Leave No Bee Behind

by Leslie Hall

On July 5th I woke up worried about the bees.

closeup of bee on yellow flowerI was worried about the bees because of the fireworks the night before and then when I went out to the backyard to check on the hive, I worried even more because I didn’t see any bees at the entrance.

I had just read that you know your colony is healthy and strong when you see more bees than you can count entering and exiting. This colony was small to begin with and never do I see more bees than I can count, but I always see at least one or two, and usually a few more than that.

I inched closer and closer to the hive until I was right there at the entrance, standing there in the dirt of my backyard, standing there in my short nightgown and bare feet, standing there and gingerly reaching over and lifting the outside cover of the hive, and then I thought, Dang, this may be the absolutely stupidest thing I have ever done in my entire life. I set the lid back down and slowly backed away.

I decided I would get ready for the Wednesday morning class that I teach and go to class. There would be time for me to suit up and do a hive inspection when I got home. This decision was not easy to make. I was worried about the bees. I wanted to know. But then I thought, If my bees have absconded, do I really want to know that right before I go to teach a class?

I got ready for my class and then when it was time to leave, once more I inched over to the hive. One bee flew out and one flew in, and my soul felt more at ease.

After class I did suit up. I just opened up the hive; I didn’t take any frames out, just peeked in. What I saw was very reassuring. My little colony was inside, humming away as they worked, and they’d already built new comb edging the top of a frame.

I started thinking that I wanted a second colony.

Master beekeepers advise that beginners should start with two colonies. You learn faster and better when you can compare the colonies and their doings.

This time I didn’t call the Santa Barbara Beekeepers Guild to get on the swarm list. It was already so late in the season. Bees tend to swarm in April and May. And I worried a bit about seeming greedy. I could hear the beekeeper on the other line asking didn’t I just get a swarm in that voice we all remember from childhood when some adult or other asked didn’t we already have a piece of cake, didn’t we already have a turn on the carousel, wasn’t it time to let someone else have a chance.

But I wanted another colony, and a swarm was as good as a way to get one as I could think of. I kept thinking and thinking about how I wanted another colony.

On Thursday I went to the honey store on Thompson. I’d read online that their lemon honey was delicious, and I wanted to look at their beekeeping gear.

The honey store was delightful. They had books and gear and two walls of various types of honey. They had beautiful little tumblers, made in France, with beautiful little bees etched in the glass. They had lovely white dishtowels with yellow flowers and little dark bees.

I was buying lemon honey when I got a text from Christy, a friend who also teaches dance classes at the studio where I teach. There was a swarm at the adult center where she works, and everyone was all in a tizzy. Some people were worried about stings and liability; others worried that some idiot would have the bees exterminated. They’d called a few beekeepers, but not one had time to come out and retrieve the swarm.

I said I wanted the bees unless they were inside a wall or on a treetop—I know my limits—and I would be there in minutes.

Christy came out to greet me. She led me to the front of the building, where a large triangle of the grounds was marked out by yellow crime scene tape. The parks and rec people had put up the tape, she said. The yellow tape stretched from a tree to the traffic signal pole and blocked part of the sidewalk.

There was the swarm, hanging in a furry buzzing cluster from the low branches of a shrub. If you weren’t looking for them, you might not even see them.

I went closer, which made Christy nervous, but I was armed with new knowledge: swarming bees are very very docile. They have no hive, no honey, no brood to protect.

This colony looked much bigger than the one I had at home.

My heart hummed with love of these new bees.

We agreed I would return in the evening, after all the scouts had returned, and collect the swarm.

I went home and got the new hive ready for my new bees.

At ten minutes to seven, I was suited up and had put together the smoker, fuel, a lighter, gloves, hat, and veil. I got a pair of garden clippers and the cardboard box I’d transported my first swarm in.

That time I had been so nervous. This time I wasn’t nervous at all. What I was was happy. Oh God was I happy. I wanted a second colony and two days later, I was on my way to pick up a swarm.

My daughter Erin went with me. The adult center is on Ventura Avenue. In front of the adult center is an intersection with a bus stop. I pulled into the intersection, got out of the car and put on my hat, veil, and gloves. The bus driver was watching. I gave him a little wave and he waved back.

