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The Secret Lives Of Beekeepers

Santa Cruz apiarists give our writer a look into the sugar highs and stinging lows of life in the incredible hive mind

By Sarah Phelan

Dawn on the longest day of the year found me sitting on an upturned bucket in the middle of a lavender field, waiting for the sun to crest the hills. Last year, I harvested the lavender crop on my property. This year, I planned to bring in some of this sweet-smelling solstice, then leave the rest to the gods and the bees.

Albert Lekstutis' bees, mostly.

Not long ago, the Santa Cruz beekeeper telephoned to ask if he could place two beehives downwind of my lavender field. Intrigued, I agreed, and a few weeks later, two white bee boxes showed up, just as he said they would, with a steady stream of bees coming and going from their front porches.

Since that day, more and more of Lekstutis' bees have found their way to the field, drifting in on heady trails of perfume, as the lavender blushes from blue to purple, flowers exploding in the rising heat like frilly popcorn, until by noon, the whole field vibrates with the sound of bees humming.

"Why do bees hum?" Lekstutis asked me, the first time we met.

I shook my head, too embarrassed to admit my utter bee ignorance.

"Because they don't know the words," he deadpanned.

Then he broke into laughter, before composing himself again to assure me that his honeybees are friendly and Italian and unlikely to sting--at least not in the lavender field, in midsummer, when the nectar flow is abundant.

So far, his assurances have been as golden as his bees, who shine in the sun like liquid amber and seem oblivious to anything but the flowers as they bumble through the field.

So, when my teenage son showed up during the solstice harvest and deliberately squished a bee, I was understandably upset.

"You know you'll have to come back as a bee in your next life," I warned, by way of guilt-tripping him. "So, maybe, next time, you should find out what that life really looks like before you go squishing them."

My son shrugged, evidently not impressed by empirically unverifiable theories of reincarnation, as he confessed that the victim wasn't one of Lekstutis' honeys at all, but a fat and hairy bumblebee.

The Buzz on Bees

That night, while retrieving my shears from the field at dusk, I noticed a bumblebee clinging to a lavender flower, motionless. I peered closer and discovered yet another bumblebee, hanging on for dear life on another lavender flower, a few bushes down. The next night, I deliberately went looking for bees, and sure enough, I found bumblebees, perhaps a dozen this time, but not a single honeybee.

"Do you think those bumblebees fall asleep on the job, or are they deliberately camping out?" I asked Lekstutis the next time he visited.

He smiled, as if I'd just touched on one of beekeeping's many secrets.

"Unlike honeybees, bumblebees don't fly to a hive each night, but live in holes in the ground, or hollow bits of wood," he said. "And some bees are real small, the size of ants; some are territorial and drive other bees off the sunflower they're on; and then there are the loner, solitary bees. And not all bees are busy."

He told me all this as we sat under a tree watching Lekstutis' bees fly in and out of his hives, which are identical except for the strip of carpet that sits under each hive. One strip is blue. The other is maroon, a code that apparently helps the bees find the "right" hive, since they're sensitive to most colors other than red.

But the system doesn't stop robber bees from trying to raid the hives, as evidenced by a couple of "Blue Carpet" bouncer bees, who we saw give an intruder the proverbial bum's rush.

So, how in hell did Lekstutis get the hives down here in the first place, I asked, noting that the path to this sheltered spot involves trekking down a crazy-ass wobbly stone staircase that a friend of mine recently built. Lekstutis chuckled, recalling how he hauled them in, in the middle of the night, with each hive weighing 60 to 75 pounds and containing 10,000 to 20,000 bees--a plan that sounds crazy to me, but apparently makes good bee sense, given that bees return to the hive at dusk and are less active by night.

Ironically, Lekstutis, who learned beekeeping from Santa Cruz old-timer John Locatelli, revealed he first got into it because of wasps.

"I was living in San Diego in a house where there were a lot of wasps," he explained, " and I used to get bit. I wasn't very nice to them. So maybe I tried to come to terms with that experience by raising bees. I'm attracted to their beeness. They're real focused."

So focused, he added, that if you move clumsily or quickly or start bumping around out of nervousness when you open a hive, the bees pick up on that and get annoyed and are more likely to sting.

Hardly a comforting thought for a novice beekeeper, and Lekstutis admitted that he was a wee bit "concerned" the first time he went in.

