What Happened to Worrying about Mites?

Golden Gate/Alameda Girls Defending their Hive

One good thing about rooftop beekeeping is the lack of ants. Sure, there's enough high winds and beefy fog to make you think you're on a seagoing vessel in Ireland the middle of March, but that's just summer in San Francisco. Wet streets, bad hair days, but no ants.

At my mom's a few visits ago, it seemed like there were more ants than usual. Usual to us is no ants. Like I said, we don't have ants at home. We don't think to look for them.

We asked around. People told us, “Ants only pick on weak hives," in a tone that implied we were obviously bad beekeepers with scrawny, 90-lb. weakling bees who couldn't even defend themselves against wingless, stingless ants. “There’s nothing you can do.”

We visited the farm at our CSA, Greenhearts Family Farm, and met their beekeeper. She was anything but judgmental so we weren't embarrassed to admit our ant issues. “Sprinkle cinnamon," she said. "That’s what I use.” She had ants? But she seemed so normal.

Santa Clara Beekeepers Guild gave us a free guide, Beekeeping with Essential Oils, when we stopped by their meeting. If cinnamon worked, they would know. Instead, they recommended using Tanglefoot, something so disgusting-sounding that having ants might be preferable. What is it? Where do you get it? 

They warned you have to throw out whatever clothes and tools you used to apply it. The thought of something that gloppy made me not want to even google it. Their second solution was to soak strips of cloth with 3 in 1 oil and wrap it around each hive stand leg. Didn't they have any pleasant-smelling solutions?

Charlie’s chat group suggested setting the hive stand legs in tin cans and pouring in an half inch of oil into the can. Ants will climb in but perish in the deadly, but not stinky, oil moat.
Killing a Yellow Jacket

My mom's organic, natural gardening book recommended spraying the hive stand base with white vinegar. Ants apparently hate the smell of pickles, which is what vinegar smells like to me, or feet.

Since we were at my mom's and she had both vinegar and a spray bottle handy, it was about time somebody did something. (Bees come alive during warm weather. I'm the opposite.) 

We squirted randomly around the base of the hives, staying far away from the bees as best we could. Bees don't like the smell of pickles, either. My mom found some cinnamon and sprinkled it around the hive stand base, too. In this warm weather, she is very much like a bee.

Nothing happened. Ants continued to march up the hive stand legs. Charlie swore at them and shot them with the spray but they kept going, undaunted. Ants can destroy a colony. We should have gone shopping, or at least googled Tanglefoot. Before we left, my mom found three natural, no-pesticide ant traps in her garage and put them down. That was easy enough.

When we returned, the ants were gone. It could have been the cinnamon, the vinegar or the natural ant trap contraptions. When you throw everything at a problem, next time you have that problem, you have to throw everything all over again.

Instead of ants, something else was terrorizing the Golden Gate/Alameda girls hive, our weakest colony. The girls were flying in tight, frenzied circles in front of their front porch. About twenty were flying in and out of the hive entrance, back and forth, pacing nervously. On the front post in front of the hive was the weirdest thing yet: a dozen bees shaking in a tight, little ball.

Yellow Jacket Catchers
There was something strange in the middle of the vibrating ball, something yellow. “It’s a yellow jacket,” Charlie said, looking over from across the hive stand. “They’re being invaded by yellow jackets.”

“Quick,” my mom said to her husband, Yo, standing by. “Get the wasp traps.”

He raced down the stairs with my mom following. Charlie and I watched as yellow jackets flew under the hive to try to get in through the screened bottom boards. "They smell the honey," Charlie said. They figured out they couldn't get in that way so they began to dive-bomb the front porch. We watched without knowing what to do. It was like watching murderers come into your home wanting to kill your children.

I found a block of wood and tried to crush the stupid yellow jackets still trying to get in through the screen bottom boards. It took a lot of concentration to even crush one against the soft earth a few inches below - their flight patterns were so erratic and quick. When I let go, no matter how hard I pressed, they flew off like they'd had a nice massage.

