Amy and I started beekeeping this year, which has been one of my lifelong ambitions and has been everything I hoped it would be. Since I haven’t written about my bees at all except on Instagram, this’ll my first time blogging about them in detail.
I don’t remember when it was that I started to want to keep bees, but it might have started with ants. I remember when I was a child, maybe 10 or 11 years old, I had one of those absolutely typical ant farms with the little plastic farm buildings and “Uncle Milton” on the box, which was a short-lived but formative experience for me. I remember watching the ants slowly convert the sandy blank canvas of the farm into a beautiful lacework of intricate tunnels, being fascinated by how each ant behaved by very simple rules but how the entire colony could collectively exhibit such complex behavior. The fascination with collective organisms has followed me through my life and into my career; in my job I primarily deal in swarms of processes that follow simple rules but accomplish significant things, gathering data like pollen in a field of other processes and services.
I would credit the father-in-law of one of my childhood best friends with tipping this obsession I wasn’t even fully aware that I had with collective organisms into an intense desire to keep bees of my own. This was a few years ago. In Chicago, I rented my apartment but tried a few times to find a rooftop that I could borrow to keep bees. The most convenient one, across the street, the landlord didn’t mind if I kept bees but didn’t want to be responsible if the poorly maintained roof caved in somewhere, landing my bees and me potentially in my neighbor’s apartment. My backyard didn’t get enough sunlight and was too small. So, it never happened for me in Chicago, which is just as well because a few years later I achieved another long-term ambition of mine and returned to northern California and bought a house here.
Pretty much the instant we closed on our house, I started plotting how we would get started with beekeeping, where I’d put our hives. Amy insisted that we take a beekeeping class, so we spent a lovely day with the friendly bees over at San Francisco Honey and Pollen Co. After that, Amy was hooked too. We ordered bees and a queen the instant we were able to (they have to be ordered well in advance so they know how many queens to rear). We got the advice to start with two hives from basically everybody right after that, so then ordered a second queen and bees from Pollinate, in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland. Rainy and cold weather in the early spring here delayed our queens by a couple weeks, which was even worse, but we eventually got the call and drove out to SF.
Carrying on my convention of giving significant production plants names in my garden, Amy and I developed a naming convention for our bee queens: we’d name them after female leaders both real and fictional, with a very loose definition of “leader”, in alphabetical order. We received the queens one day apart so named the first one Amidala (after queen Padme Amidala, of Naboo), and the second one Beeyoncé (after Beyoncé, obvs). Obviously the two hives are known as Naboo and The Beyhive.
I’m so glad I followed the advice of many beekeepers much more experienced than I and got two hives, and I’m just as glad that I got the two colonies from different sources. The SF bees are Italian honeybees, apis mellifera ligustica; and the Oakland ones are Carniolan honeybees, apis mellifera carnica. Over the past few months, it’s been wonderful getting to know them. Like getting to know two cats or dogs or horses, they each have their own unique personality. You could say it’s the queen’s personality, but it’s really the whole colony acting together. Nabooans are laid-back and docile, relaxed and calm. They’re docile and friendly and buzz happily at us while we work them. They are also not as productive as the more feisty Beyhive. Beeyoncé lays eggs constantly like a boss, and her crew are constantly collecting pollen and nectar for her legions upon legions of brood. Even though Beyhive bees are undeniably a little fightier than Nabooans, they are still in the grand scheme of things pretty gentle bees. They build comb inside the hive faster and seem to produce more honey, as well.
We first extracted some honey near the end of the summer, to free up space in one of our hives. We only got a few pounds out of the couple of frames we needed to extract, but were able to start two small 1gal batches of mead and gift about a dozen small jars of the first Steelwood honey. Our lovely bees did all the work, but I couldn’t’ve been prouder of that first batch of honey.
Beekeeping is a thoroughly relaxing hobby that has brought me more in tune with the finer details of the seasons. I take note when I see specific plants flowering around the neighborhood now and have started creating a mental map of where my bees might be going. On a hot day in the summer, there are enough bees in flight that the fence between my two neighbors’ yards behind my house becomes a bee superhighway with thousands of bees passing by per hour. On a day when lots of bees are hatching out of their pupal stage (usually after a couple of cold days), the entrance to the hive will be a constant river of bees all flying up in to the air a few seconds and landing back on the hive, just young bees trying their wings out for the first time. Frequently, I’ll lift a frame out of the brood chamber and watch my girls dancing on it with brightly colored saddlebags of pollen on their rear legs, excitedly gossiping together about where the best foods can be found nearby. I have stood spellbound, watching a brand new bee hatching out of her cell, my smiling face the first thing she sees as she greets the world. There is simply no end of magic in beekeeping and every week I can’t wait to open up the hives and see how my girls are doing.
Until next time, keep your smoker lit and your hive knife clean, space cadets.