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.