Hope all is Blooming for you this Spring : )
We just returned from a little rescue mission which took place down south in the desert.
It was an adventure with all the trimmings. The last minute opportunity. The ill-timed hokey pokey over whether or not to go. The tight timelines, backup plans and unanswered questions.
We had chicken scratch notes, names and numbers of strangers to hook up with, hot dates with swarms of venomous insects and smoke and crowbars.
Juwels packed her ultra healthy road snacks and prepared foods, and advised me against my plans to start my Springtime Fast before the trip, saying, "I've got my food and snacks. You can do what you want, but if you don't want to eat what I'm eating, you're on your own.."
This potential travel came on the heals of another. We had just returned home from a condensed trip to Central California, where we went to track down a very important piece of writing. We stayed in strange motels, got funny sleep, and we were tired and our spines had already started to calcify into that double-kinked bench seat position from the Ford ... but we went anyway.
The bees were calling, one hundred thousand or more, fanning their wings toward the mountain and sending us their SOS pheromone. We had to save them from the poison sprayers. These days we have enough dead bees with Colony Collapse, bad practices and the chemical pollination rackets. There's been a lot of talk and research (and anti research from billion dollar pesticide companies), but we have our own ideas of a major contributor in the bad bee scene, and one that nobody's talking about.
So we left with heart and soul, and we were feeling good and energized. The truck was spilling over with bins and empty hive boxes and frames, ratcheting straps, rickety ladder, smoker, sledge hammer, honey-sticky bee suits and gloves, and our ghost buster style bee vacuum.
We were ready .. ish.
We've started our swarm catching efforts for the season, and we offer our services for friendly hive and swarm removal free of charge. Of course it burns a lot of gas and time and materials, but we've found that people will spray the bees with a ten dollar bottle of wasp and hornet poison before they pay to have them removed, so we do it for loVe, and it's actually quite exciting!
We've been sniffing out leads and climbing trees, but not much is going on up here on the mountain at 7,000 ft. We've had a few wild goose chases, and I have a promising baited swarm trap up on the roof of a historic house downtown, but for the most part, the bees aren't swarming up here yet, still too cold and not enough to eat, so bees are staying put in their winter hives and waiting for the flow.
Technical Bee Info below .. fascinating to some, deathly boring to others, you've been warned:
Bees naturally swarm when they're healthy and productive. The way it works is that a hive will start to build up the colony in numbers, upwards of 50 to 70,000 bees, and they'll put away honey too. When they're running out of room, and they feel they've set the hive up well with food stores, they'll start preparing to swarm or split (roughly in half.)
The Queen initiates these orders, communicating through pheromones, or lack thereof, and then the scouts hit the sky, looking for new locations ... in walls, planters, old tires, you name it. The scout bees go in, look around and literally take measurements. They announce these details back in the dark and crowded hive, (through interpretative dance .. not joking) and when they've found a suitable place, the Queen and about 60% of the bees in the hive, all at once, leave to setup another location. It's their little franchise system, with the main hive being the flagship location. Depending on the nectar flow and the size of their new digs, they'll build up the new location and then split again and again.
In this situation, the old hive is now Queen-less, but the remaining bees are able to make a new virgin Queen with an egg or small larva left behind by the last Queen. They build a special cell (a bigger one that looks like a sugar cone) and then they place a tiny larva inside and pack the cone with royal jelly. Royal jelly is creamy and white, not much for taste but people use it in high end beauty products, and eat it as a super food .. and it truly is a super food. In fact, feeding an ordinary larva royal jelly, and royal jelly only, will turn turn it into a Queen, just from the special protein rich diet. All bees are fed royal jelly after they hatch from their eggs. But only for the first few days of being a gooey little larva, then they're switched over to a baby bee formula. This formula, mixed in the belly of a nurse bee, is made up of pollen, water and honey.
These are Queen Cells : )
So the lucky larva who's chosen to bee the new Queen will hatch out some three weeks later, go off on a mating flight to meet up with Drone bees (males) from other hives (they never inbreed) .. and if she mates successfully, and doesn't get eaten by a bird or other predator, she comes back to the hive, and lays about fifteen hundred eggs per day (more than her body weight) and she repopulates the workforce once again, and on and on we go ...
Anyway, back to the narrative : )
Even though bees are still laying low at elevation, it's been interesting to get out of town leads on bee jobs as the season progresses. Looking at the map, you can actually see the movement of the bees, starting way down south and heading north. First it was down in Tucson and Globe where the wildflowers and mesquite and cat claw blooms early, and then we started hearing from people in Phoenix, then Prescott. Wild bees are having a good year, and expanding their locations, but people find them eerie as they stop over in their trees, and they get scared when they start building comb in their overturned flowerpot or the wall of their shed, so they want them gone.