"I thought a hive of bees was going to come out angrily and ask, 'Who are these people?' and try and figure out the answer by getting real close and stinging me," he said, "but it wasn't a problem. Italian honeybees are real nice and friendly--unlike wasps."

Swarm Memories

Inspired by Lekstutis' beekeeping exploits, I bought a secondhand book on bees, which inspired the bookstore clerk to reveal that his father once kept bees in Oakland.

"Urban honey is the best," the clerk confided with more than a hint of nostalgia. "City bees have far more exotic choices of nectar."

His comment got me reading my bee book's chapter on honey the minute I got home, where I learned that when bees return to the hive they regurgitate nectar stored in their honey stomachs into the mouths of other bees, who in turn pass it along to other bees, each adding more enzymes along the way. It's a process that accounts for honey's famed antifungal, antibacterial properties, but I couldn't help but ask Lekstutis if it means that honey is really a kind of bee puke.

Lekstutis shrugged, pointing out that at the regurgitated stage, honey is officially nectar, because of its high moisture content, which the bees then evaporate by fanning their wings.

"And then they cap the honey with wax," he said. "You can store honey that way for a thousand years,"

His bees, he said, haven't produced any surplus honey to date, but hopefully will next year.

"Bees tend to be more efficient than they need be, which is why we have such close relationships with them," he said.

In its second year, a healthy established colony usually produces a surplus of 30 pounds. Honey satisfies bees' craving for carbs, and pollen is their protein fix. They need both to produce wax, which they secrete as scales on their body, before sculpting it into the hexagonal symmetry of the comb. Apparently, the whole process is so energy-intensive that beekeepers try to give new colonies a head start by providing them with a layer of artificial foundation on which the bees then build out the comb.

I asked Lekstutis about jars of bee pollen I've seen in the fridges of health food stores, each full of tiny rice-grain-sized pellets that range in color from mustard yellow to deep purple.

He told me each pellet gives away the identity of the flower from which it was gathered, because of "flower fidelity," a quality that makes bees stick to the same species of flower until it's done blooming. Not only does this make bees truly great pollinators, it prompts the question: which came first, the flowers or the bees?

"Does the flower make the bee, or does the bee make the flower?" posed Lekstutis. "Or are they parts of the same device?"

The way he sees it, "The bee is the flower, in a way."

Into the Hive

By now, of course, I wanted to see inside their hives, but Lekstutis doesn't have any extra bee suits or veils, two vital pieces of equipment for safe beekeeping.

So I headed up to UCSC's agroecology Farm and Garden, with my delinquent son in tow. There we met veteran beekeeper Albie Miles at the Bee Shed, a cobweb-sprinkled structure where bee frames and honey jars are stored, along with some very trippy white bee suits and helmeted veils that made us look like alien hazmat inspectors once we were safely suited up.

Miles, who was raised around bees, but didn't keep them until a decade ago, when he became an apprentice on the farm, picked up what appeared to be a rusty old cylinder but turned out to be a bee smoker, or "beekeeper's whip," as Miles prefers to call it.

"Smoking bees stimulates them to go into a pre-swarm frenzy and engorge themselves with honey, so they're too busy to sting anybody," said Miles, as he lit some kindling for the smoker. Then, holding the smoker in hand like an archaic bullhorn, he led the way to the hives.

Noting that bees forage in a 4-mile radius from their colony, using the sun and their sense of smell to navigate, Miles revealed that his are lucky little bees, since their hives lie within foraging distance of UCSC's arboretum, where they get to feast on eucalyptus trees, exotics and even winter flowering plants.

Smoking the hive a second time, Miles used a bee tool to lever open the top, which the bees had glued down with propolis, a sticky substance they collect from buds, twigs and bark. Inside the open hive hung seven frames, like files in a cabinet, each with a 3/8-inch gap between them. This gap is known as "bee space" and gives bees room to move and beekeepers space to inspect the frames without squishing the bees, said Miles.

I shot an all-knowing look at my son, who studiously ignored it.

"You don't need to wear gloves if you know to move slowly and calmly," said a barehanded Miles, as he slowly lifted out a frame that was covered with bees, most of whom were workers, or female bees.

The whole hive, in fact, is run by worker bees, who do every conceivable task in the hive, other than laying eggs, with that task being the responsibility of the queen. While workers can lay eggs, this instinct is typically suppressed, thanks to the presence of "queen substance," a pheromone the queen constantly secretes and which gets passed around the hive from bee to bee on a daily basis.

