Category Archives: Beekeeping

A One-sided Film Worth Seeing

Here is a plug for a delightful and significant film by Jon Betz and Taggart Siegel, a couple of inspired and inspiring social documentary filmmakers of some merit and promise. Siegel has been around the block a few times and has an impressive body of work including the well-received The Real Dirt on Farmer John. Betz seems to have emerged on the scene more recently. Their film Queen of the Sun is deserving of your attention. The issue is real, the facts are good, and with a couple of caveats kept clearly in mind, you’ll be better for having seen it.

Promotional flier

The film begins with Rudolf Steiner, the early 20th century Austrian philosopher and, perhaps more familiarly, the progenitor of Waldorf pedagogy. In 1923 (2 years before his death) Steiner published a series of lectures on the biology and the community of honey bees. Famously, he warned that if modern apiculture of the time continued to meddle with and manipulate the natural life cycle of bees, we would see an alarming collapse in global honey bee populations in the span of 80 to 100 years.

The prediction comes to light today mostly, I think, because it seems to have come true. Isn’t that right? Had nothing come of it, it seems to me we would never be citing it.

In any case, it has – and is – coming true. Commercial honey bee populations are declining in this country consistently by 30-50% annually, much of what we eat is dependent on honey bees pollination, and people are concerned about where this might lead. Common sense eater, sustainability activist, and wonderful writer, Michael Pollan is quoted in the film saying that 4 of every 10 bites of everything we eat is the result of pollination. It is a seemingly obvious connection – without honey bees we would not enjoy nearly so many almonds.

The film proceeds from that premise in typical documentary style, from alarming factoid to alarmist interpretation, to persuade us that the bees are in peril, that we caused it, and that we can do something about it if we care enough and if we develop an enlightened perspective. (You can sense my caveat, I bet.)

The film is not objective (but I didn’t want it to be) or balanced (and I was grateful that it took a stand), and it wafts into philosophy and mysticism without warning (which is my own proclivity, as well.) It is a position statement and a rallying cry – and as such it succeeds. I am not sure there is an anti-honey bee statement to be made. Still, the commercial beekeepers come out looking criminal, interested in the bottom line and next year’s income. The only large-scale beekeeper interviewed is shown saying, “It’s a financial concern. We are in it to make a living.” The issue is clearly more complicated than that. Consumers have to bear some of the culpability for their carefree consumption of monoculture crops – almonds, corn, soybeans.

And the film sidesteps entirely the issue of how bees came to be in this country in the first place. The film’s implication is that we need to get back to a wilder, more natural state in which bees live on their own and pollinate without human interventions. The historical fact is that honey bees were introduced intentionally to this county only in 1622 – it is a glaring omission to ignore the fact that honeybees themselves are an invasive species. There simply are no wild hives in North America. They are all feral and introduced and non-native. The film does not take up this issue, but instead takes for granted that bees are here, for us, and we must be their caretakers.

But in the end, from this reviewer’s perspective, it is a worthy viewing. There are wonderful scenes of deeply connected and charismatic nature activists doing what feeds their souls. There are intriguing philosophical and spiritual digressions, and there is a strong message of human place in nature, not as dominator or manipulator, but as stewards.

And it presents the sexy side of the issue seductively. It is easy to get on board with this cause and to feel good about doing your part for a fuzzy, softly buzzing insect that frequents flowers and makes something as sweet and sensuous as honey – sometimes stinging when we misstep in its presence but giving up its life in the gesture. As one student remarked in the afterglow of the film last night, “I think I’m going to get a hive.”

The Latest From The Hives

I am never sure what I will find when I open a hive.  These are a few images from the latest foray into my troubled hive at school.  It emerged from winter sleepy and slow – and with a reduced population – perhaps 2000 bees in all.  But they had a queen, she was laying, and the bees that were there seemed determined.  Every few days I stopped by the apiary just to look for departures and arrivals and every time long moments would pass when I saw nothing – no activity.  I would think surely they collapsed.  And then a bee, one, lone forager would emerge, inevitably, and fly.  Nonetheless, these bees were on the verge of viability.

