7.21.2011

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.