusually sunny in our usually foggy side of the city when we brought the new girls home. They’d been in their packages for three days so Charlie set them free right away. They seemed like good, gentle girls, more intent on getting down to bee business rather than pissed off about being in a box for three days. Not one felt the need to dive-bomb or give a warning bump, even though they’d been trapped in a tiny box with a strange woman for 72 hours.

That same sunny evening, we came across one of our tenants. This tenant has the garage closest to the intersection. Instead of parking inside his garage, he prefers to park his black, weeks-old, high-end BMW in front of his driveway. “Too much trouble,” he says, “to get out and open the door first. You ever thought about getting automatic garage door openers for these old, heavy garage doors?”

“Probably not,” we say.
“Hey, you know what this yellow stuff is all over my car? Look,” he said, pointing to the polka-dotted, bright yellow tic-tac sized debris covering his metal symbol of red-blooded manliness.
“I can’t figure it out. I thought it was pollen blowing from across the park, but it reeks. It really stinks. Like shit.”
“We have no idea,” we said, and quickly left.

 Safely inside our apartment, we wondered aloud “Could that stinky shit have something to do with the girls on the roof? It looks like the same yellow dots covering the top of the hives.”

The next time we were near a beekeeper, we asked, “Do bees shit a lot?”
“They do,” he said, “right when you bring them home from a package. They’ve been cooped up for three or four days. They don’t like to mess their colony so they hold it.”
“Right when you put them in a hive box, they come roaring out ‘cause they have to take a crap?”
“Oh, yeah.”

That makes sense, and means we have to come clean and tell our tenant his hot, black beemer is full of Italian shit. We don’t have to, but we don’t have jobs or savings or much of anything besides our good word. If you don’t do what you’d want done to you, you end up paranoid and overly suspicious, and that’s just too much work when you’re unemployed.

“At least I know what it is,” the tenant said. “It was driving me crazy.” And, it turns out, his dad was once a beekeeper so he’s sympathetic.

“We’ll move the hives toward the other end of the roof,” we told him. “It might help if they aren’t right above where you park.”
“Don’t move them too far too fast or you’ll freak them out,” he said, now more worried about our bees than his bootylicious BMW. “That’s what my dad says.”
“Good to know,” we said, checking ourselves as to why we thought he’d have quite a different response.


Faking Farming

When you're older, you wish that you'd paid more attention to people doing useful things when you were younger. My grandma grew vegetables so giant-like that neighbors brought their guests and friends over to visit and exclaim. They'd go on for hours, oohing and aahing as if she'd done something magical.

If I liked vegetables, this might have been interesting but vegetables to me were the same as bugs. Therefore, the people who talked on and on about them must be slightly simpleminded, like people to talked about the price of gas, or taxes. When you're a kid, who cares?

The only way I'd pay attention to something growing is if that something was candy. Chocolate, especially. I'd bring my friends over, maybe, although that would mean exposing them to my relatives who, for no reason I could figure, let out exclamations like, "Heavens to Betsy!" and "Jumping Jehosaphat!"

There were people in college who spent hours growing marijuana, but they were always high. Nobody listened to them.

Now I'm old. When I'm out with my mom in her garden, I listen to every word but I don't know what she's saying. What does "hardening" mean? "Bolting?" She says "deadhead" and I visualize Jerry Garcia.

When you're around someone talking too technically, maybe you do what I do: pretend. It's how I survived working at Fujitsu, spending all day sitting at big tables in hot meetings with super-polite Japanese men who couldn't speak English. I already faked that I knew all about chip manufacture to get that job, so I got paid to both impersonate a flash-memory expert and to pretend to understand Japanglish.

You have to use the words right, though, if you're going to be a good actor. You listen to figure out if they're talking about something good or bad, big or little, noun or verb. You repeat how they use it in a sentence. You wonder how many other people at the table are also full of shit. You keep faking it and you stop worrying that you'll get caught when they want you to train the new people. Use the words in correct way long enough and you fool even yourself.

Before we leave my mom's garden, she hands me a bag full of seeds. "Soak them in water for a day," she says, like I know why you'd want to do that. She says a lot of other things, but she talks to fast and so technical that I'm back at a Fujitsu meeting. I'm into nod and smile mode.

At home, instead of doing actual research, I leave glasses of water all around my kitchen with tiny seeds floating in them. Charlie doesn't ask. He didn't have a farming grandma, so he can't even begin to fake what I'm doing when it comes to gardening. I don't even know if he saw the seeds in the water. For all I know, he might have thought I had a new technique to drink enough water.