The brood pattern looks okay, not great, but of more concern is the patch of darkened larvae to the left.  Below is a close up.

The larvae are formed well but they are mottled – not brown, but dark grey and black.  The developing pupae in the capped cells all look fine – white and glossy.

Seen it before?  Know what it is?  Here is another clue.  I recently added three frames of brood and nurse bees to this hive to bolster the population and give them some more bodies to warm the hive.  Currently the population seems to be increasing, there is more activity at the hive entrance, and a lot more eggs being laid.  Also, we have had a long spell of cold, wet weather.

So, with

  • low population
  • cold weather
  • recently added brood from a different hive

this is chilled brood.  Not an emergency, it just means that the in the hive could not keep these larvae warm during development and they died.  The fact that the other brood is okay and the population is increasing is a good sign.  My bees will likely get around to cleaning out these cells when they can and when the population swells enough they will be able to take care of their brood properly.

Swarm Season

It is swarm season for honey bees – a time when queens and ten or twenty thousand loyal daughters leave their hive in search of a new home, abandoning the rest of their colony to rear new queen and carry on by themselves.   Actually, bees can and will swarm anytime their hive becomes too crowded – it is the main way wild hives propagate – but the early spring is the time when colonies have just come out of their winter torpor and bee populations explode.  The advent of the swarms in the spring coincides, not accidentally, I believe, with the first real nectar flows of the year.  Many types of flowers are in bloom – or coming into bloom – and the bees can find plenty of sweet and nutritious forage.

I have seen only four swarms in my life.  I haven’t been looking long, you understand, at least not until recently.  My senses are attuned now, and in the interests of housing homeless honey bees I search for swarms these days.  It should not surprise then that two of my four swarms I have experienced in the last year.

All of them, though, I heard before I saw.  A swarm, like a hive itself, has a sound you can’t ignore.  It is amazing.  Indescribable.  It is the sound of many, many  individuals engaged in common endeavor.  A deep, rich thrum, it is one of the many voices of nature itself.  People (I may or may not be one of them) say the same thing about rattlesnakes.  Even if you have never heard one before, the buzzing alarm of a rattlesnake is unmistakeable.  You know what it is the very first time.  It is hard wired – so to speak -into our brains as snake sound.  The sound of bees is the same.

I remember vividly the first swarm I saw.  It was in the air.  I was 10 or so outside the house where I grew up.  Something in my father’s elaborate gardens had my attention, I don’t know what.  But a sound came up rather quickly.  I didn’t hear it so much as I became aware that I had been hearing it, like it had been there, audible, and I only just then became aware of what I had been experiencing.  The difference between hearing and listening, perhaps.  The sound seemed to come from the whole sky, and it was moving, coming from no where in particular and everywhere above me.  I looked up and it was immediately recognizable as a cloud of insects that swept right up our little valley, and up and over our house.  It was gone as fast as it had come and when it was gone it was as if nothing had happened.  I sort of went back to whatever it was that I had been doing, but I remember the feeling that something rare had happened.  I remember feeling at the epicenter of something big.

These days, there are times when I wander down to the apiary, cup in hand, coffee if it is morning, something stronger if it is evening, and sit.  I sit as close as I can – I try not to be noticed too much – and I listen and I watch.  There is so much to see.

But like all careful observation it takes patience and time.  The gifts of watching are there for free but they are not gained immediately.  I find it takes time for the noise and distraction in my head to calm and fall silent.  And that is when I might see something.

I once watched a single bee in a flower.  I watched her poke her head into the blossom, probing for nectar.  Then she pulled back and brushed her head with her forelegs, collecting a dusting of yellow pollen.  With her forelegs she deftly transferred a small quantity of protein-rich pollen to the sticky patches on her hips.  And then she she flew away.  I was amazed, breathless again.  I knew I had once again seen something rare.  If you ask, “Do you know how a bee gets her pollen onto her hips?” you will find that almost no one knows.

