Confessions of an Urban Beekeeper

Confessions of an Urban Beekeeper

In some parts of the country mites have reduced honeybees to near-extinction levels. But the gentle and tiny honeybee holds the very fabric of life together, hopping from flower to flower–and delivers sweet rewards to its keeper.

“A little more smoke over here,” says Yvette, the veiled woman on my left. Sara, also veiled, stands on the other side of a buzzing wooden box of bees, and obliges with puffs of smoke from something that looks like a cross between Aladdin’s lamp and the Tin Man’s oil can. The bees complain with a little buzz and then crawl down into the beehive’s frames and begin gorging on honey.

Smoke blocks the bees’ fear response, compels them to eat, and calms them down, making it safer to work with them. One theory is that this is a natural strategy for surviving forest fires: calmly load up on food in case the hive must be abandoned.

Sara and Yvette, both in their early 30s, are backyard beekeepers, and, as of a few months ago, so am I. My not-so-hidden agenda here in their yard is to not only get a tory, but to learn what I can from watching more experienced bee handlers.

Yvette and Sara’s goldenrod-painted beehive looks like a set of sturdy wooden crates stacked snugly on top of each other, and sits framed by a wisteria-covered trellis behind their home near the Oakland-Berkeley border. Sara learned beekeeping in the Dominican Republic while in the Peace Corps, and taught what she knew to her partner Yvette.”She’s the brave one,” says Sara. “When I brought up the idea of getting bees, she didn’t think twice about it. Me, I still approach the hive with caution and a little worry, but Yvette just jumps right in.” Like many professionals, Yvette used to work without protection and didn’t sweat the occasional sting. Recently, though, vanity got the best of her: She got stung on her upper lip, and her mouth and cheek swelled up. “I could barely recognize her,” laughs Sara.

Sara and Yvette ask that I not use their last names because the women have been harassed previously for their hobby. Even though beekeeping is legal in most Alameda County cities, a neighbor next to their previous home complained to them and their landlord about their bees. “It was my big mouth,” says Yvette, sheepishly. “I shouldn’t have mentioned the bees.” In the interest of peace, they moved their hives to a friend’s house in Walnut Creek for a year until they found their present home. “At some point, we’ll probably pass some honey around to the neighbors [here] and let them in on the secret,” Sara says.

It’s a hard call, because many people are unreasonably fearful about honeybees. Some beekeepers have never come out to their family, friends, or neighbors. Can you blame them? In parts of the East Bay, beekeepers live as outlaws, in fear of discovery by nosy neighbors and civil authorities. For example, a county ordinance makes beekeeping illegal in all urban areas of Contra Costa County. Even in places where it’s legal, a call from a concerned neighbor (or their lawyer) can spook even blasé landlords.

Bees can be a tough sell until neighbors become gently educated–my neighbors, for example, initially expressed concern that the bees would swoop down en masse and sting their kids and beloved dogs to death, Then they actually stood a few yards away and watched the hive working, and realized their fears were unfounded.

The sad truth for apiphobes is that no matter how little you like bees, you absolutely need them. Honeybees are the major pollinator for most nuts, fruits, and virtually anything that grows on a vine. According to scientists, pollination by bees accounts for 15 to 30 percent of all the food Americans eat. We’re talking about 90 major crops including all citrus fruits, cherries, apples, pears, squash, watermelons, pumpkins, pecans, almonds, beans, strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries.

Here’s the problem: honeybees are in trouble. In some areas of the country, parasitic Varroa mites have reduced wild honeybee colonies to near-extinction levels. California almond farmers this year experienced an expensive near-crisis and beehives had to be shipped in from all over the country to pollinate their crops.

Every smart gardener wants honeybees pollinating their flowering plants and trees, but an awful lot of them will also complain hysterically if a neighbor brings a beehive into the yard next door. Yet, odds are if you have honeybees pollinating your fruit trees, they belong to a beekeeper nearby. Folks like Sara and Yvette bolster the diminished local bee population with their backyard colony, helping East Bay fruits, flowers, and vegetables.

Do you remember how it used to be, when you could close your eyes in a field of blooming wildflowers and hear the droning buzz of honeybees? Honeybees used to be everywhere in large quantities–bees that belonged to beekeepers, but also feral bees living in attics, hollow trees, walls, abandoned cars, wherever they could find a sheltered spot. No more. It’s gone.

“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe mankind would only have four years left to live: no more bees, no more pollination, no more grass, no more animals, no more men.”

