Backyard Bees Get a Lift

First, the lid comes off

First, the lid comes off

Bees are in the news:

The New York Times reported yesterday, 28 September, the awarding of the MacArthur Foundation genius grants, one of which is to an entomologist at the University of Minnesota: Marla Spivak studies honeybees. And in my favorite section of the paper, the Tuesday supplement, “Science Times”, is an article about the new book, Honeybee Democracy. It details years of close study of honeybees by Dr. Thomas D. Seeley (Princeton University Press), chairman of the department of neurobiology and behavior at Cornell University.

a frame from a brood boxWhile in my own backyard, my beehive has nearly doubled in height. Yesterday, Robert MacKimmie, the beekeeper of City Bees, opened the hive and checked each frame of the honey box as well as the lower and upper brood boxes. He wears only a veil and works barehanded, pulling up the frames, dripping now with honey and bees. He does calm them with smoke; it worked on me, too. He uses pine needles creating an evocative, campfire scent.

Lifting a frame from a brood boxWhat sweet bees,” Robert remarked. And truly it seemed that way. Here he was, pulling their house apart and moving them about. The sounds of buzzing did increase and several bees bounced off me as I deadheaded the bachelor buttons growing around the hive. Somehow, I even got a drop of honey in my hair and it’s still sticky. But no stinging.

The hive has been smelling more and more enticing: it gives off a sweet, slightly piney, floral aroma that’s incredibly attractive. And I mean that in a physical way. Robert says that is not the smell of the honey but of the brood, the baby bees being cared for in the brood boxes. But still, I think I can now understand why bears find honey and bees so delicious. If I had a thick coat of fur and thick pads on my paws, I would not hesitate to dip them into a hive. But then, a bear might not stop to savor the way the honey gushes out of the comb when you press it against the roof of your mouth with your tongue.

tasting a fingerful of honeyDespite it being so late in the season, Robert installed a brand-new brood box above the original base brood box. He slowly lowered it, swirling it gently above the lower box, coaxing the bees to move out of the way. Then he put down the separator: its closely spaced wires keep the queen in the brood chambers but allow the worker bees to move freely up and down. On top of that he placed the honey box he installed first about five weeks ago, what had been the upper brood box but is now nearly full of honey, and yet another honey box. He plans to feed the bees (sugar water and later perhaps protein pellets) so they build their numbers and their fat deposits to take them through the winter.

Robert MacKimmie reassembles the hiveWhile the hive was laid open, bee work continued unabated. A scout bee flew in and did a waggle dance for her pals telling them where a fresh supply of food could be located. “Bees have about 800 hours of flying on their wings, and then they die,” said Robert. So their lives are short during the long, light-filled, summer days. (And maybe shorter, too, since bees cool the hive and circulate air by putting their rumps in the air and fanning their wings very fast.) Bees born about now could well live into March (unless the heat keeps up). Much depends, as it always does in agricultural pursuits, on Mother Nature. She has not been kind to our Northern California farmers this year. But that is another story.

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The cooking was a huge success. My daughter is really thrilled with herself. She enjoyed herself so much that she made dinner last night. She also made the rice again that you made together. She likes it so much she sat around eating the leftovers. She is even making dinner now—pasta with meat and tomato sauce. She said she likes cooking and considers it a real interest.  She grew an awful lot from the experience.

-Anne Doherty, San Francisco

About Penni

Over 30 years as a food and wine professional, writer, and editor.

Cookbook author including:
'The Tra Vigne Cookbook' for Michael Chiarello,
'The Basque Kitchen' for Gerald Hirigoyen
and 'BurgerBar' for Hubert Keller.

Contact Penni Wisner