Stella and I planted them in old six-packs that Charlie filled with dirt. I figured I'd give them a week, throw them away and go to the nursery and buy seedlings.

Two days later, green sprouts appeared in some of the sections. Stella watched them every day, probably as amazed as me. Luckily, my mom called or those plants would still be in my kitchen. "They're ready for hardening," she said. "That's what you call it when you put them outside to acclimate."

That's where they are right now, awaiting a call from my mom to tell me what to do next. She knows what kind of actor I am.


Getting Mentored

Our rooftop hives

Bees don't need a beekeeper to survive, but if you're going to take on that challenge, do it right. Get someone who knows what they're doing to follow you around to watch if you know what you're doing.

Paul started the San Francisco Beekeepers Association decades ago, or so we've been told (we weren't there). One late foggy morning, he stopped by and offered to guide Charlie through working our hives. 

Charlie suited up in his electric-white, brand-new full suit while Paul threw on his veil. As Charlie began to move around the hives, he asked, "Am I disrupting anything?"

"You're moving fine," Paul said. "You obviously know what you're doing."

"I do?"
"You have good, healthy colonies," Paul said. "All your hives look really good. Let's pull out some drone larvae and see if we can find any varroa mites." Varroa mites, the parasites that attach themselves to the shoulders of bees and eat them alive one by one before eventually killing the whole colony, like to live and reproduce in the drone larvae. "You'll see little orange dots."

The only hives old enough to have drone larvae are the two packaged hives. They pulled them out of both and couldn’t find one mite. There were a few, round red mites on the bottom board, but Paul said that's normal.

The Golden Gate Girls, our feral swarm, is still so small that, since Paul was here, Charlie asked if he could look at them and see if they're okay.

Drone Larvae
"They're population is sustaining," Paul said, "but not growing. The queen is laying eggs but can't get ahead of the cycle. In a couple of weeks, you can take a brood frame from your strongest colony and put in their hive. That'll give them a jump start. Leave the nurse bees on the frame. Put it in the hive with the hitchhikers still attached. That'll increase the population in two ways."

"Won't the bees fight?"

"Nurse bees don't fight. All they care about is their babies. They don't care what colony they're in as long as they're nursing."

No fighting in nature? Who knew?

"If, by accident, foragers also hitchhike in," Paul added, "they will fight. Watch out for that. And don’t do it now or you’ll weaken the strong hive. Then you’ll have two weak hives."

"What about this feral hive from Oakland? When I opened up their hive, they dive-bombed me. They stayed right on me, trying to sting, attacking long after I put their roof back on and moved out of the way. I had to sit on the other side roof, swatting them off for a good fifteen minutes before I could go inside without them following me."

Still without a suit and gloves, he said, "Let me take a look."
Bottom board with two varroa mites (upper right/lower center)

He opened up the roof and started poking around the frames. The previously angry bees acted as if he wasn’t even there, making pollen, nursing, flying busily like bees normally do.

“That’s different than when I went in,” Charlie said. "To say the least."

“Was that the first time you’d been in their hive?”

“Oh yeah.”

“That’s probably it," Paul said. "They weren't used to human hands. They’re fine now.” 

If you've ever watched "The Dog Whisperer" and seen how antagonistic, belligerant dogs become sweet little pups once Cesar's visited, replace Cesar with Paul and dogs with bees and you'll know exactly what we feel like.


Bee Cult

You can't talk to us without getting an earful about bees.

My dad, who owns this apartment building, didn't freak out when he found out about the hives on his roof (through my blurting sister, thank you). If one of my kids stuck thousands of stinging insects on my property without mentioning it, I don't think I would have been half as graceful. Being a retired engineer, he asks questions, brings us bee articles he's clipped out of his newspaper (we don't get why he reads dead trees and he doesn't get why we don't) and proves he's used to tolerating things he doesn't understand.

My mom, they're long divorced, took a different route. The more we talked about the bees, the more she got sucked in, listening like when Seventh Day Adventists come to your door and you happen to be in a conversational mood. Pretty soon it all makes a lot of sense and, at least while they're smiling and talking back, you decide you, too, want to be one of the saved.