Charlie got down on the path in front and began to stomp. The yellow jackets thought they were escaping by hovering close to the ground but he got one, and smeared it until it was just yellow, stripey pieces in the dirt. I gave up on the wood block and found it was easier to stomp them, even with flip-flops. I flattened two. It felt good, but only until I looked up and saw a yellow jacket fly past security and right into the Golden Gate/Alameda girls' hive.

My mom and Yo returned with three plastic upside-down cup-looking things filled with pieces of bacon and other meaty treats. "The yellow jackets smell the bacon and enter through a hole at the bottom," my mom explained. "They can’t get back out. Sometimes the whole cup is full of yellow jackets." 

As soon as they hung them, the yellow jackets ignored the bees. We ignored all of it and had lunch. While getting my mom a Klondike bar, Yo made a detour and checked the trap closest to the hive. "Seventeen," he said. "I counted seventeen yellow jackets already."
After the Yellow Jackets

People were right - this is our weakest hive and anybody who watches the Discovery channel knows predators pick the stragglers. This hive began as the first swarm we ever caught up on the rooftop: the Golden Gate girls. Being small, we combined it with the second, and last, swarm caught up on the roof. They still weren't thriving so we added the Alameda girls, a swarm we acquired in exchange for a six-pack of IPA. On the roof, they were still the scrawniest, so we brought them down to my mom's. What else can we do? 

After the yellow jackets left them alone, we had to peek inside to learn what kind of bad beekeepers we really were. Were they making babies so they could grow big enough to stay warm over winter? Were they storing enough honey? Were they overtaken by ants, or something else? Did they have mites? Mice? Lizards? 

Nope. They looked like a photo from Good Beekeeping Magazine. So there, people.


Swarming on Squash

Charlie has been cutting out swarm cells, queen bee baby cells, from the Giants hive for a while now. The bees create baby queens by feeding  royal jelly - bee steroids - to a regular baby girl bee and they grow into great big, long queens.

They're easy to find, swarm cells. They're big, droopy blobs stuck along the bottom of the brood frames. Drone cells are big, too, but they don't droop. Bees make new queens when they're unhappy with their old one or when they feel cramped and need to divide and swarm.

Charlie realized cutting out swarm cells wasn't going to work. They were determined to swarm no matter what. He realized he needed to split the hive.

He built a nuc box - a smaller version of a regular hive box - to take the queen and five frames from the Giants to fool them into thinking they’d already swarmed. It was too late and therefore too cold to split it when he finished, so he brought it up in the morning. He opened the door to the roof and saw the sun for the first time in over a week.

He saw something else: a huge black cloud of bees hovering over the raised vegetable beds.

Out loud, Charlie said, "Seriously? You guys couldn't wait another hour?" When you're on the roof, beekeeping and tending vegetables by yourself for hours on end, talking to yourself is the least of your acquired bad habits.

He assumed they were rallying to head across the street to swarm there, but the longer he watched, the more he realized they weren't going anywhere. In fact, they were lowering their cloud onto the squash box, right in front of their favorite saucer of water, and less than ten feet from their old hive. 

"That Giants queen is a fat ass," Charlie said to himself again. "She probably couldn't fly much further."

The cloud landed and split between a zucchini plant and the wooden wind barrier right behind it. The Giants are our second package bees, healthy enough to swarm - duh - and there were at least 30,000 to 40,000 in this split. The original package contained no more than 10,000, so we must not be killer beekeepers (yet).

Charlie told himself, "If I can find the queen and get her into this box, they’ll all follow and this will be the laziest way to capture a swarm." 

He inspected the small clumps beginning to form into clusters and easily found the old queen on a zucchini leaf. She'd been marked when we bought her, painted with a big, bright white dot, but that's not what he found on her now. Queens get a lot of cleaning and crawling on so all she had left was a little shadow of a speck.

Not wanting to lose her, Charlie cut the whole leaf off and set it in the box. Some of the bees followed, if you can call that following. They sort of meandered accidentally in that direction, as if they didn't want to go just yet.

