Sucking Up Swarms

Real gardeners can tell right away that we're poseurs. Lettuce we can grow if we buy seedlings. With seeds from my mom, we accidentally grew enough peas to share. Our squash, grown from donated seedlings, looked healthy in the spring. When the sun disappeared for summer, the squash plants shriveled up and got mushy. The leaves acquired a pretty coat of powdery mildew and we gave up on that box of dirt.

It's Charlie's job to water the roof beds and it's not one of his high priorities: probably another one of the reasons the squash became squashed. After almost a week, right at dusk, he decided to put on his shoes and gardening hat and see if there was something alive in the raised beds that he could pretend to save. It's been so foggy and wet this summer that watering seems redundant.

What do you think was clumped to the squashed squash? Again?

We were told in our beekeeping class that swarming in September didn’t happen. 

Charlie recently created a bee-vac out of paint buckets and a shop vac motor to use for sucking up swarms. He could be heard whining that he was sad he couldn't test his new bee-vac out until spring.

He wasn’t sad anymore. This big, fat swarm was huddled together as if they were tucked in for the night. They looked cold. How, you ask? They weren't moving. Like, not at all. Bees not moving seems wrong. Looking closely, very closely, the outside bees seemed to be tightly shaking their wings to keep everyone warm underneath. If I were a bee, I'd have picked somewhere less exposed to spend the night.

Charlie vacuumed them up with his new toy, without killing a single one. In the morning, they were granted a brand-new hive box. What are we going to do with these bees? Dump them into a weaker hive? Here, or down the valley at my mom's where it's warmer? At this late date, how could they make enough comb and honey to survive the winter?

At night, Charlie went up to the roof to water since he didn't get around to it the night before. This time, he found yet another swarm on the dead squash bed. He didn’t have enough time to do anything but suck up this smaller cluster, probably an afterswarm from the same hive, and toss them into the previous night's swarm hive.

In case they were from one of our hives, we placed their hive far from the rest and onto a different, far corner of the roof. If they were within smelling distance to their old hive, they'd just go back and create a big confused mess, and demand a do-over. 

Next time we opened the PGE hive, we noticed there were only half the previous amount of bees. That must be the swarm's old hive. They'd made queen cells, which we left, and hoped that it would be a calm, sunny day when the new virgin queen was ready to take her mating flight across Fulton. 

Charlie didn't stop whining, though. He was able to use his bee-vac twice with no fatalities. He stares across the street at the park, saying, "There must be a lot of feral swarms within sucking distance."

"Your extension cord wouldn't reach," I reply. "Besides, hunting with a vacuum doesn't seem right."

The bee-vac sits by the door, as ready as Charlie to rescue any swarm oddly attracted to our dying squash. At least the whining has slowed down a bit.

Replacing Royalty

When a hive swarms, the departing bees take their old queen along with them. The remaining bees will have a new queen once she emerges from her cell about a week later. If there are other new, baby queens, they’ll sting each other and fight to the death until there’s only one virgin queen.

The first thing that queen needs to do is to get laid. She flies off, and if she’s in one of our hives, that means she has to get across Fulton St. The wind builds heavily off the ocean all day long except for between about 1 and 3 pm. If she’s smart, she’ll wait until she doesn’t have to get blown eastward. Never having flown or been outside, virgin queens aren't skilled pilots. Complicating matters, once they’re done with their 12 to 15 one-night-stands, they have to get their head on straight and remember how to get back home again.

With two swarming hives, we’ve had two virgin queens. Both either couldn’t find the drone pick-up bar or couldn’t find their way back home. The sign of a failed virgin is no eggs after 35 days. Both our swarmed hives remain eggless.

The solution was Peter the queen breeder.  As long as we were traveling all the way to San Jose, we picked up a couple of extras. One of the Italian bee packages that we named Team Gelato, had a dud queen: Team Gelato. When you name a hive after an indulgent Roman dessert, you're begging for failure.

The Gelato queen acted like a laying worker. Laying workers are bees so worried about the lack of a queen that they try to take over the job. They lay eggs, but they're obviously unfertilized. Unfertilized eggs are males, and a hive cannot survive without women (males don't even feed themselves). 

