Five Days of Bee Drama

New LA Backwards Beekeeper Larabee writes:

Our feral bees were a joy. They lived in a stucco wall for a few years and on a sunny day they would spark the air with flashes of gold and hum a tune that made our garden sing. The air teemed with them in the lavender and Mexican sage on both sides of our West Hollywood sidewalk, but nobody ever got stung.

But we had to rebuild their wall, which had been crushed by the roots of a giant bird of paradise, and when I started thumping the yucca roots near their wall with an axe, the vibrations upset them and they became defensive near their home. We couldn’t let them stay there, but we wanted to keep them around.

I found Backwards Beekeepers on line and called Kirkobeeo, who told me what to buy in order to become an accomplice of bees. I bought a couple of medium hive boxes, protective gear and “First Lessons in Beekeeping,” which they recommended at L.A. Honey and Bee. I read it in a couple of sittings.

Kirk and I cut them out of the wall and put them in a medium hive body.

Kirk gentled the bees throughout the whole process, smoking them and waiting, spraying them with sugar water to keep them busy grooming themselves. I cut the comb and tied it into the frames. Kirk made sure we left them plenty of honey, maybe four full frames.

When the hive was ready, Kirk scooped the bees out of the wall with a Cirque de Soleil big gulp cup and dumped them on top of the frames. They melted right down between the frames and moved in. There were a few groups hanging around the wax that remained stuck to the wall, so Kirk told me to check back after dark and scoop any stragglers into the hive. But after dark, everybody was in the hive, so I put the lid on.

There was enough honey to take some out, and we got about a pint of honey to share and enjoy.

We left the hive at the old colony site for the first week of October before moving it to the roof, to put it out of sight and out of the minds of neighbors. I climbed up to look at it from time to time, and there was heavy traffic buzzing in and out all day. I never opened the hive, since Kirk assured me that bees have pretty much taken care of themselves for zillions of years, and I didn’t know what to look for anyway.

In December, after they had been in the hive for a couple of months, I decided to check inside the hive. I was surprised to find only about a hundred bees, and all of the honey was gone. A week later, only about 50 bees. Our colony had died. Can’t tell why. No ants, no lice, no moths—just no bees. Maybe the end of September was too late in the year to relocate them. Maybe the queen wasn’t productive. Could be anything.

I determined to get more bees as soon as I could. I posted on the BB forum that my hive died and I need bees. I bought a dovetail jig and started making my own hive bodies with beautiful dovetail joints. I went to the January BB meeting at Farmlab. I put a deep box on at the site of my ex-colony and baited it with comb and queen pheromone, hoping for a swarm. I put myself in the “Need Bees” database. I watched messages on the BB forum tell me about voice messages from people who wanted to get rid of bees. I would post on the forum that I’d help and that I’d like to have the bees, but it seemed that all those colonies became “spoken for” within five minutes.

But last Thursday, Roberta Kato, bless her heart, emailed me saying that she’d noticed my efforts to get bees on the forum and told me of a colony in a compost bin in Monrovia. It was too far for her and she asked if I wanted to try to cut it out. I called the property owner on Friday and arranged to take the bees late that afternoon. I wanted to put the colony in a nuc box and leave it open until after dark, so all the foragers could come home.

It worked! There were just two little pieces of comb attached to the lid of the plastic compost bin, which I tied into a frame in the nuc. INSERT PHOTO OF COMB The whole colony was only the size of a softball, which I scooped and brushed into the nuc. By nightfall, all the bees were in, and I closed up the nuc – no stings, no squished bees, no stragglers, no sweat. I took pictures of the comb, which had only about a dozen capped brood cells, but many more with larvae in them.

My nuc has a sliding door on the bottom, so I can set it on top of a hive box and just open the door, so the bees can just move in downstairs. INSERT PHOTO OF BOTTOM OF NUC BOX Set it on top of a deep box Friday night and slid the door open Saturday morning. Before fore long I could see them going in and out the entrance of the hive. This is great!

Until I see that they are swarming on the branch of a fig tree outside the hive.

Oops! So I waited until the whole softball was there, got a bucket, put it under the swarm, smacked the limb and they fell into the bucket, just like it says in the books. Then I poured them back in the hive.

Later though, they started clustering under the lip of the landing board, but I thought they would go back in by nightfall.

Nope. They just hung there, so I got a dustpan and a thin sheet of plastic to scrape them off the bottom of the box, drop them in the dustpan and pour them back in the hive.

Sunday, I took the day off from beekeeping, since the weather was right to do some buzzing of my own in my hang glider in the San Gabriel Mountains above Sylmar.

I got an hour’s flight, good landing and pumped Budweiser’s consumption statistics to the best of my ability. The bees would either stay or they would go. Got home -- no bees.

But meanwhile, Maurice Vickers (above) had recruited me for a cutout to take place in Malibu on Tuesday, and said I could have the bees. I was hoping that I would then have two hives, but by Tuesday morning, I was down to none.

The cutout was easy and went smoothly. The colony was small, but looked healthy. There were two other helpers there, Jan (pronounced “Yahn”) and Dan (prounced “Dan”). Dan has posted on his blog about this cutout.

Maurice’s bee vac worked like a charm, and Dan opened the fence where the bees lived and handed me the comb, which I tied into frames. I happily drove my bees home and carried the nuc back to the garage, to put them where the softball colony had lately bugged out.

Just as I carried the nuc back to the garage, the air came alive with bees - - a swarm! Much bigger than the softball colony. The swarm disappeared within a minute. Jeez, maybe they’ll go into the baited box on the roof of the house. Naah! That would be too lucky. Climbed up to check out the hive and found the swarm flying all around it, walking all over it crowding in the front door like teenyboppers at a Justin Beeber concert!

I sat down a few feet from the hive – no veil, no bee suit (I knew by now that swarming bees are not defensive) and shot some video. Bees buzzed around me and landed on my skin, sniffed around and flew off to the hive. Within about ten minutes the whole swarm was in the hive. Now I have my two colonies. Pretty good bee day.

Y’all can take me off the “Need Bees” list for now.