Eating Local column: The buzz on moving bees around
Those who love me do so despite my tendency to be late. In this way Ed is not like me at all, so he compensates by pushing me out the door earlier than is necessary or even prudent.
Last week when we arrived in Palisade to retrieve 10 beehives from a couple of orchards where they’d been pollinating cherries and apricots, it was only 6 o’clock. The sun was still high in the sky and the temperature was sultry for April. Bees zoomed overhead following flyways to nectar sources.
Ed stoked the smoker, we pulled bee veils over our heads and checked the staples holding the hive boxes together.
“We’re here too early,” I said uneasily.
Ed knew it was true, but we still had another orchard to visit before dark. I didn’t like the idea of leaving the most industrious worker bees stranded and homeless, while night descended and we sailed down the interstate toward New Castle.
People sometimes ask, with a look of wonder, how the bees know how to get to the orchards, and when it’s time to come home. Ed has been known to spin a yarn. This is what he told an incredulous visiting relative. “Well, Chuck, I wait until there’s a stiff west wind. Then I call our guy in the California almond groves and tell him to open up the hives. About a week later they show up.”
“Really?” Chuck gasped.
This is how it really works: At night, in poor weather and when it’s cold, bees retreat to the safety and warmth of the hive. Beekeepers use the twilight and predawn gray to load the hives onto trucks for transport, then throw a net over the top.
Some crops and fruit trees are self-pollinating, like most peaches. Many others benefit from pollinators, especially bees, whose hairy bodies are well adapted to carrying pollen from one plant to another. Apples, pears, plums, cherries, apricots and sunflowers all grow in Colorado and need cross-pollination and the services of insects like bees.
In March, Ed can count on calls from a few regular customers who let him know when the bloom is almost upon the apricots. Ed’s red Chevy truck holds 10 hives.
The sun slanted through the clear-as-crystal Colorado air, torching the young leaves and fading blossoms. Fruit trees marched off in lines straight as military columns with the salmon and orange sandstone of the Grand Mesa, dotted with sage and pinon, as a backdrop. As evening crept over the orchards, bees kept up their hectic pace carrying loads of nectar and pollen back to their colonies.
Five hives stood among the cherry trees in their rows. Ed pumped the bellows to calm the bees and drive them inside with smoke, then lifted one onto a dolly and rolled it up the ramp to the truck bed.
I stepped onto the spot where the hive had stood. Instantly a buzz arose. Dozens, maybe hundreds of bees hovered before me. Several landed on my loose white pants. A line of them bobbed about a foot off the ground. Confused, they searched for an entrance. They believed I was the mother ship.
We continued loading hives, and I repeated the experiment, with similar results.
Ed follows a rule of thumb: Move bees less than 3 feet or more than 3 miles. When he dropped off those five colonies in Palisade, the bees immediately began orienting to their new surroundings. By some mysterious system of mapping landmarks, bees quickly learn to find their own hive and entrances. Ever hear the expression “make a beeline for it”? Once they have their bearings, they’re very efficient. But if you want to play a dirty trick on a bee, move the hive a few yards away. Like a drunk on a binge, they can’t find their way home.
There was nothing to do but head for the other orchard to collect more hives.
The next day the orchard owner called to report a clump of bees hanging on a wooden post. Deprived of hive and queen, the lost bees huddled together for warmth and maybe companionship. It happened that Ed planned to pick up another load of hives in Grand Junction that very evening. This time we started later and allowed the bees some extra time to return to the hives as the sun sunk low. Then we headed home, with an extra stop along the way.
Ed brought a nuc box about half the size of a traditional Langstroth hive fitted with frames of honeycomb.
Dark had fallen by the time we pulled into the orchard. Ed grabbed a flashlight and stalked into the fruit trees where the hives had stood. He flashed the beam around. The beam sliced the darkness, looking for the stout posts used to string the orchard watering and heating systems.
Sure enough, where the bottom of a post met the ground Ed spotted a vibrating mound of bees. He pulled a frame of comb out of the nuc box, laid it flat on the ground and pushed an edge against the post. In the pool of artificial light, I watched transfixed as bees flowed down onto the comb. Ed said, “Let’s give them a few minutes.”
He put the frame in the nuc box and replaced it with another. I used a soft brush to push the holdouts off the post onto the waiting comb. Then we put the lid on the nuc, loaded it onto the truck and hit the road.
Back at Colby Farm, the apples and cherries are adorned with scented blossoms. Dandelions are pushing up, spraying the fields with golden dots and supplying native pollinators and honeybees with some of the year’s most nutritious forage. The next morning Ed emptied the box of stray bees into a weak hive.
Ed often says, “Insect life is cheap,” but that didn’t stop the little warm glow.
Marilyn Gleason works at eating locally on her Peach Valley farm. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.