–Albert Einstein

Under the beehive is a chickenwire screen. From below the screen Yvette slides out a sheet of metal smeared with Vaseline. She carefully inspects the flecks of beeswax and a spectrum of orange and yellow pollen grains sticking to it, and is visibly relieved to find no dead mites stuck there. Beekeeper folk wisdom has it that this greased bottom pan will help control the two mites that suck the life out of beehives: trachial mites, which grow in throats of adult bees, slowly suffocating them, and Varroa destructor mites, the newest, scariest infestation, which started out in Southeast Asia in the early 20th century and over the ensuing century has become widespread, destroying honeybee colonies across the world. On adult bees, they burrow into the bee’s body and slowly suck out their internal fluids. On bee larvae, they cause horrible malformations and death. Unchecked, Varroa mites can wipe out colonies in less than a year. There are plenty of folk remedies and a few chemical ones to keep mites in check, but no surefire ones.

The subject often comes up at the monthly meetings of the Alameda County Beekeepers Association. Members grasp at any straw of anecdotal cures, no matter how farfetched they may sound. One member swears that smoking bees with a mix of burning tobacco and grapefruit leaves will kill the mites. Another, that sprinkling a box of powdered sugar over the frames in a hive will do it. Another member sees promise in an herbal remedy made in Italy. There are two approved pesticides of dubious safety, and most Bay Area beekeepers are reluctant to use them if they can avoid it. Besides, the pesticides are becoming less effective as the mites become immune, and can’t be used during honey season because it will contaminate the honey.

But so far Sara and Yvette’s hives are mite-free, and so are mine. Trees and flowers in Sara and Yvette’s neighborhood bloom lustily. These healthy bees buzz around the hive boxes and off in an arching pattern out of the yard to places unknown. The bees return with nectars and pollens from all kinds of plants within the neighborhood. Some honey connoisseurs clam to be able to identify the taste of a variety of blossoms, from the light clover honeys to the tangy eucalyptus. “It’s hard to know what kind of honey we have,” says Yvette. “We have such a diverse range of plants that grow around here.”

Whatever kind of honey it is, there’s a lot of it inside. Sara has pried the hive’s lid off and is working on loosening the individual frames in the top box, called a “super.” Ever the industrious ones, honeybees collect propolis–the sticky sap from trees–and use it to fill holes and cracks, gluing the parts of the hive together, including the ten frames of comb that hang like filing folders inside each level of the hive. After gently nudging bees out of the way, Sara pulls up a few of the frames, now heavy with wax comb and the sweet amber liquid.

Although some beekeepers call the bees their “guys,” the reality is that beehives are a strict matriarchy ruled by a queen bee, but no king. The workers are all female. A few otherwise useless male drones are tolerated through the summer, in case a virgin queen needs to be mated, but she will have sex on only one occasion–when the young queen takes flight and mates with several boy-toy drones before settling down and never flying again.

From that point on, her life is consumed by the drudgery of laying as many as 2,000 eggs a day during spring and summer using the reservoir of sperm she collected on her maiden flight. The drones, however, get it worse. Any fortunate enough to get “lucky” with a new queen dies painfully when its penis stays lodged in the queen as she pulls away from the drone. Those that don’t mate are tossed out into the cold. “But it’s not like the queen has a great, feminist life,” notes Sara. “She’s locked in the hive for her entire life, pointing her butt into combs all day and laying eggs.”

Still, women have had a long affinity for bees, one that has been cemented in recent popular culture with the publication of The Secret Life of Bees (2002) by Sue Monk Kidd, in which three female beekeepers impart honey-centric shelter, comfort, and wisdom to a runaway 14-year-old. Singer Tori Amos released an album called The Beekeeper, featuring the title song as well as another called “How Sweet the Sting,” following the lead of poet Emily Dickinson, the severely self-cloistered queen bee who poignantly used bees as a symbol of freedom in her poems. Before that, Queen Elizabeth I’s beekeeper, Charles Butler, published a treatise called The Feminine Monarch in England. In it, he accurately theorized that queen bees, not kings, ruled the hive and that male bees were simply the queen’s consorts, implying strongly that women, like his patron, were the natural rulers of England and the world.

In continental Africa the majority of beekeepers are women. In the United States, African-American women historically tended hives before and after the Civil War, before men took it over as part of farmwork. Today, among all racial groups, the numbers of female beekeepers are increasing from what was in recent years primarily a male pastime. Sara dismisses the idea that it’s because women are nurturers. “There are a lot of things women are doing that were once predominantly done by males,” she says. “Besides, I’m not sure that beekeeping is as much about nurturing as it is about management.”