Flagstaff is still waiting to pop off. I've seen trees covered in sweet and delicate blooms, and fragrant yellow flowers sprouting up on the prickly holly in the woods, so it's only a matter of time before the hives start to swell, and bees start to swarm, but we're impatient and want to get our hands sticky now!
I've literally had dreams of discovering bees in people's eves and walls, and walking up to the door to see if we could get them out. We're obsessed, and the bees call to us. In fact, a few weeks ago I was down south visiting my parents and working on my book while Juwels stayed up on the mountain and read up on babies, and just before Mom, Dad and I were going to head out and walk the dog around their daily loop, my dad tells me that they know of a hive in a sprinkler box.
"We walk by it everyday," he says.
"Bees? Are you sure they're bees and not wasps?" I asked.
"Yeah, they're honey bees. They've been there over a year. Maybe two years, ask mom."
"Yeah," mom said, "they're coming and going all day."
"And you're just telling me this now?"
I had no suit or boxes, and I was heading home on an airport shuttle, but I figured I could at least scope it out and bring a box on the next visit so I could carefully remove those sweet bees before the landscapers get them first.
As we rounded the corner, my dad said, "They're in the box right over there," and I saw that the lid had been ripped off and that the honey comb was laying all over the gravel.
"Hmm .. that must have just happened this morning," my dad said, "because they were here yesterday."
I crouched down and saw baby bees, still pale and greyish, hatching out into the harsh sun and finding no nurse bees to feed them. Honey dripped out of the broken comb, and brightly colored cells of pollen polka dotted the edges. It was beautiful, and it was ruined. I looked around and noticed that a strap had been tied around the lid of the sprinkler box and then looped over a low branch of a tree so the operator could pull it from out in the street and then run. They'd been there for over a year, pollinating the neighborhood flowers, and my parents had been walking past them everyday with their curious dog with no issues, and now this ...
It took me a second to notice the buzzing, like a distant static, and then I saw a swarm of tens of thousands of bees all hovering around and clumped in an orange tree in the neighbor's back yard. The cluster was thick and beautiful, like a giant black and yellow striped strawberry.
I ventured to walk around the block to the front of the house. I figured I'd knock on the door and tell the people that the bees weren't dangerous, just homeless, and once the scouts found them a new location, they'd be on their way. I found an older guy in the garage, working on the guts of an old desktop computer. He didn't know about the swarm in his tree, but we both walked back there and stood eye level with the cluster and I told him everything I knew. He said he'd leave them alone, and I said I knew of a guy who was right down the street who saved swarms and that I'd try and get him over there to get the bees before they end up trespassing in another odd spot.
I couldn't get a hold of my guy, and I couldn't stop thinking about the swarm. The comb was there. The bees were there. I could improvise a hive, or build one ... Home Depot was just down the street, but what would I wear as a veil? Back at the house, my mom was trying to ask me about a restaurant, or the baby or something, but I was elsewhere.
"You're thinking about the bees, aren't you?"
"The guys haven't called back?"
"Nope. They have day jobs," I said, "Do you have any mesh? Like a laundry bag or something?"
She couldn't think of anything, but when I went nosing around in the garage, I found a Costco bag that had mesh pannels, and when I pulled it over my head, it fit perfectly. Okay. Two jackets, gardening gloves ... pull my my socks over my pant legs, pull my hoodie up over the produce bag and tuck the handles down into my v-neck, and I'm in business.
I started to collect supplies for a top-bar hive made from an old cardboard Amazon prime box and wood stripping, but then figured I better go talk to the old guy at the house and make sure he was okay with me working with the bees in his yard. The whole setup was going to look pretty hoky, but to my delight, he not only said okay but had some tools and supplies I could work with, and he wanted to help in anyway he could.
I raced back to the house and gathered my stuff, and at the last minute, my dad decided to tag along.
"Am I fine with just what I'm wearing?" he asked, "Should I bring another jacket?"
"You're fine," I said, "You'll know if it's time to run."
We delicately collected all the comb from around the box, and in the man's garage I called out cuts and measurements, and within ten minutes we had the hive setup.
I showed my dad the cluster when we arrived, and I noticed some of the bees doing their "waggle dance." This means they were talking about a location. Was it a location of food to bring nectar back to the hungry swarm? Or where they talking about the location of a new hive? I don't speak their language, and the only pheromone I know of theirs is the alarm scent (smells like a freshly split banana peel) so I just hurried.
"Do you mind if I cut that branch?" I asked the guy, and he showed me where the cutters were.
This would be much less disturbing than shaking the swarm, and I could be sure the queen was in the clump.
We were about to zip tie the last pieces of comb onto the wooden top-bars, the old guy and me, when I heard my dad out in the yard say ... "Oh. I think you're gonna miss them. They're all in the air. Yep, there they go ..."
I walked out into the yard to see a glorious sight, sad and glorious. Maybe 40,000 bees, all working on a universal consciousness, took to the air in a big black cloud and slowly flew away from me. I wished I could tell them they that I was going to save them, and give them a good home in the thicket of wild blooming trees far away in the desert, but all I could do is watch them float away.
