The honey bee population in the United States is declining. Articles have been written and news items aired lamenting this fact. Honey bees are indispensable unpaid agricultural workers: they are responsible for pollinating 90 percent of California’s almond crop, for example. Although other insects also pollinate flowers, honey bees, living in large, exceedingly well-organized colonies, are the most efficient. Without pollinators, fruits, vegetables, nuts and other crops cannot develop.
In mid-April of 2007, my husband and I decided to take a small step to help maintain, and hopefully increase, the honey bee population in Marin County. This will, of course, benefit our own garden, as they pollinate our flowers and fruit trees. Since honey bees forage an area of about twelve square miles, our hive will also benefit our neighbors.
I asked a friend who keeps bees what I needed to do to get started. He told me to buy the book “Beekeeping for Dummies” by Howland Blackiston and read it. Then, he said, buy a bee hive. Once you set it up, you can buy your bees and install them.
That sounded simple. I bought the book, bought the hive—really a bottom, body, and top sold separately, and tried to find the bees. I called Bee Weavers in Texas, but they had sold out. The friendly woman I spoke with suggested I try to find bees locally. I found www.citybees.com
, a website which provided a list of local suppliers and beekeeping organizations in the Bay Area. The nearest bee supplier was in Vacaville. I called and learned that April was the end of their season for selling bees: I could pick them up the next day, or wait until next year. Over the phone, I bought one “package” of bees. It would weigh three pounds, include about 4,000 bees and one small separate container with the queen inside.
My husband Dean and I had read portions of our Dummies book. By this time, I had carefully painted the bee hive a very pale green to reflect heat and prolong the life of the wood. (Later I learned that some beekeepers prefer hives of unpainted wood. To eliminate unhealthy spores that can accumulate on the inside walls of the hive, they simply replace their hives every few years.) We would pick up our bees the next day. And we realized we desperately wanted someone to help us install them in their hive. I called the beekeepers I knew, but could not reach them. Then Dean called a friend in Sonoma County. Kathy responded enthusiastically. Not only would she come help us install the bees, she would bring a feeder, a screened bottom, a tin-covered top, sugar syrup to feed the new bees, and a stand to put our bee hive on. Our simple project assumed a new dimension.
Saturday morning, Dean and I drove to Vacaville. Tom, the supplier, went through a detailed description of how to install the bees and check on them and feed them for the first few weeks. Standing around his demonstration hive with several other bee purchasers, we realized we were entering a community. With admonitions to call him if we had any trouble or questions, Tom carried our package of bees to the car.
Although I had asked for Italian bees, Tom gave us Russian bees. Russian bees were imported to the United States fairly recently because they demonstrated resistance to a type of mite that can infect bees. The main advantage of Italian bees is that they are better suited to Marin’s Mediterranean climate. Both races of bees can thrive in Marin.
Kathy arrived soon after we got home. First we walked around the garden to find the right site for the hive. She selected a spot with good sun where the door to the hive would face east and where we could easily work behind it. She assembled a sturdy stand made of cinderblock pylons and four by fours.
Kathy and I put on our hats and veils. I put on long-sleeved leather gloves and gingerly carried the box of bees to the hive. Working bare-handed, Kathy sprayed some water on the bees to keep them from flying. Then she sharply tapped the box on the stand. The bees tumbled to the bottom of the box. Quickly, she pried the feed can out of the box. She slipped the plastic container holding the queen bee out of the box and I replaced the feed can to keep the other bees inside. Using rubber bands, Kathy fixed the queen’s container onto one of the frames and put the frame back in the hive. Then Kathy sharply tapped the box down again, I removed the feed can, and, as I inverted the box, she tapped the bottom of the box so the bees fell through the open hole into the hive.
Carefully, she put the feeder on top of the hive. She poured sugar syrup into a shallow container with a cork float in it. She drizzled honey made by her own bees onto the wooden surfaces. Then I put the top on. The bees had reached their new home.
The next morning, as soon as the sun hit the hive, we watched bees busily leaving and returning. Our journey as beekeepers had just begun. We had much to learn. And we had discovered an active, generous, enthusiastic community of local beekeepers to help us along the way. My next article on our beekeeping adventure will include our first honey harvest.