“Bees have a secret life that we don’t know anything about.”

–Sue Monk Kidd, author of The Secret Life of Bees

If you can get beyond the fear–as bees buzz around your head–taking apart the hive is a great meditation. Watching the bees that come and go inspires an appreciation of their great sense of navigation. Bees can find their way several miles to a particular stand of flowers and back home again. In the midday, you can see young bees making exploratory flights in ever-widening circles as a way to memorize their surroundings and the way home. Not long after, they’ll join their elders in 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 a bee finds a great cache of blooms, it communicates the general direction, distance, and scent to other bees using the “waggle dance.” This stylized pattern of figure eights shows what direction to go, and a lot of body wiggling releases olfactory clues to the ultimate destination’s scent.

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 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 larvae.

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 pushed from that stomach into honeycomb cells. If hungry, the bee can transfer some of the nectar into its second stomach, which actually digests it.

Inside the hive, you’ll see combs with dozens of gleaming pools of amber. These contain nectar in various stages on its way to becoming honey. Bees place the nectar from the flowers there and evaporate its excess liquid using their collective body heat and the fanning of a thousand wings, condensing the watery nectar into a thick honey. Then the bees seal the honey into the cells with a frosty white coating.

The hive saves the honey to consume 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. Still, there is enough of a surplus that people can take some of it without hurting the hive. A large, healthy, productive colony can yield more than a hundred pounds of surplus honey per season–that’s pretty impressive, considering that a single bee, working tirelessly, might collect only a tablespoonful of honey as its total lifetime achievement.

Below the light-colored combs of honey is the dark brown brood comb. Look closely, and you may see bee eggs in some of the cells, the size and shape of small rice grains. A week after the queen lays eggs in brood combs, larvae emerge. These little maggot-like things get fed and fussed over by nursery bees for a week and then get sealed into their cell with a mix of beeswax and pollen. After one more week, the new bees eat their way out of the cell as fully-grown adults, ready to go to work.

The youngest bees act as nursery workers, taking care of the eggs and larvae. After about eight days, they graduate to gathering pollen and nectar as field bees. While worker bees can live for several months during the winter, they pretty much work themselves to death within about six weeks during the honey flow of spring and summer. (In contrast, the queen bee can live for many years.) A healthy hive can typically contain 20,000 bees during the winter, bulking up to 80,000 or more in the summer.

The honeycombs are made from a sort of bee dandruff–a wax that flakes off the bodies of the bees. Worker bees collect it and form the beeswax into hexagonal cells just big enough for them to get their bodies into. 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 emerge refreshed later, ready to get back to work.

Worker bees are sexually undeveloped, but all of them once had the potential of becoming the queen. When a queen is failing, or a hive is getting overcrowded, 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 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 crowded, 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 or sting people.

In fact, honeybees almost never sting when they’re away from their hives. Stinging is a last resort because doing so kills the honeybee–it actually rips the hind end off their bodies. So, unless you’re actually molesting their home, honey, and babies, 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 to 50 deaths nationally 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.

Unfortunately, the fact that bees can sting means that they get confused with wasps, hornets, and yellow jackets, which unlike honeybees, can sting repeatedly, and will sometimes swarm. Also, unlike honeybees who care only for nectar and pollen, these other stinging insects make pests of themselves at picnics and patio parties, aggressively challenging people for their hot dogs and Cokes. Even the more aggressive Africanized honeybees that have colonized from South America into the southern United States–not the Bay Area–won’t do that.

Sara and Yvette’s beehive exterior may be painted yellow instead of the traditional white, but its parts are interchangeable with nearly every other beehive in the Western world. The basics of the beehive have not changed much in more than a hundred years since the 1850s, when the Reverend Lorenzo Langstroth, a hobbyist in Philadelphia, discovered that bees would thrive in modular hives containing ten removable honeycomb frames as long as you provide 3/8 inch of “bee space” between surfaces. (Less than that and the bees can’t get through; more than that and they’ll try to fill the space with more combs.) Before Langstroth’s discovery, publicized in his book On the Hive and the Honey-Bee, people kept bees in stumps, wicker baskets, or other solid containers that required all but destroying the hive in order to harvest its honey.

“Have you found honey? Eat only as much as you need, lest you be filled with it and vomit.”