I climbed up on the wall and stood there squinting, thinking I might see they might clump in another tree. I might need a ladder, but I had their hive and I had their babies, and they could just settle in and Juwels would drive down the mountain to get us ... or I'd sneak them on the shuttle, but they were gone.
Later, I rode my dad's bike up and down that strip, and looked in every tree, but they were probably sitting in the tree of some terrified family by then, maybe the subject of a phone call with an exterminator...
"I shouldn't have thought about it for so long," I said, but my dad said, "No... I think you acted fast. You acted as fast as can be expected without the tools you needed."
I will never again go back down to the valley without my suit and an extra box or two ...
I took the box back to the house, and pulled out what little wax I could drop into our wax melter back up on the mountain. I ate a little of the honey, but it was joyless, and I wished I could've done more. There are so many bees and swarms and flowers down south. We could expand our apiary by a hundred hives if we setup a base down there for a month or so. We could save millions of bees, but Juwels would never go for it. She overheats at that low elevation, especially now that she's pregnant, and we have candle orders and the goats and chickens to drown in our love and admiration ... but who's going to save these bees ! ? ! ?
Up in Flagstaff, I started saving info on hive leads in Phoenix, thinking that if I got three or four together, it would make the hours of driving more feasible. I got two, then three ... but then one guy killed his bees, and another lady told me they "flew away", so I was down to one again. The remaining woman I was in contact with sent me pictures of the space that the bees had taken up. It was under a non-functioning waterfall in an empty koi pond, so easy to access at ground level, not like some of the jobs where you have to go digging into walls, and she said they'd been there for over a year so the hive was probably pretty sizable.
I waited a while longer, and tried to delay the waterfall job, but with nothing else looking too promising, I finally called a guy I found on Craigslist down south and asked if he wanted to take the fountain bees. He was new at saving bees, and said that he worked for an exterminator by day, and after killing hundreds of bee colonies, he was starting to wonder why he doesn't just start saving them instead.
He told me that he was getting eight to ten calls a day down in the valley, and that he was leaving a lot of the calls unanswered because he just didn't have the time or the equipment. He was looking for swarms, just balls of bees that could be quickly knocked down into a box. He wasn't really interested in cutting out comb. I talked excitedly to him about doing "cut out's", and he agreed to take the fountain job ... or at least to look it over. I hung up the phone a little depressed, and I found myself looking at the pictures the lady had sent and kicking myself over the fact that I didn't get to be the one to lift the lid of that treasure chest and see what was inside.
The guy was supposed to go on Monday, but seemed a little hesitant, and when I checked in on Tuesday, he told me that he didn't go because he'd done two other jobs that were closer, and now he was out of boxes. This meant the woman I was talking to was still waiting, and I hate leaving people waiting.
Anyway, while I'm texting back and forth with the guy, he tells me that the waterfall job is still open, and that he has three other hives that people contacted him about, "So maybe it will be worth your time to come down for four?"
Yes : ) !!!
I told Juwels, and she was game, and the guy kept forwarding me more and more messages, and I lined up five gigs with one in almost every town we passed once we hit the valley. This was going to be a busy couple days...
The desert was humbling in its wide open distilled way. The arid lands rose and fell below the hot blacktop as we passed cactus, lizards, tumble weed and rattle snakes. The goats stayed home, but Shen our newly adopted little black dog came along to save herself the heartache of not being included. As a general rule, she hates bees, but she bears them to keep our scent close.
The GPS lady seemed to be hungover, or confused, and our directions to the first bee job took a loop. With some doing, we found it, and we also found out that the bees which we heard had started in a tree, and then to the the ground, were back up in a tree. This was a good sign, as bees on the ground are helpless bees (and normally weak from somebody spraying them) .. but these ladies woke up.
We found the clump on a branch and setup the ladder. It was maybe 4pm by this time, and I really wanted to get three jobs done that day. Impossible. Juwels went up the ladder and snapped a few pics of the bees, and as I was slipping my suit on, I saw her go running past me squealing.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"Oh ... nothing," she laughed, "They're just checking me out. Where's my veil?"
We suited up, took an empty hive out of the truck (I'd brought along a box loaded with old comb and soaked in organic sugar water for swarms) and I started trimming at the small branches to clear a path to the bees.
The clippers were awkward and shook the branch when I'd get through, and all the bees would go into the air. My veil kept hooking on lower branches, and for some reason my legs were shaking. I got a good clump of bees down on a smaller branch, and set them into the hive and watched them climb onto the comb. Juwels talked to them, and called after the Queen .. "Where are you sweet bee? Let me see that lovely Queen of yours."
This is one of our Queens, she's in the middle/ right of the picture .. notice her longer body, and rich color : ?
