These days, I feel like I read more and more articles about restaurants that keep beehives on their rooftops so they can add housemade honey to their dishes. I visited a random rooftop hive near my office in SOMA. And, sadly, I’ve seen a couple stories about beehive vandalism in San Francisco. So the subject of this blog post has been kind of a long time coming, because for the better part of a year I have been wondering, “How do I go about learning how to beekeep?”
Every once in a while, there comes along the perfect Living Social deal, one that makes me stop and rethink my desire to unsubscribe from ALL of the many deal sites that flood my inbox with lists of discounted restaurants, local adventures, or getaways. Round Rock Honey Beekeeping School presented one of those deals. I don’t know if I’d ever quite have been motivated to seek out a place to teach me the art of beekeeping otherwise. Anyway, I grabbed Ann Marie, a friend who I was pretty sure would not be squeamish about walking (suited) into a hive full of bees (She wasn’t. She loves Winnie the Pooh too much to be afraid), and signed up for the class. And I could not recommend this activity more.
We arrived at the Candlestick Park location, a warehouse that is not actually as near Candlestick as I had imagined, and took our seats at a table with room for about fifteen. After a quick round of introductions (there was a nice range of people interested in beekeeping, from those who were just there out of mere curiosity, to a woman who was actually afraid of bees and wanting to overcome that fear, to one guy who is actually going to be in charge of beekeeping at his friend’s farm), we had a quick informal lecture introducing us to all things bee-related. Starting off a bit like a biology class, John the Beekeeper informed us that all the worker bees are female, and the male bees only hang out at the bottom of the hive, good for nothing more than reproduction. There are super close-up photos that help you see the difference between a male bee and a female bee, and a nice show-and-tell section where you get to pass around honeycomb, and the chambers built for the queen. Then you learn about the parts of the hive, how you organize the frames that go into the boxes, and how to feed the bees with sugar water if needed.
Fun facts abound – like how if a colony of bees decides to swarm, they take all the honey with them for food reserves, which means that the bees are so full, they cannot even bend their tails to sting you. This is why Beekeeper John was able to capture a swarm by scooping them into a box with his bare hands. Also a sobering reminder of why to buy local: the cheap honey that goes into food products like breakfast cereal and energy bars comes from China, where they use lead boxes to house the bees. This class did have a focus on how to take care of the bees organically whenever possible – for example, when tiny little Varroa mites (a type of parasite) latch onto the bees, you can douse them in powdered sugar to clear up the problem.
The real fun begins when the entire class gets to suit up! We each took a suit that was about one size larger than regular clothing size, zipped up, and donned a pair of thick yellow gloves. Except for Beekeeper John of course. Bee stings are of no concern to him anymore, so he can go in gloveless. Then it was outside to visit the hives, and see the honey extraction live and in person.
It’s important to smoke the bees a little bit before you go into their hive. It calms them down and prevents them from releasing pheromones that alert everyone to an intruder. (Fun Fact #4: If you do get stung, you can also smoke the affected area a bit. It will wash away those same pheromones in the sting, which is what alerts other bees that they should attack you too.) Once smoking had occurred, we watched as John calmly pulled the lid off a hive and set to work pulling out frames of honey, scraping the bees off the honeycomb very gently with a brush. You can also use a feather to brush the bees; it seems to bother them less.
You can tell the honey is ready because of that white layer of wax over it. If the honey doesn’t have that white layer yet, you can take out the frame and shake it. If the honey is thick enough that it stays in the frame and doesn’t drip out onto the ground, it’s ready. Ours had the white layer, so we helped John move the frames into a box so the honey could be spun out.
We did a little more hive maintenance, including searching for the queen bee to make sure all was well with her. To make the queen easy to spot, John dabs a spot of water-based paint on her back. This year’s queen was sporting a coat of yellow.
Another difference between male and female bees: the males are born out of the raised sections of the honeycomb, while the females emerge from the eggs laid in the flat parts. Here’s a male being born near the bottom of the picture.
Once we’d extracted all the frames of honey, we put the lid back on the box and let the bees get back to business as usual. John pointed out that if you are lacking in upper body strength, you may need a friend to help you harvest your honey. One small box full of frames can weigh about 50 pounds, and the larger boxes can weigh more like 100. We all took turns trying to lift the small box, and while I’m happy to say I wasn’t one of those girls who could not even get the box a couple inches into the air, I probably wouldn’t have gotten very far with it. But hey, between Ann Marie and I each taking a side, maybe one day we could be in business. The class ended with a round of group photos (we posed for about 20 pictures when all was said and done), and honey tasting!! There were varieties from West Portal, Stern Grove, and Hearst Castle, each with its own very distinct flavor depending on which area the bees came from and what types of flora they feast on. The big seller was the Lavender honey – just a touch of extra flowery sweetness and an interesting, earthy, grainy texture that Ann Marie and I could not resist.
Unless you’re deathly scared of or deathly allergic to bees, I highly, highly recommend taking a class like this. The bees are fascinating and, in the comfort of a stingproof suit, not scary in the slightest. I would hardly panic the next time one of these little creatures decides to alight on my hand. (Honeybees, of course, honeybees.) Sadly, I don’t think I could set up a colony in my own backyard, because, go figure, my dog is allergic. It would be work, too, but manageable work, it seems. John said that hive maintenance takes about an hour to two hours every seven to ten days. So maybe someday. In any case there are plenty of good lessons to be learned, a nice way to get a little fresh air, a unique chance to get a glimpse at local food production. No drawbacks here! Go and have yourself a golden afternoon.