Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The Clean Dirt on Beekeeping

bee keeping

O Sting, Where Is Thy Death?

It was all fun and games until the bees nearly killed my husband.

In the late-winter rush of planning out our urban microfarm, getting more bees made a lot of sense. The family had already gotten one hive a year earlier, the result of my husband’s early eccentric attachment to self-enclosed mini-worlds like ant farms, HO train sets, and SimCity.

Bees are such a great metaphor for so many things, which is presumably why they keep showing up in literature and why the Mormons adopted them as their role model a century ago. And there’s that whole yin-yang thing of simultaneously providing us with the prospect of sweet honey while chalking up painful stings.

Jack’s hive had yielded an impressive amount of honey and beeswax in its first year. With a few more hives, we figured we’d have more than enough for our household and friends, and could perhaps sell some of the surplus at the local health food stores and farmers’ markets.

But there were other reasons. Some of Jack’s attachment to the bees had rubbed off on all of us. He could go out and spend long minutes contentedly sitting next to his hive, watching the industrious little bugs flying out and back with nectar and pollen. I envied his absorption into the whole thing, and wanted to try it out myself. Plus, it fit right into my ideals of sustainability and growing locally. Bees are vitally important for so many of our foods and ornamentals. It’s estimated that honeybees are responsible for the pollination of between 15 and 30% of all of the food that U.S. consumers eat. Honeybees are the major pollinator for most nuts, fruits and about anything that grows on a vine. Entomologists tell us that without honeybees, two-thirds of citrus and nearly all of the watermelons, pecans, almonds, beans, and strawberries would disappear.

The alarming thing is that honeybees are in trouble. No one knows why populations are dying off. It’s probably a combination of things, from mites and diseases to stress, pesticides and fertilizers. With this in mind, it seemed like the perfect time to learn to do it myself — to tend hives in my own backyard; to keep bees that wouldn’t get moved around like commercial hives, or be subjected to massive amounts of chemical sprays.


I sent away for hives and accessories from Dadant, the oldest, biggest bee-supplies merchant in America and spent a long evening inspecting all the cool specialized stuff that came--tools, bee-proof veils, a smoker--and nailing together the hive, frames, and sheets of patterned beeswax that are designed to get the bees to build their combs in straight patterns to make it easy to harvest the honey with a minimum of damage to the hive and its inhabitants. Not too content with the basic white of my husband’s hives, I picked out a pollen-colored paint that was light enough to reflect the heat of the sun while adding a little color to the bee-and-chicken yard.

I got the bee spirit and I couldn’t wait to begin, but it was too early. This was February in the San Francisco Bay Area, and spring was only beginning to blossom. Even though Jack’s bees were already out and busy, I discovered that buying bees from a bee supplier in northern California couldn’t happen until the end of March. Hives don’t grow strong enough to produce extra queens until the rainy season is over in mid-Spring.


Finally, by April 1st, I got my new bees. After acclimating them to their new hive, we settled into a routine of checking in on them, watching for mites and disease, and harvesting honey. We learned a lot that first year, including the fact that Jack is deathly allergic to bee stings. The effects accumulate in his body. The first sting of the season may make his arm swell. The second will make him itch all over. The third sting will send him into systemic shock. The hospital has made me promise never, never, never to drive him to the hospital myself again. Even though we live just a few miles from the closest hospital, frantically running red lights while hysterically screaming about his status to the 9-1-1 dispatcher through my cell phone didn’t quite work out. Jack stopped breathing. The dispatcher tracked my cell phone using GPS satellites, and the EMTs found us a mile away from the ER. Several hours of adrenaline and antihistamines later, he survived, but it was a close call.

Jack spent three weeks thinking about his risks and whether he wanted to get rid of his hives. He surprised and worried our family and friends by deciding to keep them. But, I understood and respected his decision. He couldn’t give them up. Not so much for any altruistic reason but because of a spiritual need. Bees are awesome creatures to watch and to tend. It’s believed that individual bees will look at you and memorize your face. If treated gently and not overly worked, many beekeepers can tend them without protective gear and rarely get stung. They are mostly gentle and always beautiful. In our busy, chaotic lives, working our (now four) beehives has become an act of meditation in motion.