As a general rule, if you get the Queen in the box, the others will start to fan a scent to the bees in the tree, and everyone will fly down and settle in (this normally happens right around nightfall). But we didn't even know if they had a Queen. The guy I'd been talking to said that they'd been there about a week, and that the clump was shrinking. There were dead bees in the grass, and although he admitted that he'd sprayed the bees with the hose, he said that's all he did.
I cut another branch, one which was almost too big to get through with the clips, and once I finally snapped through, all the bees went into the air. This was the third time, and I was starting to wonder if we should use the bee vacuum. The vac doesn't hurt the bees. We have it setup so the suction is very low, but it's not fun for them, and it's possible that a larger Queen could be damaged in the hose, so we try no to use it unless we really have to. But I had a lucky break on that last cut. I got through the branch, the whole thing shook, and the bees went in the air. But I was tucked up through the live branches that time, and didn't move for a second after because I'd have to kind of unwravel myself from the tangle, and in that moment, I noticed that the bees were all starting to land back on the broken branch, the one that I held in my hand. They must have marked that one with a scent, and as I stood there, frozen like a statue on the top of the ladder with my hand stretched and keeping the cut branch exactly where it used to be, all the bees landed back on it and on my glove.
A minute later, I walked down the ladder with all the bees swarming on my hand and the branch, and I gently set them into the hive, and they all ate from the comb. We told the guy that the hive would have to stay in that place for the night, and that we'd be back the following night to tape the entrance up, and he said that was fine. With out finding the Queen, we strapped the lid down tight, so it would be ready for travel. We stuck a feeder of sugar water on top to keep then happy and fed, and off we went to the next job.
This job was an actual hive, not a swarm, which was a good thing since they'd have honeycomb, nectar, pollen and babies to setup into the new hive. This gives you better chances of the bees sticking around because they're moving into a furnished studio, so they usually just get back to work and go wherever you take them.
We met the lady, and she told us that she'd been keeping her dogs inside because one of them was stung. She said she only noticed the bees in the past three weeks, so we thought the hive would be pretty new and easy to move.
I fired up the smoker with some pine needles just in case. (A note on smokers, bees communicate largely through pheromone essence, and a little smoke in the air basically makes it so they can't talk and organize against this strange masked mammal who's invading their hive.) The dog had been stung, and besides it's always best to have smoke because if you wait until you need it, it's already too late and things can get a little distracting.
I popped the lid, and the bees were very friendly. They were probably more distracted with the sky falling and all that, but in any event, they all pretty much stayed in the hive, protecting the Queen and walking around the comb.
It was a small hive, about a quarter the size of the one my parents had showed me, and we got right to work. Getting the third hive was out for that day, but the mission now was to get this one done before dark, and dark was fast approaching.
We tell people that beeswax, normally seen in gold, yellow or dark orange is actually white or off white when the bees produce it, and if you look at that far right panel, which is the newest, you'll see what we're talking about. Our candles get the color and scent from the mixed in pollen and honey during processing and harvest. You can see pollen packed into the comb on the top of that middle piece that's fallen forward, and the fresh baked bread looking stuff on the right side is capped brood (babies).
We can save the bigger panels by cutting them to size and rubber banding them into the empty hive frames, but the small chunks, like the stuff you see attached to the top of the lid can't be saved. We nibbled a little of this delicious nectar and pollen to get our blood sugar up, but the majority of it was saved to feed back to the bees. Then they can eat the honey and internally convert it into more wax in the new hive box, or they can just transfer it as-is into empty comb.
Juwels is the surgeon, skilled with the knife, and I round up the bees and get as many into the box as I can. I just scoop them out by the lose handful, and the more comb that she gets setup in the box, the more they recognize this new space as home ... all that's missing is the Queen. And if we don't get her in there, nobody else will stay in there either.
Cut to size : )
I know it seems a little bootleg, with the rubber bands and all, but the bees will actually go in there and sew the pieces back onto the walls (like by the end of the first day) and then they'll continue to build in the empty spaces. When they have it attached they'll chew the rubber bands off, and drag them outside. They're amazing.
We worked these bees carefully, and got everybody into the box. We had to use the vac because the last of the bees were getting under the water valves in the box, and it was impossible to reach them. When we left, there was maybe three bees left in the sprinkler box, and we strapped everything down, and told the lady we'd be back late the next night.
The next morning, we head out to a swarm that was sitting on a wall, The guy who contacted us said that he couldn't tell if they were going in the wall, but it was close to my parents house, so we just rolled over to take a look. It was a sweet little swarm, heart shaped, and I setup a hive box with old comb and feed and walked over to brush the bees in. They were sweet bees, and they ate happily from the comb ... but then we noticed the hole in the wall. The bees were covering it before, so we couldn't see, but once I'd brushed them off, we saw that they had a hive in the stucco wall. More and more bees came and went, and it looked like it was a big colony.