This last Saturday the bees were gathering in clusters and balls all over Marin County.  I don’t know what spurs them to swarm, but I know they respond to a common sign.  Over the local beekeeper’s email list there came one after the other all morning long news of swarm after swarm in local towns and neighborhoods.  My wife and I, eager to add to our apiary, were tempted by each one.  But you have to tread carefully in seeking to hive a swarm at a stranger’s house.  It almost always involves a certain degree of invasion and you never know how people are feeling about bees.  Bees, like snakes, elicit strong and deeply felt emotions.

Nonetheless, when word of this one came across the wire, we jumped.  The message gave an address, a phone number, and this: “Swarm 1′ off the ground.”  It isn’t much information to go on, but it sounded promising.  So, we called.

“Are you my savior?” said a giddy voice on the other end of the phone.

“Well, I don’t know,” I said.  “I called to ask some questions.”  In a short chat the man with whom I spoke seemed reasonable, phobic but reasonable.

“Oh!” he said.  “Bees!  Bees are my only phobia.  I don’t have a problem with snakes or spiders.  Scorpions.  Nothing.  Except bees.  I can’t deal with bees.”

“I’ll be right over.”

Swarming bees rarely sting, and there are a couple of explanations for that.  Even so, it runs counter to what people think they know about bees.  The thinking is that because bees preparing to swarm gorge themselves on honey for the long, uncertain trip, they have a tough time bending their abdomens to sting.  (There is a lot you hear about bees that strains credibility.)  A more believable theory to me states that bees sting out of selfless defense of their hive.  Without a hive, they don’t get defensive.

What ever the reason, I have experienced the phenomenon: swarming bees don’t sting.  I am hesitant to say they can’t.  I think that would take some committed testing to verify.  It is true, though, that they tend to be docile, unconcerned, and appreciative of human efforts to house them.

This cluster, as usual, was audible before it was visible.  We could hear it from the back porch.  It was about the size of a regulation soccer ball, and solid.  Swarm clusters aren’t hollow.  They were all clinging to a thick branch of a bush in this phobic man’s back yard.  He said when he first got home the air was filled with bees and then over the course of a calming hour, they settled into the bush.  When my wife and I got there, the situation seemed well under control.

Hiving them was a relatively straightforward affair, really.  The bees are all in one place, they are calm, and they are looking for a home.  We simply gave them one.

Hiving the swarm involved providing a sealable box in which to transport them to our own apiary, cutting the branch on the bush to which they clung, and laying the branch carefully into the box.

After we closed the top of the box, we opened the small entrance on one end, and the bees, sensing their queen was inside, slowing marched in formation right into the box.  It took about an hour, but the entire swarm was hived and at home of their own accord.  We had only to stopper the entrance and carry them off, listening to their thrum.

The final step was to transfer the colony from the catch box into their more permanent home – a deep hive body with 5 frames in which to drawn comb – in our own apiary.  A week has elapsed since then and our newest colony seems very happy with its new digs.  The queen is furiously laying eggs, the workers are tending house, the foragers are stocking up on nectar and pollen, and the drones, as usual, aren’t doing anything.

Swarm season is on!

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

There is an interesting dialogue going on down at the Marin Beekeepers Association.  I wouldn’t call it a schism, not yet, but it certainly has the makings.  It is about what is happening to our honey bees, why they are dying off so fast, and what we can to do about it.  The thing that really interests me, apart from the fact that there is a highly motivated, highly concerned group of really sharp people thinking carefully about sustainability, is that people are being forced to confront their more closely held convictions in response to calamity––and they are being asked to take sides.

Hobbyist beekeepers are a funny bunch, fanatical and intriguing to me in a kind of metacognative way––I mean, I am one, but what captivates me about beekeeping is a bit unclear.  I don’t know why I do it beyond the fact that I find it challenging and fun.  But I know there is more to it than that.  There is something deeply compelling about bees but what it is isn’t obvious or easily expressible.