"But if she dies, some workers will soon start laying eggs randomly everywhere, which is a sign to the keeper that the queen has died," Miles explained, as he turned the frame in the sun, the afternoon light illuminating the honey inside.

"The golden, opaque cells house the developing brood; the white cells house the honey," said Miles, letting us dab bare fingers into the honey, which dripped off the comb in the heat in deliciously runny blobs. Pointing to the brood cells, where the wormlike larval bees develop, Miles noted that all bees in their larval stage are fed royal jelly, which is high in protein, but only queens are fed it throughout their entire developmental stage.

"The protein differences in their diet determine the maturity of the females' sexual organs, and their ability to lay eggs," he said. "If the queen dies, workers will lay eggs in a last effort to contribute to a colony, but they can only lay drones, since they are unmated, a situation that spells disaster for the colony, since the drones don't work, meaning the colony will soon starve and fizzle out."

Although there was no sign of the queen during our visit, Miles wasn't worried, since the egg-laying pattern looked normal, and queens tend to be shy--although not when it comes to murdering their rivals, a task they undertake the moment they emerge from their pupal cells, stinging the other princesses, who are still cooped up in their peanut-shell-shaped cradles, but already singing "peep-peep" war songs.

But once the queen returns from her once-in-a lifetime mating flight, she'll spend the rest of her life--which can last up to five years--laying millions of eggs, unless she leaves the hive to swarm and form another colony.

Droning On

Miles pointed out a couple of bees that were much larger than the workers. These, he said, are drones, or male bees, and don't contribute to the hive anything but their genetic material for the next generation.

Noting that drones are fatherless and come from the queen's unfertilized eggs, Miles said that when the queen mates, she does so with 10 to 20 drones in one single nuptial flight, a system that ensures genetic fitness, because only the fastest drones can catch her, and diversity of offspring, because the queen will then fertilize her eggs with the sperm of all her successful suitors, which is how the genetics in the hive remain vibrant.

While the drones' lifestyle may sound good--all they do is eat, sleep and look out for virgin queens, which they chase at top speed in aerial lovers' lanes--they all come to a very bad end. Some catch the queen, at which point they get disemboweled midfuck, their tumbling carcasses the only evidence that they gave their life--and sperm--for colony and queen. Others return to the hive, where they eventually get kicked out by the workers once the nectar flow ends.

"Some of them starve to death on the front porch, like a bad country-western song," said Miles.

But despite the double bind these male bees face, both Miles and Lekstutis say they would rather be drones, than workers or queens, though Lekstutis admits it might not be fun to be one of 30 drones among 30,000 females.

Yellow and Black Attacked

The last thing Miles did on our visit was check the bees for signs of anemia and deformed wings, two signals that varroa mites, which have devastated colonies of European honeybees in the last few years, could be present. He found no evidence of the mites, which are external parasites that threaten commercial and amateur beekeeping operations, as well as feral colonies of bees. But if he did, he'd deal with them by feeding his bees essential oils of wintergreen, thyme, eucalyptus and rosemary, plants that have naturally occurring fumigant and miticide qualities, and thus allow UCSC's farm to continue to produce its honey in accordance with certified organic standards.

As the sun began to sink in the sky, I noticed that my son was handling frames of bee himself, barehanded and evidently mesmerized by this colony of bees, who greet and stroke each other with their antennae and do little dances to show all the other bees where the wild flowers bloom. And when Miles got stung--"because I moved too fast," he said--my son was the one who removed the stinger, a perfect little needle that continues to pump venom, like a muscle, until it's taken out. Yes, by the time we left the farm carrying an peanut-shell-shaped queen cell as a souvenir, I was beginning to hope my son had redeemed himself in the eyes of the bee world, and might even be kind to bees in future.

Predictably enough, he too would rather be a drone, because, as he puts it, "They have the plush life; they are the gentlemen of leisure in the hive."

Back home, I checked my mid-August lavender field, and found the flower blooms withered on the stalks, the bees long since gone. In a world where an hour is a day, and a day a season, the season of the nectar flow was drawing to an end. And with it the life of the worker bees, which is what the bees is the field surely are.

Yes, the bad news for my son is that the bee he squished was probably a female. And the good news? He'll only have to live as a worker bee for a short while, since their life span is about a month.

And then, on to the next life.

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From the August 18-25, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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