Bees being natural, she might have been predisposed. Her mother, my grandmother, had such a colorful, beautiful garden that people driving by would stop and take pictures of it. As a kid, I thought she was famous. She was in that garden, talking to her flowers, more than she was inside. That's how I was able to easily sneak all her candy.

My mom's garden is even better, because you can eat it. The best lemons ever made into bars happen to grow outside her bedroom window. I hated tomatoes until she convinced me to taste a little yellow pear-shaped one she picked for me. Even though I still prefer chocolate, that tomato was as close to candy as you can get - if candy grew on vines. Why doesn't candy grow on vines? Monsanto, stop being evil and work on that, please. I have to control myself when she's not looking and her peas are ripe. I'd eat them all, even after dessert.

Soon, my mom asked us if she could have a hive trap and try to catch a swarm. "There are millions of bees in my yard already," she said. "We might as well catch a few and share their honey." With that, I knew she was in the cult, one of us. 

Charlie didn't need to be asked twice. We came down to her house on a steamy hot, 90+ degree day, brought along Dylan and Michelle to share her pool, set up a hive trap and hoped for the best.
She called after a week, leaving a message saying there are millions of bees flying like a black cloud, all trying to get into the hive. "I'm watching them now," she said, sounding like a little kid in a candy factory. "It's incredible." 
When we called her back, she was still watching. "It looks like there is a really big, long bee, right in the middle of the swarm," she said. "Is that another type of bee? What is that?"
Only my mom would be so lucky to see the queen. 


Counting Bees

West of Twenty-Third Avenue, the sun hardly knows us. The Richmond district is like a beach town anyway with surfboards in open garages, breezes off the ocean, and no big city entertainment destinations or shopping malls like downtown. If we see the sun in summer, it's because it's after lunch and the fog finally gave up and burned off. We know we'd better get out and enjoy it as the afternoon fog rolls in thick and quickly, so dense it looks like it could push you over. It's a lucky day around here if it's still sunny after four pm. Summer in western San Francisco heats up to sixty degrees if you're lucky, and that's warm, sweater weather around here.

Everybody comes outside when the sun shows up, especially the bees. It looks like La Guardia on the rooftop: bees buzz in for a landing, bees shoot out from the hive, taking off. They're not crashing into each other but they're definitely not in any kind of air traffic controller order, either. 

They fly off straight toward the park, but once freed from the roof stub wall they get blasted by the ocean gust coming straight up Fulton St. The bees roll and spin, get blown east down the street and eventually swoop around and loop back toward the park. I wonder if they warn their sisters? As long as they're bringing in pollen, they should be okay. The rule is seven out of twenty bees need to be coming home to the hive with a paycheck.

Compared to our overachiever Giants' hive, the Slacker bees are almost too calm. It's easy to get worried that they might not be doing what they're supposed to be doing. 

At least it's easy for us, being parents of grown kids. Parents are overly programmed to worry about their kids anyway, especially when it comes to how hard they seem to be working. It's all we can do to not call up our grown-up kids every morning and act like kids ourselves, questioning them as if they're still in high school and they want to borrow the car. We remind each other we're not responsible. We can have a beer, watch the bees and relax. Nobody needs us to do what comes naturally.

So instead of worrying about kids or bees, we sat and had a beer up on the roof. Watching bees gets you into a meditative state familiar to any kid who has ever wasted an hour watching grass grow or ants march. It's amazing how relaxing it is to stare at bugs. Especially when drinking a delicious, dark beer on a rare, sunny day.

We weren't completely without motivation: we counted the little Slackers, just for reassurance. For every twenty bees, we counted ten Slacker bees coming home with pollen: three more than necessary. It didn't matter how often we counted, we clearly mislabeled these industrious ladies.

Not only that, these were creative pollen shoppers. Somewhere in Golden Gate park they were finding more than just the typical dirty yellow colored dinner. On their back legs, these girls carried neon bright yellow pollen, brownish dark orange pollen, purple pollen, blue pollen, and even bright red pollen. Their honey is going to be a work of art.

Pollen color is something we've heard bee people talk about. Honestly, there isn't a lot else to talk about if you want to talk about pollen. This is how we learned bees prefer to collect pollen from the same species of plant, as in only tomatoes or only almonds, until that item is out of stock. Only then will bee shoppers switch to another grocery aisle. Or so bee people say.  

If we had access to a better camera, we'd get better pictures. We'd be artists ourselves. But we aren't, so we'll just have another beer, observe, and enjoy having something to say the next time someone starts talking pollen.