We didn't have the tools to cut into the wall, and the wall itself wasn't owned by the guy who called us. It was the exterior wall to the community entrance and had a tile signed that read Greenfield Estates or something like that, so all we could do was shake the bees out of the box, and watch them crawl back into the wall.
I told the guy all I knew about why he shouldn't kill bees in a wall (the rotten comb and bees and nectar, which would bring roaches and stink and mice) and I told him that they were nice bees who didn't get in my face as I was breathing into the hole. He asked me if and when they'd go away, and I danced a little, saying how the population would shrink soon when they split, but we'll just have to keep our fingers crossed on that one ...
Next up was the waterfall hive. It was in the middle of nowhere, near the Superstition Mountains and a place I'd heard of as a kid called the lost Dutchman's Mine. The houses were sparse, and the yards were cluttered, and once again the GPS got us lost.
This is the kind of town where killer bees live, I said to myself but not to Juwels. We'd be in our suits, and we should be able to get a good reading on the bees before we open the place up. Just a puff of man's breath would send an killer bee hive into a frenzy, so I took my time prowling around the entrance before making any decisions.
"Ah !!" Juwels yowled, still not in her suit, and I looked over to see her jogging over to the street.
"They get you?"
"Yeah, two stings already. They've got some good guard bees."
She put on her suit but not her gloves (Juwels hates wearing gloves) and I smoked the bees a little and thumped on the lid of the fountain to see their reaction. A few bees flew around, but nothing abnormal, so I took out the sledge hammer, and started knocking some cement and river rocks lose. Juwels made me sweep off the board before I could pull it up, and when I pulled it up, I noticed that there was another board below.
I pried this one up a little, but the bees had really glued the thing down with propolis (this is a sticky antimicrobial substance the bees make from tree sap and resin .. brilliant stuff). I finally got it up a few inches, and propped it with a brick. I could see the comb, and as always in these situations, it was connected to the lid, so pieces broke and fell into the hole. I puffed a little smoke, but it was already too late, the bees came out in clusters like buckshot and surrounded me. They'd already fanned the "get him" alarm pheromone deep in the box, and my smoke wasn't covering the orders to attack.
I was down in the empty pond, and Juwels was still taking pictures on the rim when they found her. She went running off in search of her gloves, and I ducked down in the pond, half crawling under a small bridge to gather some more pine needles for the smoker. I puffed clouds of smoke, but it did no good. The bees pelted me, stinging through my leather gloves a few dozen at a time.
I dared a step in, and pulled off the rest of the board and carried the comb out into the driveway. It was beautiful. They had so much honey, and huge panels of comb and babies and pollen. It was a massive colony. The amount of honey explained a little of why they were so defensive .. that and the fact that I'd just destroyed the home they'd been occupying for the past year. There's noway to let them know that you're not a bad guy because everything you're doing looks and feels bad.
I puffed more smoke, and kept my hands closed in fists so they could only sting into the backs of my hands and not my palms. I eyed the zipper at my neckline, knowing that the pulls can loosen, and bees can get in if you're not careful (I normally put a rubber band on the two tabs to keep them together).
We'd left Shen in the truck, wanting to feel it out before letting her roam, and now she was stuck in there. Some of our supplies were stuck in there, too. The cutting board, knife, rubber bands, and an extra hive box that we were probably going to need if we were going to re-home this massive colony, but I was having my doubts.
Juwels was back and standing with me as the bees fell on us like hail. My gloves were sweaty, and that's the reason they clung so tightly and that's how the stingers got through. They just barely got through, just the tip of the stinger for a pinprick of venom, but not the usual attached barb and pumping venom sack that dumps more and more the longer you leave it in. These basically pricked, burned quickly, and then as I moved my hands, the leather would pull back and out it would come.
Gotta wear rubber gloves under these things next time, I told myself.
The interesting thing was that even though Juwels and I wore the same gloves, not a single bee stung through hers. Later I thought that they must have known that we were male/ female, and they've learned that it's better to focus the attack on the male because if you can chase the male away, the female will probably follow.
Juwels laughed, and I said, "Um ... we need to start really considering this thing."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean these bees are frickin crazy. They're bat shit crazy. They're cat shit crazy. What are we supposed to do with them?"
"Babe, they're obviously not that crazy. They've been living right next to their front door for over a year and they haven't bothered anyone. They're just pissed that we've exposed their hive. They'll mellow out."
I had about twenty stings in each of my hands by that point, and bees die when they sting, so it was true that the number of the guards were probably shrinking by the minute. This colony was massive, there might have been 70 thousand bees in there ... but I'd say there were only a couple hundred after me. If there would have been a thousand after me, enough to kill, then I think I would have tossed in the towel right then and there. That's what Killer Bees do, they attack in lethal numbers, by the thousands .. but I wasn't ready to call these ladies killers.
But I was still a little shaky ... could I really work for 4 or 5 hours with this kind of bad buzz?
