Special to The San Francisco Chronicle
Saturday, May 21, 2005
The bees lived here first. They inhabited a small piece of this old Victorian house in Suisun City when I moved in six years ago, and they were here when my husband bought the house 20 years before that. Who knows, maybe they arrived with the original tenants in 1870 when fruit orchards covered these valleys and hay scows snaked through the Suisun Slough on their way to San Francisco.
I live in harmony with our backyard bees. I weed while they collect nectar from the purple coneflowers six inches from my face. They seem gentle, quiet and hardworking -- the profile of perfect tenants. Until this year, they occupied the wall of the old carriage house in our backyard, a small building converted into apartments years ago, through two half-inch holes. However, this year, the bees decided to increase their real estate holdings and build a new home where a pipe comes out of the wall.
In late February, I watched the bees grow in number until they literally poured out of the wall, covering the perimeter of the hole with thick, throbbing bee fur.
I wasn't home the day they swarmed, but my tenant watched it from her upstairs window and didn't like what she saw. "Thousands of them filled the backyard and they looked scary and mad," she told me the next day.
Her fear rubbed off on me. What if they attacked someone? Were we in danger? What if the walls bulged with honey until they cracked open and spewed liquid amber into the rooms? Bees don't pay rent; tenants do. Maybe it was time to get rid of the bees.
Turning first to the Yellow Pages, I found that the cheapest and easiest way to get rid of bees is to gas them for $300. But I didn't want to do that. I don't even use chemicals in my garden, and I squirm when an earthworm gets chopped in half by my shovel. The next step involved finding a bee remover. I found one who said he'd tear open the wall and remove the hive and queen for $1,000-$2,000, with a discount if I provided my own ladder. Gee.
I learned more by reading two timely articles in The Chronicle. In one (March 19), a Yemen-born beekeeper said that it is a lucky and wealthy person who has a beehive on their property. The second article (March 28) said that vampire mites, Varroa jacobsoni, are killing off the nationwide bee population by 80 percent, and that this is a huge problem for almond growers. I love almonds.
Going to the Web, I learned that bees are ancient creatures, found embedded in 40 million-year-old fossils. Native to Europe, Asia and Africa, honeybees (Apis mellifera) first came to America with colonists in the early 17th century, but, stymied by the Rocky Mountains, they didn't make it to California until the '49ers brought them by sea. My bees are likely Italian honeybees, Apis mellifera ligustica, so they must like the tomatoes and basil I plant each summer.
I learned that a swarm isn't a vindictive gang of bees out to kill, but simply a colony on the move. When too many bees occupy a hive, the queen lays an egg for a new queen. The old queen splits, and her entourage follows her undirected flight. The queen has almost no navigational abilities, so the swarm flits this way and that. Why she can't ask for directions from her more experienced traveler subjects, I really can't say. Eventually the hive finds a new home, sometimes only feet from the old hive.
As luck would have it, I have a friend who's an amateur beekeeper. Susanne lives in the hills where she plucks eggs from chickens, spins wool from spring lambs and gathers honey from hives. However, last year her bees ran off, and now she's interested in mine. She came over for a closer look.
Arriving in her white bee suit, she zipped herself into her mesh bee hat, pulled on her gloves and climbed the ladder. She stoked a wisp of smoke into the hive to calm the bees and listened to the hive through the wall with a stethoscope.
Susanne said that sometimes you could coax the old queen and her followers into a box with a few honeycombs thrown in. We decided to try to force a swarm by sticking duct tape across the two small holes of the original hive. They fussed and worried over the 6--inch-square piece of double-thick duct tape, and within an hour, they removed it and threw it to the ground. Forget that idea.
Frankly, the more I learn about our bees, the less I want to get rid of them. My flowers depend on them, as does the old orange tree next door. Besides, although a few service-providing males live there, a hive is mostly made up of hard-working girlfriends. Why would I want to make life difficult for them?
"They can stay for now," I told my husband.
"Good," he said. "They lived here first."
I'm willing to share, though. Next time they pour out of their hive and start to swarm, Susanne will try to coax the old queen over to her house. It's quiet in the country, and they'll have a nice view of Suisun Valley. After all, shouldn't every queen have a summer home?
E-mail freelance writer Aleta George at firstname.lastname@example.org.