I Wanted To Keep The Wild Ones
By Daria Hilton
Wild honey bees literally swarmed around my sunny Santa Clara, California yard. Many of them even set up shop there. There was a colony in the old oak tree, a hive in the eaves of the patio and even a big tortoise hump of a colony on the monster palm tree in the front yard. My neighbor J.D. and I had discussed these bees often; usually over a couple of cold beers.
“You should get a hive,” he would advise. “Then all of that honey wouldn’t go to waste.”
“The bees use it,” I would point out.
J.D. would just roll his eyes and call me a hippy, an accusation he made often.
I’d actually thought about bee keeping a lot. I’d even attended some lectures. Though, admittedly, I went to lectures on just about anything. I was fascinated by people who were both knowledgeable and excited about a topic. One beekeeper, an older white guy with spectacular Einsteinesque hair and mutton chop sideburns, could not contain his glee when describing the queen bee’s chamber. “It looks just like the inside of a PEANUT!”
It was J.D., though, who started bee keeping first. His wife was against it.
“You don’t know what you’re doing!” she complained.
He really didn’t, but this didn’t seem to bother J.D. at all. He felt as if the bees were an offering from some higher power when his boxer, Hercules, discovered a well-established colony in his screened pantry.
“I told you to fix that damn ripped screen!” was all his wife had to say.
J.D. did fix the screen. But only after he had purchased and white washed a wooden box (a Langstroth hive, he would tell me later, showing off his newfound bee expertise). He built a stand for the box and bought a bunch of accessories: honey super frames, a queen excluder, a screened bottom, a camouflage hat and veil, some giant white gloves that made his hands look like Mickey Mouse’s and some other stuff he rambled on about. By the time all of this preparation was finished, the bees had built three oven mitt size combs in the pantry. According to him, the relocation from the pantry to the hive was smooth sailing. Nothing like the bees everywhere, honey ruining the pantry shelves disaster that his wife described.
I didn’t hear about any of this until J.D. brought over a mason jar full of fresh honey. I ate big spoonfuls of it straight from the jar for the next few days. It was citrusy and delicious. And I’ll be damned if my allergies didn’t clear right up. I was officially bitten by the beekeeping bug.
Unlike J.D., I did copious amounts of research. I looked at those Langstroth hives, read about the pros and cons of Warré hives, and even considered straw skeps before I decided on a usually less productive, but gentler on the bees, top-bar hive.
“Hippy,” was J.D.’s only comment.
I read the beekeeping classics At the Hive Entrance and Honey Farming and read endless advice on the web. I thought about joining local beekeeping clubs but couldn’t find the time. I asked J.D. many, many questions.
I decided early on that I wanted to attract wild bees to my hive rather than buy them. I was sure that if I strategically placed the top-bar hive, local bees (like Silicon Valley renters who smell a good deal) would be falling, or flying I guess, over each other to move in. I put a chunk of comb that I had nicked from J.D. into the top-bar hive and concocted some home-made bee attractant from honey, vinegar and lecithin, a formula provided to me by a local vegetable vendor who had kept bees in Mexico.
After a year of beehive vacancy, I realized I had to up my bee attracting game. I got some fresh comb and ordered some field-tested swarm attractant from the bee lady of Berkeley. My backyard bees were immediately attracted to the hive! BUT they lost interest after a few days. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I realized my grandson, mistakenly believing he was applying the bee attractant, had been spraying the inside of the hive with Spray n’ Wash. I scrubbed the hive down and tried again, but never did have any luck.
The beehive sat in the backyard for a few more years, often the subject of neighborly chit chat and the spark of beekeeping and local honey discussions. I thought about giving it to J.D. but I didn’t want to strain my relationship with his wife. I shouldn’t have worried. He pulled up stakes and moved to the East Coast one spring, taking his beekeeping equipment, but leaving his wife behind. Around this same time, my friend Wade started keeping bees on his little farmlet in Humboldt County. I brought the hive up there on my next visit and was pleased to see it a few months later, painted royal blue and humming with activity.
I can’t say that I reaped any rich rewards from my failed foray into beekeeping. I never kept a single bee. I invested money with no return. I learned a lot about bees and beekeeping, but nothing truly practical. I was the butt of many family jokes. However, some part of me is happy I wasn’t able to keep wild bees, just providing a bee-friendly yard for them was and is enough for me.
I know what J.D. would say: “Hippy.”