My bee obsession | Beekeeping 101

Years ago I captured this photo of a worker bee foraging in the backyard of our old house, likely when I was trying to figure out how to do macro photography. 
Look at the segments of her antennae! And that empty pollen basket! - I now think to myself.

I've always been fascinated by bees, but during that summer in particular we started seeing bee carcasses everywhere on our back patio - and many more living and dying bees as well. 
It must've been right around the time that Colony Collapse Disorder was starting to become a well-discussed thing, because we worried that we were seeing evidence of CCD right before our very eyes.

Don't try correcting me on when CCD actually started either, because I'm relying on my years-ago memory now, and I think that allows me to be a little vague about details. 

A bee in a rose at Orfila Winery in Escondido

Worse still, our middle child - who was just a bit more than a toddler then, and has always been very fearless (hard-headed?) - started picking up and examining the bees, and getting stung. A lot.

I figured she had an allergy because each sting brought with it swelling, and a redness reaction to the affected finger/toe or even arm/leg. None of the rest of us were stung... because we weren't handling every live bee we could get our hands on. 

This mystery of Why Are There So Many Bees? was finally solved when we discovered that a swarm had taken up residence in our next door neighbor's owl box. This was very exciting! Here is a pic of the bee removal person who came out to extract/transfer the hive.

These four beekeeper photos courtesy of Joyce + Eddie Lindros of Poway

The beekeeper put the hive's residents into a classic Langstroth deep box (I now know).

He charged our neighbors for the extraction, and also got a sweet hive out of the deal.

These photos of the honey-filled comb fill my head with Winnie the Pooh-like thoughts.

This is all wax comb that the bees constructed from tiny wax plates which come out of their abdomen in little strips like an abdominal Scotch tape dispenser, and manipulated with their forelegs and mandibles into perfect hexagonal comb structures set at just the perfect angle - about 13 degrees - to prevent the honey from dripping out of the honeycomb. Who can stand the genius? I can't.

Fast-forward to the California wildfires in Santa Rosa and Napa this past October of 2017. I was just scrolling through the usual nonsense on my Facebook newsfeed and happened upon this lovely article * by Ariella Daly about her struggle to look after her precious bees during the firestorms.

This photo of a bee wearing her yellowest "pollen pants" was taken at our local Bernardo Winery.
Yes, another winery photo.

Ariella is a high-priestess of beekeeping. No really - although largely self-taught (which I love) - she follows the Path of Pollen, or natural and "bee-centric" methods of beekeeping, and is an avowed practitioner of shamanic practices, both in beekeeping and in life. Don't ask me what that means! Just know that although it sounds very hocus-pocusy, Ariella elaborates that this method "does not teach beekeeping as we know it today, but works with the honey bee as a living symbol, ally and motif."

Will those beliefs keep her from being stung if she is truly beekeeping in skirts? Don't ask silly questions and you won't get stonewalled by me giving you back no answers at all. 

Backyard bee

So I don't know if it was Ariella's fairly romantic description of beekeeping, her brag about having taught herself much of what she now knows through self-teaching (translation: I can do this?), or simply my own greedy desire for honey... but a little bee buzzed in my mind about the possibility of keeping my own hive. Especially since my husband has said No More Pets and that includes dogs and goats, which I wanted to let roam wild on our land.

Marriage is a partnership, I say.

So I started grabbing every legit bee book that I could get my hands on to see if this was something that I loved enough to really do. I mean beekeeping does have some barriers to entry. Starting with: what even are bees, and how do you "keep" them?

The facts about bee colonies and the "hive mind" are absolutely fascinating! Read for yourself and learn that:
honey bees navigate using the sun as a compass, and have their own complex "dance" language.

When you find yourself putting down books you would otherwise delve right into because you actually just want to read bee books all the time... you might be a beek. Or failing to engage in family games for bee book reading instead of the other trash you usually shirk family time for.

Oh Hi guys, you want me to build circuits with you? Sorry I can't... 
I'm at a really great part about "Swarming and Supersedure" right now.

My next move was to find an actual class on this stuff - like a beekeeping class. Here in San Diego, Girl Next Door Honey has cornered the market on classes. Hilary Kearney is an experienced local beekeeper who sells the most delicious honey I've ever tasted - honey made of simple bee magic, minus the glop or syrup or mystery that's in your grocery store bear jars.

She also teaches this class out of her home. Since I took this class in October of 2017, she has moved to an even more lovely Victorian/Craftsman-style home than this one. If you're unfamiliar with San Diego neighborhoods, North Park is one of the most charming in the county, especially if you like that perfect mix of urban/hipster living.

This was her classroom. Don't be fooled by this pic I took during break - it was totally packed in here!

One advantage she had in hosting classes at her home was not having to rent room space somewhere else for the class, or having to haul course materials around.

Another advantage was that I got to nosily peruse her bookshelves, which were infinitely more interesting than the walls of a generic teaching space somewhere. I know it's not my business, but whoever painted that landscape is pretty good at painting.

I excitedly posted some of these pics to my Instagram announcing my foray into beekeeping. This prompted an old friend to tell me a horrible tale about his beekeeper friend whose hive recently became Africanized... stinging her 48 times in a single incident, and landing her in the ER.


Details were sketchy about the incident itself (who was this keeper? Was she wearing a bee suit? I will never know), but she had apparently previously re-queened her hive in an effort to maintain nice bees and yet still, the hive became Africanized.

I guess that's why this topic is a major focus of the class. Keeping bees is not like keeping an aquarium full of fish. Not that I wouldn't like to do that also!

But I was most relieved when hearing about what constitutes a "normal" bee sting reaction vs. an abnormal or "allergic" reaction, as described here by Hilary. In fact, in many ways, bee stings can be very beneficial to one's health. It's still one of the most mysterious venoms out there, and I don't believe that science has unlocked all of the venom's benefits.

