A few months ago, I was invited by beekeeper Cherie Sintes-Glover to come and meet her bees when the weather warmed up.
On March 30, I took her up on the offer. But as Photo Chief Bea Ahbeck and I headed out to meet with Cherie, I was beginning to worry I’d made the wrong decision.
The day was gorgeous — sunny, with the blue sky and green grass contrasting beautifully out in the country east of Lodi. Nothing would stop us from going out to inspect her three hives.
This is when I should probably mention that I’m terrified of bees.
It’s a phobia I’ve had since I was 5, ever since I reached up to smack what I thought was a tater tot from my head during a cafeteria food fight only to feel a sharp, angry pain in my hand. In eighth grade, I even ran headlong into a tree trying to escape one of the curious yellow and black insects.
In recent years, I’ve been working to reassure myself that bees aren’t out to get me. They’re just trying to do their job.
I’ve made a habit of rescuing stranded sidewalk bees — lifting the exhausted insects off the hot concrete with a leaf and moving them somewhere shady and gree.
But that’s not even close to the same thing as voluntarily spending time with three whole hives.
When we arrived to the spot out past Jack Tone Road, Cherie led us out to about 20 feet from the hives, to point them out and give us the basics: move slowly, like you’re doing tai chi, don’t walk in front of the hives’ entrances, and if you feel panic rising, take a deep breath. I took a few.
Then, we retreated to suit up.
The beekeepers’ jacket is a heavy, bulky white jacket with a hood. It’s very loose-woven. The theory, Cherie explained, is that the gaps in the fabric are too small for a bee to get into, but large enough the jacket can breathe.
“It’s thick so they can’t reach you to sting you,” she said.
As we put on our suits and latex gloves, ensuring there were no gaps allowing a bee to get into our sleeves, Cherie packed sawdust, lavender (“It’s supposed to calm the bees,” Cherie said with a laugh) and woodchips into a small metal canister equipped with a miniature bellows.
The smoker allows a beekeeper to pump small amounts of smoke onto the hive. Since bees use pheromones (aka scent) to communicate, smoke disrupts that. It also signals them that there’s a problem, causing most to retreat into the hive.
Cherie has learned that only a little smoke is needed; as long as the keeper remains calm and moves slowly, the bees rarely get too agitated.
Then, we headed out to the hives.
In front of each hive, a small cloud of forager bees hovered. They were orienting themselves to the hive before heading out in search of pollen and nectar. Since bees live only about four weeks, there are always new foragers learning the ropes.
Cherie had recently split one of her hives, and wanted to check on the queen cell she had transferred to the new box. She also wanted to check on the other two hives to ensure a queen was active in each — signs that the hives are healthy — along with looking for any other issues.
For the first inspection, we watched. Cherie carefully drew frames out of the box, pointing out honey and showing us what a drone looks like. (They have much larger eyes than the worker bees, a “buff,” fluffy yellow thorax and a blunted rear end, as they don’t sting.)
The queen cell hadn’t hatched, but everything else appeared to be in good order. The hive stayed fairly calm as Cherie worked, though plenty of tiny bee faces stared out at us. A whiff of smoke here and there kept them calm.
“Let me know if they start bumping you,” she told us.
And we were to keep our noses sharp, in case the bees start letting off their alarm pheromone.
“If you start smelling bananas, it’s time to move away,” Cherie said.
By the second hive, I was feeling a little braver, and asked to handle the smoker.
It’s a lot harder than it looks. You have to pump the bellows just right to get enough smoke, but keep it from shooting out of the spout so quickly it annoys the bees. With a light breeze that day, directing the smoke was also difficult.
After a few minutes, I was starting to get the hang of it, I think, though Cherie still had to direct a puff here and there.
As Cherie searched the second hive, she didn’t spot any eggs. However, she did point out some uncapped cells with larvae in them, meaning the queen had been there recently — probably within the past five days. Since the second hive had two levels, it was possible she’d moved down below.
This hive was a little more curious about us than the first, and at one point I had to retreat — and take lots of those deep breaths — as the bees began bumping into the net protecting my face.
But we returned for the third hive, and it turned out to be quite interesting. This was the hive that the bees and queen cell from our first stop had come from, and the remaining bees were hard at work crafting another couple of queen cells.
As Cherie explained some of the options to keep the hive from swarming, including splitting it once again, my interest finally began to overtake my anxiety.
Bees are interesting — and not all that scary, it turns out. During the process of checking the three hives, none of us were stung or even bothered by the bugs. They went about their business, mostly ignoring us.
By the time we retreated to the gate and peeled off the beekeepers’ jackets and nets, I was feeling a lot better about the fuzzy little flyers.
I don’t think I’ll be getting a hive of my own anytime soon. But I wouldn’t be opposed to a visit now and then.