Eggs from workers also don't have the queen's pheromone smell, so when the other worker bees notice, they remove these eggs from the cells. This results in a spotty brood pattern on the frames. In addition, laying workers don't have a long enough body to reach all the way down to the bottom of the cell so their eggs are typically half-way down, off to the side. These fake queens also lay several eggs in one cell; another indicator but not a foolproof one as new queens will do this too, until they get the hang of it. 

Societal collapse was inevitable with Team Gelato's barren queen. We didn't need a barbaric invasion to know the end was near. Thanks to Peter, she was replaced. 

Team Gelato's home base was a ten-frame hive but they stubbornly stayed out the last two frames on either end.  It’s genetic with some bees. They’re used to living in trees. They like the close-in feel of a condo, rather than the space of a stretched out mid-century ranch home. 

Charlie noticed their preference and, since they've gone through enough pandemonium already, moved them to a more tree-ish, urban loft-like, eight-frame hive.

After doing so, he returned to his shed to take off his bee suit. With his pants around his ankles, he noticed something fat and wiggly, perched on his shoe. Since Team Gelato was the only hive he had opened, this big, dumb bee must be their queen.

He dumped her back home and the rest of the bees seemed okay with her. They weren’t attacking, so she must be theirs. She must have fallen off while Charlie was transferring her frame. Queens are the heaviest thing on the frame, so it’s natural that they’d be the first thing to drop. This is one of those close calls you get to brag about in bee meetings.

We checked the first thing next morning, just because we're that kind of beekeepers. Team Gelato was going great. The fallen queen was making up for lost time, grateful for a second chance, and laying eggs everywhere.

As long as we were checking hives, we went next door to the Espresso Girls. These were the other Italian package bees we bought at the same time as Team Gelato. They were always strong like the beverage they were named after, but it didn’t hurt to check.

The first thing we saw was a dead queen on the bottom board. Your sense of justice takes a hit when you see such a benevolent, hard-working leader lying dead at the feet of her former followers. This was going to be dead Espresso without a quick, strong replacement.

Charlie begged Peter for another queen. “Sure, I’ll save you one," he said. "They’re being fed by nurse bees in my back yard. Call before you get there and I’ll make sure I’m there.”

Charlie called but couldn’t get through. When he arrived, Peter wasn't there. Instead, Peter's dad answered the door and wasn't too excited about digging out a queen. Peter, on the phone, talked him into it. “You’re going to take a few stings, dad,” Peter said. “You know that.” 

Dad, grumbling, put on a bee suit and went out back.

There was no honey or brood in Peter's queen box - just a lot of queens and a few angry, Nurse Rached-like nurse bees feeding them. They were furious because the queens weren’t laying. They want to take care of eggs and brood, so going against their nature like this is a sure way to get them to impersonate Africanized killer honeybees.

Dad pulls out a queen cage and drops it into a plastic container. The killer nurse bees are all over him, bumping him, stinking his hands, and loudly buzzing everywhere. Now they're doubly angry: first about no babies to take care of, and now about this big, white, cloth-covered bear stealing their queen. 

As soon as Peter's dad completed his assignment, he turned and walked as quickly as he could straight to Charlie. Charlie, not wearing a bee suit, had been hiding as far from the queen box as he could get. Peter's dad, covered with angry, stinging bees, thrusts the queen into Charlie's hands.

Now the nurse bees have a new target: Charlie, the possessor of their queen, and specifically Charlie's eyes. They sting him wherever they could get him. The left side of his face didn't move. From the side, he looked like Joan Rivers.

Back home, with both Italian hives properly queened, people were more interested in Charlie's face. "What happened?" everyone asked. 

Unfortunately, this happened to be the week where several Killer Bee stories were in the news. Africanized bees can't deal with cold, so they'll never be this far north but that doesn't stop people from asking about them. All. The. Time. Charlie, therefore, was reluctant to say he was a beekeeper and he was stung in the face. This admission could make you sound rather stupid.

Instead, Charlie said, "Botox."

"One only one side of your face?"

"That's the side where the wrinkles were bad," he said. "I thought it was weird, too."

Almost everyone knew he was joking.