While taking photos, I found what looked like a queen, too, a younger, thinner princess: a virgin queen. To be safe, we flipped her into the box, too. 

That did it. There was enough pheromones coming from the box to get even the most laziest bees excited about making the journey into the box.

Being such a huge swarm, it took them until 8 at night to get in the box. Once they were mostly in, Charlie had to screen it shut. They were so tightly packed that he had to squish some of them just to get the screen secure.

When he caught the swarm from the Slackers, our first bee package, he put them in a new box and back on the same hive stand from which they'd left. It must have confused them, as at least half the swarmers returned to their old hive. 

"It's better to move you," Charlie said, this time to the bees. "Guess where you're going?"

Again, we drove to my mom's, this time with a cardboard box tightly packed with loudly humming bees. If you told me they'd lifted off and were hovering above the back seat, I would have believed you. 

Charlie added a frame of honey and a frame of babies to their new home, once they'd been released. With honey and brood, they'd stay. They'd have food and something to take care of while getting settled in. They'll love it in this ritzy, pollen-filled, sunny neighborhood.

Later in the day, Charlie peeked through the entrance slot to see how they were doing. When you do that, you can see the bottom of the frames and the bottom of the cluster. Inside their hive, bees cluster into a ball to keep their brood warm. There were a few dead bees on the screen bottom board and that’s normal. There were well over 30,000 bees in this little box and they only live six weeks. He thought he would see more.

Having his hive tool and being nosy, he scooped out the dead bees to get a better view. One of the bees he pulled out had an unusually long abdomen; skinny but different than the rest. There goes the virgin queen they worked so hard to make. There can only be one queen and she didn't stand a chance against that old, big fat ass queen. 

Swarming in Sausalito

Philip belongs to the Marin Beekeepers Association and he's on their list for swarm response and rescue. Someone in Sausalito found a swarm had moved into their house, under the roof and behind the fascia boards. They called Philip, and Philip invited Charlie to come along.

When they arrive they see a little tiny hole, no more than an inch in diameter and twelve feet above the deck floor below, with only three or four bees crawling around. “I think this is a tiny colony," Charlie says.

“You never know until you cut away the wall,” Philip said.

Charlie isn’t convinced. It'd take a long time for a swarm to get inside there with that little hole, wouldn't it? And with only a few bees flying in and out, if it is a swarm in there, they must be pretty laid back.

Philip pulls out his heat sensor and points at the hole to take temperature measurements. "This is how I learn where the clusters is," he said. His readings were hottest right below the hole. “That’s where they are,” he said. “Right there.”

He began to cut away the outside of the house. The bees, few that there were, didn't mind that he'd powered up a circular saw and was opening up their wall. They didn't even bother to bump him. 

When he finished cutting, he pulled a piece of the exterior off and they both had a look inside. It's a huge cluster, like a basketball, hanging between the roof joists.

Time to begin sucking. Philip made a bee-vac, like a shop-vac, to extract bees. The machine sucks bees up through the hose and they land in the box. To lessen the impact, the landing spot is fitted with carpet padding.

The hose wasn’t long enough to stretch all the way to the ground so Charlie's job was to hold the box up high enough to reach.

Philip turned the bee-vac on and slowly, with a gentle, circular motion, started sucking bees. The bees, again, were calm. They seemed to be waiting for their turn to be shop-vac'd, watching as he went from the bottom up.

When he was done Philip said, “We’re going to have to wait for foragers to return, even though it’s early in the morning. We'll have to see if a new cluster forms. They may be in the next cavity over, too.”

They waited. Sure enough, a cluster began to form on the other side of the adjacent roof joist. Philip cut out the next section to see a softball-sized cluster. “I bet the queen’s in that cluster,” he said.

“How do you know?”

“The bees, if they sense they’re being compromised, rush the queen off and hide her.”

After slurping up those bees, Philip and Charlie shop vac’d each other since there were bees all over them and that wouldn't make for an easy car ride home.