We learned tons about the practical aspects of beekeeping: Hives. Inspections. Treating for Disease. Beekeepers' tools. I've probably already lost you, if I ever had you this far.

As this is literally Beekeeping 101, it's the prerequisite to Hive Inspections and additional steps toward becoming a beekeeper, so I'll leave this here and follow up with the other steps you'll want to take if you follow the same path.

Thanks for looking and check back for our Beehive Tour post.
 ;) xo

October 12, 2017 
by Ari Daly

 I woke up Monday morning to sirens, smoke and a litany of texts from concerned family and friends.  The first text I read was from my housemate telling me Santa Rosa, the city where I live, was on fire.  The city itself.  Within minutes I was dressed and throwing belonging into my car, searching the blackened skyline for flames, and trying to find out if I was in immediate danger.  All across Sonoma county people had been doing the same since the middle of the night, sometimes with only minutes of warning to flee.  The story is the same, grab your pets, grab you photos and get out.

Forty minutes later, I was drinking coffee in a sort of dazed stupor at Wildflower Bakery while evacuees streamed through, sharing stories of rescuing horses, moving goats, or what to do about the kids, the dog, and the cats currently stuffed into the suburban out front.  I didn’t have any pets to try and save.  I’m a beekeeper.  My little charges don’t move in a flash.  I can’t ask them to hop in the car with some treats and a leash.  

My hives are located in a safe area in southern Sonoma County, but I can think of a handful of hives that friends and clients have had to abandon, hoping that their home and their hives stay standing.  It’s still going on, as I write.  A friend just sent a text telling me how she spoke to her hive, telling them what was going on before being forced to evacuate her property.  It’s all we can do, really.  Tell our girls to hang in there.

Since the fires broke out I’ve been thinking a lot about the life forms, human and otherwise, that are left so helpless and exposed during this time.  Thinking about wild animals fleeing their already confined habitats, easily finding themselves in neighborhoods and backyards, no evacuation centers for them to rely on.  

I have been thinking about how hard it is to keep bees alive.  About the myriad of issues they face due to climate change and human impact: habitat loss, pesticides, cognitive issues from lack of diversity in food, reduced nectar flow from drought and heat, record breaking temperatures, disease and smoke.  This August, wildfire smoke from further north and a major heat blast forced many bees in the region to consume large amounts of their honey stores.  Now the fires are here, the smoke thick and the bees hunkering down to try and survive another major blow.

So what happens when forest fire becomes a reality for bees?  When the sky fills with smoke, bees fill their bellies with honey and vigorously fan their wings to try and push the toxic air out of the hive.  They stop flying and retreat inward.  Counter to popular belief they are not preparing to abscond. 

Since ancient times, beekeepers and honey hunters have used smoke to suppress colonies and “calm them down”.  Bees' response to smoke is to consume honey.  The consumption of honey is also an indication of swarming in the spring, and a correlation between honey consumption and swarming/absconding has been drawn without really understanding the nature of a hive.  Bees preparing to swarm in early spring must first prepare the queen for flight.  The queen is much larger and heavier than her sons and daughters.  When preparing to swarm, attendants put the queen on a diet for a few weeks to help her shape up for flight.  In a forest fire, the queen is too heavy to be able to fly (Tautz, "The Buzz About Bees") .  Without a queen, the colony dies.  

 A recent study in South Africa indicates that wild bees don't flee from forest fires, but instead, try to ride them out.  They do this by building a protective “fire-wall” of propolis over the opening to the hive, and retreat deep within.  While this study is specific to wild bees in Table Mountain National Park, South Africa, the findings point to inherent species-wide behaviors in response to fire.   

“Once the fire has passed, the landscape is filled with powdery grey sand and the blackened skeletons of the larger shrubs. It is this devastation of their environment which the bees encounter after the fire has passed where neither nectar nor pollen is available to them. This is when the imbibed honey is essential to tide them over this dearth period which is about 2 to 3 weeks long before the fire-loving ephemerals sprout from underground bulbs or rhizomes and flower in profusion, having been relieved of competition from other plants.” (from The Natural Beekeeping Trust).

As backyard beekeepers, our hives are much more at risk to fire than the types of wild colonies described above.  For one, our man made hives do not offer the insulation and protection a thick tree or stony outcropping might provide. Second, years of breeding for “desirable” traits has led to a loss in semi-domestic bees’ ability to build sufficient propolis seals, let alone a true propolis fire-wall.  

What then, can we do to support our colonies in a time of raging fire, habitat loss and smoke damage?  

If you can safely return to your property, offer your bees a clean water source, such as a bird bath.  You may find many displaced birds visit your watering hole as well! 
Do not go into your hives while the smoke is still strong in the air
Consider late fall feeding for bees that have or are in the midst of consuming large amounts of their winter honey stores.
Offer your bees a healing and supportive tea to help boost and support their immune system.  Try Gunther Hauk's recipe or this recipe from The Natural Beekeeping Trust.
Rebuild for the bee as you help rebuild your community and your home.  Plant for pollinators.
Do not take honey. Period.
Talk to them. People have been doing it for centuries. Tell them what happened.  Tell them about the land, the community, your experience.  They may not understand our words, but they understand our mood, intentions and above all, our love.  
Honey bees are an indicator species.  They are the barometer for the ever-increasing volatility of our climate.  They are the clarion call toward a massive restructuring of how we steward, respond, and relate to our planet.  In the wake of this week’s devastation, they remind me that I am a human animal.  I am not above or separate from the many animals struggling to survive in a compromised ecosystem.  We are living creatures with sensitive nervous systems, responsible for the delicate balance of life we so often forget we are a part of.  

Be safe. Be kind. Be aware. Take action. 


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