The ABCs of bees
As beekeeper Robert MacKimmie opens their hive, the deep hum of 40,000 bees fills the air. Where have I heard this sound before? Oh, yes - in horror movies.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. MacKimmie checks honey stores, pollen supplies, and the bee "nursery." Dozens of bees crawl across his bare arms and hands, but they don't sting. The buzz chorus may sound creepy, but honeybees are sweet.
"Yellow jackets give honeybees a bad name," MacKimmie says. "Bees are really very gentle." He cares for about 750,000 bees like these - while living in a one-room apartment in San Francisco!
Most beekeepers live in the countryside and keep their beehives in orchards or on farms. This hive is in a small backyard, close to streetlamps, parked cars, and sidewalks. San Francisco may not seem like a bee haven, but its mild weather means blooms all year.
He has 15 such hives. He keeps them in the backyards of bee-lovers. "Some people just enjoy watching bees, and others are gardeners," he says. "One woman had an apple tree and got just three apples from it. After we put in the beehive, she had an apple bonanza!"
Bees help flowering plants. As they travel from flower to flower, bees carry pollen from plant to plant, fertilizing the seeds. Bees pollinate one-third of our food.
Before opening a hive, MacKimmie dons a net-covered helmet. "I don't get stung that often," he says, "but I never want to get stung around my eyes."
Next, he puts dry pine needles into his bee smoker and lights them. The smoker looks like an old coffee pot. "When the bees smell smoke," he says, "they rush into the hive and gather honey. When the bees are full of honey, they can't sting."
He lifts off the top of the hive. Rows of rectangular frames hang inside the box. He lifts out a frame full of honeycomb. He urges me to try some, which I do very carefully - bees are crawling on my bare hand, on the frame, and over my net-covered helmet. I hope they don't mistake me for Winnie-the-Pooh.
The honey is thick, sweet, and warm. "The bees keep the hive at 95 degrees," explains MacKimmie. "They need warmth to incubate the baby bees."
Each of MacKimmie's hives produces 100 to 200 pounds of honey every year. He sells more than a ton of "City Bees" honey annually. Each neighborhood has a slightly different climate and different plants, so each neighborhood's honey has its own flavor. The beehive we're looking at is in Cow Hollow, not far from the Golden Gate Bridge. In the 1860s, this was a pasture. Now bees "graze" on Cow Hollow's flowers, giving the honey a lovely floral taste.
Bees make honey by gathering sweet, sticky nectar from flowers. They mix the nectar with a chemical they make in their bodies. The bees store the mix in a honeycomb cell. After the mix dries a bit, the cell is capped with honeycomb wax. Bees make wax from glands in their abdomens.
MacKimmie harvests honey in the summer and fall. He puts honey-filled frames into his spinner at home. The honey spinner works like a salad spinner, drawing honey out of the frames. The honey is poured into jars, labeled, and sold.
Most people buy MacKimmie's honey because they love the flavor. "Store-bought honey is heated and filtered, which takes out the pollen and minerals," says MacKimmie. "It is refined sugar water," in his opinion. The heating and filtering are to make the honey look better.
Do the bees miss the harvested honey? "Bees make honey to eat during the winter when they are less active," MacKimmie says. "A healthy hive can make two or three times as much honey as they need. I make sure my bees have plenty to eat."
Man-made beehives are designed to make honey harvesting easy. The hive is a stack of wooden boxes. The bees enter the hive through a gap at the very bottom of the stack. The top box has a lid, and the bottom box has a floor, but the boxes in between don't have tops or bottoms. Each box is hung with frames. Inside the beehive, the bees move freely from box to box and frame to frame - except the queen bee.
MacKimmie removes the honey-filled upper boxes. Underneath one is a metal grid called a "queen excluder." Bees like to store extra honey at the top of their hive, and the small worker bees can easily pass through. But the queen is too big. By keeping the queen in the lower boxes, the beekeeper makes sure that only pure honey - and no bee eggs - are in the upper boxes.
MacKimmie takes off the excluder and lifts out a frame. This is the bee "nursery." The hundreds of worker bees on the frame don't fly away. They are so intent on their bee tasks they don't seem to notice us.