Philip took out the inner box where the bees accumulated. He showed it to the homeowner while explaining the swarming process. That little box was so full of bees that, looking through the screens on both sides, it was impossible to find a vacant spot.

The box rode in the back of Philip’s pick up truck, along with a few unsucked-up bees holding on along the outside. They must have held on all through Marin, all the way over the bridge, all through the Richmond district, to Noe Valley where they were transferred into one of Charlie's hive boxes.

It’s a crime to make such nice bees reside in the soppy, foggy side of San Francisco. Especially when they had the option to live the cushy life in my mom’s back yard. We brought them down the next morning. When Charlie removed the screen on their hive entrance, they they flew out like, “We’re here! We’re here! Yay!” 

Standing right in front of the hive and wearing inappropriate colored clothing, I didn’t get bumped once. Sausalito bees are too posh for that sort of behavior. 


Bees Like It Hot

Mom's back yard

Less than two months ago, my mom hadn't given a thought to bees. Now she called to say she caught a second swarm. "It's so hot here, over ninety degrees every day," she said. "They must want to come inside and cool off. There's a lot of them this time, too."

Are we here yet?
Our bees on the roof have been doing nothing but cooling off. Someone told me bees get grouchy when it's overcast. Don't we all? We watch them hang around on their front porches, tidying up, waiting for the sun so their little muscles can warm up enough to make it across the street to the pollen store at the park and back.

Our store-bought bee colonies are growing, even in this weather, but the swarm hives are barely hanging on.

The Alameda girls were the weakest, so why not give them a transfer to bee heaven?

When we drove down to check out my mom's new swarm, we brought them along. They were very quiet in the car, very good little travelers, unlike the PGE girls who seemed to power the car with their humming. With them, every bump in the road seemed to piss them off.

Charlie stealing a frame of Saratoga babies
When Charlie pulled the screen off the PGE girls' front door, they charged and swirled up into an ominous hurricane for the rest of the day. He was prepared to do the same when releasing the Alameda girls. But it was as if Charlie opened the back door of the minivan and the kids were happy they had arrived. They crawled out, flew around and inspected their new home. Even though we were all watching, standing too close, wearing inappropriate clothing, not one of us got bumped. They went straight for the flowers.

The second Saratoga swarm
After my mom fed us, another advantage to having a hive at her house, Charlie inspected the other hives. They all had grown, and grown more than twice as much as ours had on the cold roof. We're getting the idea why there aren't a lot of Outside Lands area beekeepers.

My mom's original swarm was doing so well, in particular, that Charlie took a frame of brood and gave it to the Alameda girls. We considered it a little gift to help them grow, even though they were already more active in this one afternoon than they had been all the previous week, thanks to good weather.

Healthy Saratoga bees
Opening up the hive trap (the pink box, the bigger of the two hive traps), we could see the new swarm was indeed a big one. The swarms we caught in San Francisco were like a few families coming down the Oregon trail in covered wagons compared to these huge, Irish potato-famine sized migrations at my mom's.

So that they wouldn't get annoyed and want to leave, Charlie stole a second brood frame from the original Saratoga girls and left it, along with some empty frames, in the hive trap for the new swarm. No matter how bothered the new swarm was, they wouldn't just up and abandon a frame full of babies. We're hard-wired, we women, to take care of babies, even if they're not "ours."

Marching in
Unlike last time, Charlie knew he had the queen inside the hive after all his messing around. Even though the bees were flying around the hive trap confused, they were also fanning their wings, signalling to their sisters that the queen was inside. They smelled whatever it is they smell, got their marching orders and, within minutes, moved in.

Unlike last time, my mom didn't call after we left with questions like, "Why are the bees clustered in a box under their new box?"

We're learning, or, more likely, we're lucky.


Come Back, Slackers

A swarm clump on a branch
Once, when Michelle was calling her sister, staring out the window as she usually does, she saw a thick, black swarm of bees covering the three houses across the street.