Erin stayed in the car.

beekeeper author working with beesI dipped under the crime scene tape—which by the way is a fun thing to do on its own—and stepped through the brush to the shrub with the swarm. There they were: all those bees, a furry buzzing ball of bees. I set the box on the ground, took off the lid, and then gently clipped the branch and lifted it. The bees were surprisingly heavy. I placed the branch in the box. The bees had a lot to say about that. The queen was probably in the cluster on the next branch, so I clipped that one, too, and placed it in the box. This time I was ready for the weight.

The bees had even more to say. Bees flew up and flew around me. Bees buzzed. But they were quieter than my first colony had been when I transferred them. These bees didn’t seem aggressive at all—they weren’t darting at me or landing on me and wiggling.

As I was gathering the bees, I heard—now and again, as if from a great distance—the voices of a few passers-by commenting on the bees. I was conscious of people watching and yet I’ve never felt less self-conscious in my life. And strangely, even though I was doing something I’d never done before, I knew exactly what I was doing. I’d watched so many YouTube videos on swarm removals and had read so much writing from so many beekeepers. One video was of a nine-year-old boy wearing his bright white bee suit and capturing his first swarm with his mother, who is a beekeeper.

What I knew was how lucky I was that the swarm was clustered on a low shrub, rather than inside a wall or inside a chimney or at the very top of a tree.

What I knew was that a swarm tends to be docile and what I also knew was that I could, if I behaved in a stupid enough or clumsy enough manner, still rile up these docile bees with my stupidity and clumsiness.

What I knew was to move slowly, was to be gentle, was to be careful not to squash any bees by stupidly stepping on them with my boots and to be careful not to squish any bees by some clumsy grabbing of the branch.

What I knew was to be patient, was to closely observe and to pay attention. I could tell from how the bees were acting that everything was okay and everything would be okay. There would be no surprises here. Unless I did something clumsy and stupid.

beekeeper author scooping up beesI stood in the shrubbery and scooped handful after handful of bees into the box. I used the bee brush with the long soft yellow bristles to nudge the bees off my hands and I shut the lid.

Mindful of the last transporting of bees—when I had failed to notice the opening on the side of the box and had ridden home in the car with a colony of bees that could have, had they been of a mind to do such a thing, all flown out of the box—I had taped the opening before leaving home. But now as I gathered the bees from this swarm I realized that I needed to pull the tape off so any stragglers could enter.

When bees swarm, they cluster to rest on a branch or some other temporary spot, while scouts go off to find prospective homes. The scouts return and dance for the other bees. A scout that found an excellent home dances vigorously and for a long time, up to 15 minutes, but a scout that isn’t so enthusiastic about a prospective home does a shorter, more lackluster dance. The vigorous dancers recruit new scouts to go inspect the location, and when the colony reaches a decision, the swarm flies off together to their new home.

By taking the furry buzzing cluster of bees and putting them into the box, I’d interrupted that process. Now scouts would be returning to the shrub to rejoin the swarm, but there was no swarm hanging on the branch. The swarm was now in the box. If I left now, those scout bees would die. So I took off the tape and waited.

What was supposed to happen: most of the bees would stay inside the box. They would be happiest staying near the queen. But a few bees would station themselves outside the opening, lift their abdomens in the air, and fan their wings. They would be releasing the Nasonov pheromone to orient the stragglers and induce them to join the rest of the swarm inside the box.

What was supposed to happen did happen.

A bee entered the box, then another, and then another. I dipped under the crime scene tape and went back to the car to put all of my gear inside. I took off my hat, veil, and gloves, and went to talk with Erin, who’d opened the car door.

“There are still three flying around,” she said.

“They’ll go in. We just need to wait.”

We waited.

Erin sat in the passenger side of the car with the door open and I stood next to her and we watched the last bees and we waited.

We waited for about half an hour until every last bee was inside. Then I taped the opening, put the box in the back of the car, covered it with a sheet, and shut the hatch.

We took down the yellow crime scene tape and stuffed in in the backseat because you never know when you might need yellow crime scene tape.

And then we were homeward bound.

Leslie Hall graduated from the College of Creative Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara, and has a master’s degree in English with an emphasis in creative writing from Sonoma State University. Her collection of short fiction, Bad Girl, was published by Capra Press, and her stories have been published in The Bellingham Review, Spectrum, Quarry West, The Sonoma Mandala, The Village Idiot, and other literary journals. She lives with her family in Ventura, where she works as a freelance writer and editor, teaches classes that combine dance and somatic awareness, and is a backyard beekeeper.

Top photo of bee by Roseburn

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