Commercial beekeepers are different, of course.  They do it for different reasons.  They may or may not love what they do, but for them it is a livelihood; why they do it isn’t mysterious.  Most commercial beekeepers keep thousands of hives, they rent their colonies as pollinators to farms and orchards, and they harvest bee products to sell, honey wax, pollen, propolis.  It is a kind of farming like any other.

Hobbyist beekeepers (read: those who don’t have to do it to make a living) on the other hand, all have at the root of their connection to bees a mystical experience.  A faith in something bigger than themselves.  Ask.  Find out.  You’ll be surprised.  You might have to probe a little.  Many of the initial answers you get may seem superficial, but if your questions are skillful, you can get deeper into their attraction to beekeeping and their communion with bees.  Go beyond “What do you like about beekeeping?” and get to “What drew you to keep bees?  Why did you start?”

In the beginning, at the center, holding them, you will find a mystery, a set of questions that cannot be answered but can be contemplated, a truth that cannot be touched but can be approached by keeping bees.  People keep bees to be in the presence of a great and ineffable thing, and in that way beekeeping has a religious tone to it.  And people will express that in the language they use, their own words, and the stories they tell.

A friend of mine told me this story of his first experience with bees.  He said while walking in the woods near Santa Barbara years and years ago he came upon a swarm of honey bees clustered on a low hanging branch.  He said it was the size of a basketball, and docile, as bees tend to be when they are swarming.  The sound it made he said he will never forget, a deep, resonant, biological, single-noted hum.  He said it was beautiful and fascinating to see, captivating, and he was drawn to it by a curiosity that was stronger than his trepidation.  He approached the buzzing mass of bees and as he got close, to within just a few feet, it expanded, all at once, all together, to the size of a beach ball.  The sound it made went up in pitch, too, now a full, high, almost electric buzz.  He froze, stunned and amazed, and then slowly took a step back.  As he did the bees contracted, all at once, all together, as one organism, to the size of a basketball again.  He stepped closer, and it got big.  He stepped back, and it got small.  He was absolutely awestruck and profoundly amazed that this mass of insects doing its thing on the tree branch was aware of him––and he felt that it was communicating with him, the whole swarm as one entity, perhaps twenty thousand bees all expanding and contracting together, in unison, agitated by his approach and relieved by his withdrawal.  It was a live encounter with raw, powerful nature.

He said that more than anything else he remembers feeling like there was something going on and he was in the presence of it.  He felt in the presence of something big and natural, highly ordered and in control.  He felt he had to know more.  Soon after, he landed an apprenticeship with a beekeeper in Santa Barbara and started learning about bees.  His experience had become a quest for answers.  He is gardener now by trade but he has been keeping bees for 30 years now, ever since, and what bees can do has never ceased to amaze him.

And that is typical.  Beekeepers are a zealous lot and they tend to talk about their faith as a quest or a calling.  So, I suppose it is not surprising when faced with the plague of Colony Collapse and the loss of fully one half of our hives in December to Varroa mites and the diseases they vector, I suppose it is not surprising that the discussion takes on an apocalyptic tone.

It is hard to describe, but when a hive dies, it is rending.  You feel like something’s gone wrong, like it has turned and gone sour, like it is rotten, like the center cannot hold, and things are falling apart.  We keep chickens, too, and it is not like when a bobcat takes one of our chickens.  That is unfortunate, sometimes maddening, but there is nothing really wrong about it.  It is not unnatural.  But bees are magical and powerful and mysterious, and they are supposed to be able to take care of themselves, to do it on their own, and when they can’t, you wonder why?  What happened?

Now, take that up a few degrees.  Intensify it by an order of magnitude.  The feeling you get when you raise your hand, one among many in answer to the question, “Who among us has lost a hive this season?” and you see that fully half of the room has its hands in the air, the feeling you get is a kind of low level panic that something very big is happening to the bees and not just your bees.  You begin to feel like dark and ubiquitous forces are at work.  Like something is loose upon the world.

And you say to yourself in words that are your own, “What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?”