"I don't know. Let's just think about it," I said, and Juwels laughed some more.
"First of all, my right glove has two holes ... they're big enough for bees to climb in, and I can't open my fist."
Juwels found me a new glove, but I wasn't about to take my glove off there.
"Just go take a walk," she said, "walk around the block and put them on and come back and help me cut this up."
"I don't know. It never looks good for a beekeeper to go wandering off in a neighborhood. That looks bad."
"Who cares," she said, "You're just taking a walk, and there's nobody out on the street. Just change your glove, and hey look ... they're kind of mellowing out."
I looked down at my hands, and there was maybe fifteen on each hand rather than twenty-five, so maybe they were mellowing out. She was right that it was a huge hive with lots of honey, and both of those things can make a hive hot, not to mention that we'd just caved in their home, so I went for a little stroll and a block later, with only three or so bees circling me, I pulled off my glove and slipped the other on. The glove barely fit since my hands were already beginning to swell, and just as I was threading my hand into the long glove, I saw a bee fly inside first. She stung my wrist, and I just pinched the section where I felt it, and scratched at the stinger.
This is crazy...
But these bees had a lot to defend, and they had the numbers to put up a good defense. What a beautiful hive. I guess I was willing to give it a try. Work slow, and see how it goes. The panels of comb were big and unruly, and I hated the feeling of it crushing in my hands as I leaned into the open hole and lifted it out. Brood comb is kind of stiff, with a paper mache kind of quality to it, but the honey comb is so delicate and hard to handle that I'd cringe as I felt it crushing in my grip, but I played the game with Juwels, because the other alternative was the exterminator.
When I returned, I noticed a car pulling into the driveway. It was the daughter of the lady who'd called us. I wanted to walk over and tell her that she might want to go around back, but then I'd bring the tornado of bees with me. I waved and walked closer to the car but kept my distance. She smiled, and rolled down her window a crack.
"The bees are a little hot," I said. "I'd just get in the house."
She nodded and slipped out of the door, and I stepped back a few steps.
"You might want to run," I said, and she ran.
We needed things from the truck, but the dog was hiding out in there, all the way down by the break pedal. We stood next to the door, with Juwels blowing smoke in the air, and I'd rip the door open, grab a handful of supplies, and then slam the door shut. Shen would look up every time, but she didn't want to come out. Smart pup.
Juwels got right to work mapping out the perfect cuts, and doing it in such a way that almost nothing useable went to waste. We filled frame after frame, and I was surprised when I realized that the guard bees had all given up ... or died stinging my gloves, but it was pretty quiet. Well, just before the black clouds started blowing overhead.
"Is it really going to rain right now?" I said, and Juwels just kept her head down and continued working.
When she'd filled a box, I went over into the hole and swept a few dust pans of bees into the box. If I got the Queen in, the rest would start marching in, and that would make things a lot easier, but that didn't happen.
We got a few sprinkles, and a bit of wind, but luckily no storm.
All that capped stuff at the top is finished honey. I stole a bite while hiding around back of the truck and it was unreal ... cactus, candy, flowery madness. They must have had 30 pounds of honey, and we saved it all to feed back to them as well as to some of the smaller hives we were picking up.
That white bucket was full of water, an essential on a sticky job like this. I must have washed my gloves in that about fifty times. Juwels stayed planted there for hours, chopping everything up and putting it back together. The idea of this overwhelmed me, but it was a kind of meditation for her.
Look at the Size of that comb ... some of them were the shapes of different states or countries. Never seen a wild hive this big.
Working on a third box .. time to find that Queen : )
Shen came out once the bees mellowed, but a few still followed her, and I had a good laugh when I saw the technique she'd developed to shake them.
The grass was tall and tangled in the yard, and Shen would dive below, and then come up like a dolphin and then dive again, brushing the bee off the long fur of her coat. This only happened once or twice, and she was never stung. After that, she had fun chasing big lizards, and slept in the shade of the truck. She's a good little helper : )
The grass was tall and tangled in the yard, and Shen would dive below, and then come up like a dolphin and then dive again, brushing the bee off the long fur of her coat. This only happened once or twice, and she was never stung. After that, she had fun chasing big lizards, and slept in the shade of the truck. She's a good little helper : )
I used smoke at the bottom of the hole to drive the bees up and out. It worked okay, but in the end, we'd have to bust out the bee vac. On my third Huge dump of bees from the vacuum chamber, Juwels peaks into the pile of scrambling bees in the box, and squeals, "There's the QUEEN!!" She gets so excited when she spots a Queen. It's kinda like seeing a celebrity (but better). Juwels is so good at finding the Queen. She has an OCD eye for picking out something slightly different. All those childhood years of laying on her stomach in the grass searching for four leaf clovers probably help, or maybe it's just that same childhood super power : )
I was impressed that she found her in the midst of thousands of bees. It was seriously like picking out an atom in the thousands of near identical bodies ( the Queen is bigger, with a long pointy butt, and lighter color ..) And we had her !