Here’s more buzz on bees:

• Bees have a great sense of navigation, finding their way several miles to a particular stand of flowers and back home again. On their first midday flights, they make exploratory flights in ever-widening circles as a way to memorize the way home. Not long after, they’re flying up to three or four miles away from home, using the sun and a keen sense of smell to keep track of where they’re going and how to get back. If they find a great cache of blooms, they can communicate the general direction, distance, and scent to other bees using what’s called the “waggle dance.”

• In a single trip, a bee will visit dozens of blooms, all within the same species. This benefits the plants more than the bees in that it makes sure that the pollen that sticks to the bee goes to other blooms that can actually use it. The bees most often collect a frustratingly small amount of nectar from each bloom, but also sometimes pollen, which acts as a protein-rich food for the hive’s brood larva. The pollen goes into sacs on the bee’s legs; the nectar, into a first stomach that is used only for carrying, not digesting. At the hive, most of the nectar gets regurgitated from that stomach into honeycomb cells; if hungry, the bee can transfer some of the nectar into its second stomach, which actually digests it.


• In the beginning, though, after spending three weeks in egg and larval stage, the bees emerge as adults, ready to go to work. For their first eight days, they take care of the eggs and larva before graduating to gathering pollen and nectar as field bees. While they can live for several months during the winter, worker bees pretty much work themselves to death during the honey flow of spring and summer, living a work-filled life of about six weeks. (The queen bee, who spends her summers laying a thousand eggs a day, can live for years.) A healthy hive can typically contain 20,000bees during the winter, bulking up to perhaps 80,000 in the summer.

• The combs are made from a wax that flakes off the bodies of the bees. Worker bees collect the wax and form it into hexagonal cells just big enough for them to get their bodies into. Those cells are useful not only for honey storage, but also for storing pollen. Furthermore, they are the right size for larva, sealed up in the cells by their nurses to develop to full size. Finally, they’re also the right size for adult bees to take a snooze in. They crawl in head forward, their backsides barely protruding from the cell opening, and later emerge refreshed and ready to get back to work.

• In the hive, evaporation condenses the nectar into honey and then the bees seal it up into the comb with more wax. Some of that will be used during the winter when there are not many blooms available and it’s often too cold and rainy for the bees to leave the hive, but much of it is surplus that people can take without hurting the hive. A good colony can collect more than a hundred pounds of surplus honey per season, but a single bee, working tirelessly, might collect only a tablespoonful of honey as its total lifetime achievement.


• Worker bees are sexually undeveloped, but all of them initially had the potential to have become a queen. When a queen is failing, or a hive is getting overcrowded and considering dividing into two, brood workers start creating peanut-sized queen cells. They select a developing larva and seal it into the larger cell with a generous dollop of royal jelly, a secretion from glands in the heads of the worker bees. Royal jelly speeds the larva’s development--in 15 days, a larger, sexually-developed princess bee emerges. She stings any rival princesses to death before they can emerge from their cells and then flies, mates with as many drones as she can, and then returns to the hive. If the present queen is failing, the newly-mated princess will hunt her down and kill her, taking her place as queen. If the problem is that the hive is too small, the new queen will attract several thousand bees and split off with them to find a new hive. These are the swarms that you sometimes see, usually in the spring. Although they look scary, they are actually just looking for a new home and almost never attack people or sting.

• Honeybees almost never sting when they’re away from their hive. Unlike most stinging insects, stinging kills the individual honeybee--it actually rips their hind end off their bodies--so they do it as a last resort only when they believe the hive is in danger. So, unless you’re actually molesting their hive, they will usually leave you alone.” In fact, many beekeepers “work” their hives without protective clothing, figuring the occasional sting now and again won’t do them any harm. Life-threatening honeybee allergies are actually quite rare, resulting in about 20-50 deaths in an average year; except when magnified by fear, the actual pain of a bee sting is relatively minor, comparable to getting a shot or a blood test.

To learn more about these wonderful creatures, or to start your own hive, check out the following sites, or contact me at

erin info