Agriculture

Naturally: Playing a Part in a Bee Movie

A local hive of honeybees is rescued

I’m happy to report that I spent the better part of Monday afternoon on a platform 11 feet in the air with another gentleman and about 30,000 women.

We were tasked with removing a very well established hive of honeybees from a large valley oak tree near Lone Tree Road. The branch that had held their hive had broken off, leaving it exposed to the elements. Setting up a date with a large number of insects that pack venomous stings certainly isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time, but I’ve been fascinated with them for a few years now, so the invitation to get up close and personal was too hard to resist.

First, the biology lesson: honeybees are not native to North America, but they are a crucial ally in producing much of what we eat because of their habit of spreading pollen around. Each colony is probably best considered a single organism, with component parts accomplishing specialized tasks. Most of the bees in a colony are sterile females who do almost all the work – the 30,000 women I was with. Younger bees stay in the hive, turning nectar into honey, producing (“drawing out” in beekeeper lingo) wax comb, cleaning house and attending to the heart and soul of the hive – the queen. Other bees guard the hive, and still others – older, more experienced bees – leave the hive to forage for pollen and nectar.

The queen is the only insect in a hive that can continue to populate. This egg-laying machine fills cells with eggs throughout her long life after taking a single flight to mate with many males. Most eggs will develop into more workers, all of them sterile females. About 20 to 25 percent of a hive’s population is male. The males, or drone bees, do nothing but hang around the hive, doing the bee equivalent of playing cards and drinking Bud Lite all day, every day.

Their only job is to go flying out after an unmated queen when one emerges.

Before you rush out to apply for that job, consider that almost every hive will evict the drones before the onset of winter, and that they soon die when this happens. Also, there’s the sex thing. When a drone mates with a queen, the “package” literally blows off with an audible “pop,” and the drone quickly dies, presumably happy.

So we were on a platform held up by a forklift, taking the hive apart comb by comb while looking for the queen. Combs were installed into frames of a Langstroth hive box – the same thing you see in fields and orchards everywhere.

The bees were sucked into a specialized vacuum as we worked. We both wore simple protective gear – light colored because bees have issues with dark colors, strong scents and loud noises. Nobody was stung in the process, and the bees weathered getting sucked into a vacuum remarkably well.

As we moved into the center of the hive, there were many sheets of comb packed with developing bees. It was at the back of the hive that the combs of honey emerged. The honey, gathered from local fields, tasted of the very essence of its landscape. What did it come from? Everything within a few miles’ distance – eucalyptus, fruit trees, mustard, poison oak, sage and more. A pound of honey represents a million miles of flight on the part of bees, so you can imagine what went into that comb and, perhaps, you can be a little more grateful when you spread some onto your toast tomorrow morning.

The bees were installed in a hive along with their comb, and the colony was relocated to Corralitos, where as of this writing, it appears to be buzzing along very nicely.

Honeybees are facing a host of challenges these days, from parasites to infections to colony collapse disorder, in which bees leave a hive but fail to ever return. Without them, our diets would profoundly change.

I’m grateful to the property owner who troubled himself to have a hive rescued rather than destroyed, and I’m grateful to the journeyman beekeeper who allowed me to pitch in.

Mostly, I’m grateful to the bees, who cooperated as we tore their home apart to relocate it.

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Mark Paxton

I've been at this most of my life, and it still fascinates and challenges me. San Benito County can be a cruel mistress at times, but we can share in our love for her, even with all her quirks.