From there, the bees marched in. I smoked, and swept, and scooped more handfuls, and Juwels got the last of the honey put into the frames. It took about five or six hours and my hands were looking like catcher's mitts, but the job was a success and we sealed them in, strapped them down and hit the road.
We still had another job to do, plus we had to pick up the sprinkler box and the tree swarm on our way out of town and back up the mountain. I was going to need one of those rare cups of coffee to get through this night.
They call this "bearding" .. when the bees hang all over the outside of a box. Normally, they're just trying to free up space in the hive, and cool down a bit, but these ladies were just kind of hanging out and wondering what the hell just happened.
There were maybe twenty bees hanging on the outside of the box when we loaded it up in the truck, and amazingly they hung on at 70 miles per hour on the freeway. We Googled a health food store and went in search of a couple chilled grape kombuchas, and I had to laugh when we stopped at a light and I noticed a few bees hovering around the hive, and I saw all the people behind us frantically rolling up their windows.
The last job was this wild hive in a overturned flower pot. It was the perfect bee skep, with the bees coming and going from the drain hole. The lady was super nice, and said that we could take the pot back up to Flagstaff, so we could transport the girls as is, and cut it up another time ... or maybe we'd leave them bee and let them build like the old bee skep days?
It was great that she was up and available to welcome us at close to ten at night, and she had a great little scene going when we walked back into her yard - plants everywhere, loungers and little hangout spots, candles burning in old mason jars, incense burning and Tracy Chapman playing on the outdoor speakers. She was a retired biker babe, taking it easy in a little redbrick cottage in Gilbert, AZ, and she said she'd read a bunch of our blogs after we started emailing about the bees.
Since there was a small cluster of bees bearding on the top of the pot, we couldn't just seal off their entrance with duct tape and metal screen like we had originally planned .. so I thought for a moment on how we could improvise to save all of the bees. I thought about using the smoker, but that might drive more bees out of the hive and into the air.
"Do you happen to have any old screen or mesh material?" I asked the lady.
She didn't think that she did, but we all walked back into her garage to see what we could find. I noticed a clothing rack with a large piece of sheer mesh-like fabric draped over it.
"Do you have anymore of this material?" I said, testing it between my thumb and pointer finger.
"Take that! You can the have the whole thing!"
We said we only needed a small piece, so she grabbed us some scissors. As Juwels cut out a square, she unveiled an awesome vintage leather jacket hanging on the end of the rack.
"You like it? You can have it! Try it on."
"Are you serious? No .. you can't just give this to me?"
"Why not, I haven't worn that in years, and it's sat through the last two garage sales. Try it on."
"Oh my goodness .. you are too nice!! I don't think it will fit over this baby bump .. but I can't wait to wear it after the bambino comes."
As I walked off to cover the hive, Juwels and the homeowner were rummaging through the clothing rack. The woman kept pulling clothes down and asking Juwels if she would wear this or that. The netted fabric worked perfect as a shawl for the hive. I just put three rubber bands around the lip and all of the bees were still safely sitting on recessed top of the pot : )
On my way back into the garage I found Juwels holding up some kind of silk nightgown. "Well, it looks comfy. I guess I could wear it around the house." Next thing I knew, I was trying on a well worn soft brown leather jacket. The lady was having too much fun showering us with gifts, but it was getting late and we still had to pick up the last two hives and get home.
We went out to the truck and grabbed the scrap piece of wood which we'd brought along as a bottom board, slid it under the clay skep, strapped it down and hit the road.
We got lost again trying to get back to the sprinkler box hive, and I was starting to get upset over the idea that we really had no clue where we were going except for the faulty instructions from the voice in the box ... this robotic woman who was clearly drunk and out of it, but we finally found the place.
Well, kinda ... the first house we pulled up to in the dark looked familiar. I noticed that the lights were still on and I thought, "Oh good, she's still up." But as I walked through the gate and into the backyard with little Shen following me and a flashlight in my hand, I realized that I was mistakenly entering the wrong place at 11pm. I heard noise in the house and I turned tail and walked back to the curb. Juwels, again, was laughing at me.
"The house is farther down," I said, walking up the block and not looking back. "Meet me up there, okay? Drive."
I figured we wouldn't need bee suits just to tape this hive off and carry it away, but when I walked back there ahead of Juwels, and flashed the light back over to the sprinkler box, I saw that most of the bees had come out of the hive, and they were back in the box, all hanging in a clump.
I didn't want to scoop them up in my hands the way I did last time, because then we risked them flying into the air and landing on everything, and we'd never get them into the box that way. I looked in the strapped hive with a light and was happy to see that some of the bees, nurse bees I'm guessing, had stayed on the comb to keep the babies warm, so we just sealed them in with tape over the entrance, and thought some more about the swarm in the sprinkler box.