–Proverbs 25:16  

Honeybees are not native to California. In fact, they’re not native to the Americas at all. In the Old World, honeybees have been part of human life since prehistory (a cave painting in Spain from about 7,000 B.C. depicts people robbing bees for their honey). However, they didn’t make it to North America until English settlers carried them here in the 1620s. Although swarms escaped their human handlers and headed west, they didn’t make it to California until 1853, when botanist Christopher Shelton transported hives from the east.

Through human history, bees have acquired a cross-cultural reputation for divinity, industriousness, community, and wisdom. Legend had it that bees settled on Plato’s lips when he was a baby, giving him the future benefit of honeyed words. He returned the high esteem: He once said that if the souls of serious, quiet people were exposed to philosophy, they’d be reborn as bees. Both ancient Greece and Ireland associated bee swarms with the soul leaving the body in death. Bees belong to the insect order hymenoptera from the Greek god Hymen, god of marriage and the loss of virginity. Bees in early Christian folklore were associated with the Virgin Mary, based on the mistaken premise that the queens give birth without sex.

In the 1790s, early American Freemasons, including many of the Founding Fathers, used worker bees as a symbol of political stability and industriousness, and drones as a metaphor for the plagues of slothfulness and an overprivileged monarchy. In 1799, the Continental Congress adopted a symbol for its currency featuring a beehive with 13 rings to symbolize the country’s first states. Likewise, Mormon leader Joseph Smith in 1838 chose the beehive as an official symbol of his church. When Brigham Young led the Mormons to Utah, he called the land Deseret, the Mormon word for beehive, which is why Utah is still called the Beehive State.

“Beehives are this really interesting social experiment,” observes Sara, “in that everything they do is for the good of the hive. They’re not necessarily altruistic to each other as individuals–if a bee dies or even gets sick, another bee will push them out of the hive. They ignore us as much as they can, even when we’re working the hive–they’re just calm and interested in doing their jobs.”

Yet, if bees are so virtuous, then why are people so afraid of them? Beekeepers are hit with rampant NIMBYism–a “Not in My Backyard!” mentality. Except in this case, it’s also “Not in your backyard either!”

People are unduly frightened of honeybees, thanks in large part to childhood fears, ignorance, and a decade or two of “Killer Bee” news stories. Instead of leaving a bee tree alone, they’ll call an exterminator. “One neighbor of mine was concerned because he saw something flying around his yard, but it turned out that it was a yellow jacket, not a bee,” says beekeeper Heiko Dzierzon, who has two beehives in his yard down the hill from the Berkeley Rose Garden. “A lot of people don’t know the difference between a honeybee and a yellow jacket–they think that anything that stings is a bee.” Dzierzon, who learned beekeeping as a child from his family in Germany, is a member of the Alameda County Beekeepers Association. The organization–the oldest beekeeping group in California, dating back to 1912–meets every second Tuesday of the month at the Rotary Nature Center at Lake Merritt.

Unlike many beekeepers, Dzierzon has had no complaints from his neighbors. It helps that he passes honey out to them every autumn. “They start asking for it months in advance,” he says. Before approaching his neighbors in the first place, Dzierzon brought in his bees first and installed a seven-foot fence, which forces the bees to fly up above human level before they enter neighboring yards. “People didn’t even notice them until I started passing out honey after eight months,” he says.

If you’ve got a good hive and have managed it well, harvest time from your hive produces a wonderfully sweet, sticky embarrassment of riches. Last year Sara and Yvette harvested about 50 pounds of honey. I did about as well this year myself, even though I started my colony midway through in the honey season. Starting in late July, I started harvesting my new beehive incrementally, one to five frames a weekend, as the bees finished them. Each frame contains about three pounds of honey and perhaps half a pound of wax. Without easy access to a honey centrifuge, a device that spins the honey out of the combs without too much damage to the wax, (and wanting to make some beeswax candles) I mashed the combs inside strainers and let it drip for hours on end in my kitchen, straining not just the honey but the patience of my family members. It didn’t take long to fill all available jars and still have excess, coming in with about 60 pounds of clover-and-lavender honey in my first year. How we, and our friends, will actually use up all this honey in the coming year is going to be the sweetest challenge yet. l


Jack Mingo is a writer from Alameda. With his partner in life and beekeeping, Erin Barrett, he has written 30 books, and provides a daily fun-facts column to newspapers around the country.

Faces of the East Bay