They left a lot of poop on the neighbors' cars - our bees got the blame - but we couldn't catch them. Since we're on the third floor, we watched them settle onto a tree in one of the back yards. We wanted those bees. It was a huge swarm and it was free. Charlie left a note, got his ladders ready, and waited. Nobody called. The bees stopped swarming. We never saw them again. It was like money floating away.

This morning while Charlie was looking out our window, he saw a thick, black swarm of bees fly  across Fulton street. Unlike Michelle's swarm, these were definitely our bees. Last time Charlie inspected the hives he found some queen cells in the Slacker hive. He destroyed them, hoping that this would quell their instinct to swarm. Instead, one of our first two package queens, up and ran out on us, talking half her sisters along with her.

Swarming is natural and there's not a lot you can do about it if you have a hive that is prone to enjoy the traveling life. Obviously getting rid of the queen cells doesn't work. He must have missed a few - it's a big hive and they were going to divide into two colonies whether Charlie liked it or not. They were the Slacker hive, and they were acting like ungrateful teenagers. While they created a thirty foot hurricane around an orangy-leafed tree right across the street, we made fun of ourselves and the way we were thinking. They were doing what came naturally. Still, it was easy to stare across the street and quote dumb movie lines like, "Come back, Shane. Mommy loves you! Daddy needs you!"
Big cluster

So far, Charlie hasn't convinced the more experienced beekeepers he knows to let him help catch swarms, so this was his chance. He called his mentors and, as usual, all three gave completely different and opposing solutions. None of them could help, either, being Fourth of July weekend.

Charlie brought Dylan over to help. Once the bees calmed down a bit, they congregated into three different clumps on the same tree. They hadn't gained enough composure to stay in one place, but at least where they chose was close to the ground. The bigger trees further inside the park are at least fifty feet tall. At least. It'd be stupid to climb up that high to chase after our $70 worth of bees.

If you know a beekeeper, you know Charlie thought of nothing else all day long. He watched and visited and waited for them to clump. He had his nuc box all ready. If you put a bit of comb in the box, they'll be more amenable to their new mobile home.
Climbing up

Eventually they clumped onto one small, bendable branch. Charlie put the nuc box under the swarm and bent the branch so the swarm was down inside the box, while still attached to their branch. (They really seemed to like this one tree.)

With a thump on the bent branch loud enough for us to hear it in our apartment across the street, the bees landed gently into the box. Once the clump fell, the other bees raced in. He clearly got the queen.  That's the biggest worry. Even though she was a flighty teenager, we want her back. We need her, at least until we can replace her next spring.

Across the street, safely in our apartment, Michelle and I saw a huge yellowish bee hurricane rise up at the exact same time we heard Charlie's thwack. It's a sunny day, so the bees caught the light and looked golden, swirling like honey (heh, heh) in a whirl as tall as the tallest trees, and wide all the way out to the middle of the street. 

Nuc box
Immediately, Charlie secured the top onto the box and balanced it on a couple of branches. At the slotted opening in the side, hundreds of bees lined up to get inside. Surrounding them were more girls fanning their wings, letting their sisters know the queen was inside. There were so many bees that it would take hours for them to get in.

All day, Charlie kept running across the street to check, a good thing since the wind picked up in the afternoon and knocked the box to the ground. Charlie checked, the bees were okay, and continued their march inside the nuc box.

By evening, most the bees were inside and Charlie was getting impatient so he used his bee brush to sweep the outside bees into the box. He couldn't close it up with so many clogging the entrance. And he had to close it up to take it to the roof, being that the last bit of stairs are inside. You don't want to have an open, heavy, buzzing box of pissed off bees inside an apartment building.

Marching in
The bees didn't like his hurrying and stung the crap out of him. Once one stung, all the bees around her stung, too. Beekeepers say that once you get stung enough, you're immunized. It's not something I personally want to experience, but Charlie says he didn't feel the stings. He wasn't swollen, so he might not be lying.

The Slackers are back on the roof, most of them, where Charlie transferred them into a new home. It's just down the hive stand from their old place, where their more stable, more mature sisters remain. We'll see if they have the maturity to stay.