Once again, if I just had mom's mesh laundry bag that I remember from childhood, I could have shimmied it under the teardrop of bees and taken them out that way. I even thought about sewing up a veil, and doing it with that, but it was too small and the space was too tight anyway.
The lady of the house as still up, so I sent Juwels to let her know what was happening, and ask if it was okay if we ran the bee vac .. it was really the only way. She said it was fine, and I began gently sucking at the cluster from the bottom, and the chamber started filling with bees. They didn't stir much since it was dark and I was careful not to disturb the bees who were up on the edge, and a little while later, we had nearly everybody in the chamber. I started to get sentimental and wanted to get every single bee, even the ones that were hiding below the pipes, so I kept at it.
While I was working with these last girls, elusive little buggers, some of them crawled up the wall and disappeared. I turned off the vac, and stuck my head into the box and shined the light up into the place where they'd gone. I saw more bees hiding in a little overhanging ledge. We were going to seal the lid for the lady before we left and tape off the hole, and there were too many bees up there for me to just seal in to die ... so I went back out to the truck, lit the torch, stuffed the smoker and came back to to smoke the rest out of their hiding spot.
I puffed smoke, and some came out, and I sucked them up. The smoker went out, and as I paused to relight it, I thought I heard something in the box, like a squeaking. The Queen talks, or they call it "piping." I've never heard it before, so I don't know what I'd be listening for, but I did hear something.
With the smoker going again, I smoked and sucked and sucked and smoked, and I swear I heard that sound again ... or was I just going mad from too much smoke and venom and the buzzing of too many bees? It was midnight, and there was really nobody else home .. maybe five bees, and just as I was about to call it quits, I puffed a few more clouds up there, and guess who comes strolling out?
I blinked when I saw her down there. She was plump and reddish blond and lively, and another worker bee was grabbing at her and trying to pull her back into hiding. This was the reason that all the bees came back out of the hive. Because the Queen was hiding under that ledge. And now we had her .. but wait ... how do we get her? The vac was off, and I didn't want to suck her through the tube anyway, so I just reached my hand down there and she crawled up onto my glove. I didn't think she'd do this and when she did, I didn't really know what to do next.
"Quick," I said, "Open up the chamber."
And Juwels did.
She pulled the hose out, exposing a little hole, and I held my hand over there, and the Queen crawled in with the rest of her friends ... or daughters. *** As a side note, the Queen is the only one who can lay eggs and make more bees, without a Queen, the colony will dwindle away and die, so it's not only important to get the Queen in the box, so everyone will follow, but also you need her if you want the hive to survive.
Back at the truck, we realized that Juwels had a clump of bees on her hat. In an effort to save every bee, we bundled them up in two veils and tucked them into a wind free spot in the truck bed, and believe it or not, they actually made the ride this way and were rejoined with their hive later. We didn't want the bees in the vacuum bottle riding in the back, since the her royal highness was on board, so we brought them inside the truck with us for the ride back home.
We didn't make it to the last pickup until a little after 1 am, but thankfully they had stayed in their box, so all we had to do was tape them up and pop them in the truck.
Hallelujah! We've got all of the bees and are finally gassing up and heading home!
(Juwels wants me to point out that the crooked hive boxes on the back right is just a stack of extra empty boxes and frames which we had brought along for extra jobs. We would never transport bees at such an angle .. their comb can break and it's just not nice..)
We didn't get home until 3:30 am, but we returned safe and sound. It was cold up on the mountain, and with some of the bees hanging out in the plastic vac chamber and others maybe too small and disoriented to cluster well and keep warm, we brought the three smaller hives into the candle pouring room and left them near the heat of the wax melter.
There's a strange thing that happens when you've spent a long day with the bees, and it happens to both of us .. once you finally lay down for bed and close your eyes, all you see is bees. Not just the idea of bees, but actual bees right there behind your eyelids. Bees walking on comb, hatching baby bees, specks flying around in the air, and you can almost hear the buzz of the bees. It's like your brain has taken in so many tens of thousands of details that it's just playing a loop reel from your subconscious and forgets to turn off. Like the floating glow of a camera flash in your vision, the bees build a hive in your brain for a little while longer, so clear and fresh and vivid.
Our sleep was short, but we didn't want the bees locked in for too long, so early the next day we fed the small hives honey scraps from the big waterfall hive and got everybody setup on the back of the property. They did great, and they're already working hard : )
Believe it or not, there's more to the story ... those fountain bees had another trick up their sleeve when we brought them down to hang with the rest of our bees at our apiary the desert for the wildflower bloom, and the tree swarm took a little working, but we'll tell you all about it in the next installment : )
Thanks for reading,
loVe & Honey,
-p&j ... and the growing baby bee : )
.... Oh, and if anybody would like to help fund these pro bono hive rescues, just hop on over to our etsy page and buy yourself some candles !!