Keeping Bees, Keeping My Cool: Covered in bees at Pomona Farm

Three students, faculty and a parent gathered around the dew-soaked picnic tables on the eastern side of Pomona Farm at 9 a.m. on a 50-degree Sunday morning—too early, it seems, for many of the 10 or so students who had indicated they would be there. I was the last to arrive, 10 minutes late and chugging a thermos of green tea, after dragging myself out of bed and across campus from Scripps, wincing at the dim sunlight after a long night of writing thesis. Russell Levine, a local beekeeper and history teacher at Colton High School in the San Bernardino area, was waiting with the hoods, gloves, smoker and tools, giving an opening lecture on the basics of handling bees. The predatory wasp aggressively wielding his stinger embroidered on Levine's Colton High Yellow Jackets ball cap seemed to highlight the difference between stinging insects' fearsome reputation and the small fuzzy animals pollinating the peach trees around us. The bees had clearly been up for some time, and were tranquilly buzzing to and from the blue bee box about 20 feet away.

Farm Manager Juan Araya and Pomona professor Rick Hazlett, who team-teach a class on farms and gardens, brought a hive to the Pomona Farm this semester to help pollinate the fruit trees and vines and teach students about beekeeping and related issues.

The hive is visible from the path along the southeastern side of the farm marked by a fence and a sign warning "Bees at Work." Beekeeping workshops take place every Sunday for students and community members.

Beekeeper Russell Levine had bee suits available, but all of us were well-covered in long sleeves and jeans, so we just donned the space-man hoods and gloves and walked over to the hive. Although the occasional passing bee does not concern me, as I approached the hive, my adrenaline levels rose with the buzzing noise.

Levine puffed smoke into the hive from the canister of smoldering wood. Bees sense that the smoke bodes danger for the hive, so they gorge on honey as a survival mechanism in case they should lose their stored food in the fire. Then they laze around like people who have eaten too much turkey on Thanksgiving, or so the theory goes, said Levine.

He waited until early morning dog walkers had passed, then opened the bee box. There are about 3,500 bees in every tray, and about 20 trays full of bees and honey in the box. The 70,000 bees seemed only slightly concerned about the roof of their house lifting off.

Levine handed around the trays laden with larvae and crawling with thousands of bees. The bees clambered over one another with no regard for personal space. Layers five bees thick clung to each other, dangling from the bottom of the frame. The bees gripping the frame somehow held the weight of the many bees below. A few hatching bees slowly poked their way out of the comb in the center of the box.

The bees fill the outer comb with honey while in the center, the queen lays her young—nearly all female worker bees and a few larger male drones that are destined to breed and die in the process. Bees keep their hives at about 90 degrees Fahrenheit, directing air currents through their flight for greater ventilation or heat conservation. A few people took off their gloves to feel the heat of the cluster. On cold nights, the bees huddle to keep warm. They take turns shivering to keep warm in the chilly outer circle then cycling toward the warm inside, like penguins in the Antarctic winter. The bees drop their dead outside, then pick them up in daylight to dispose of bodies away from their home.

Bees are not aggressive by nature. If they sting, the barbed stinger rips out of their bodies and they slowly bleed to death. With such serious repercussions for picking a fight, bees do not sting unless threatened. As a warning, they bump anything they perceive as a threat, marking them with an alarm pheromone before resorting to the lethal sting.

I pulled off my glove and snapped several close-up pictures of the bees crawling over one another and ourselves before I felt a bump on my bare hand from a bee that meant business. Some beekeepers feel comfortable handling bees with no gloves, wearing nothing more than shorts and a T-shirt, Levine said, but I decided I had better heed my warning. I put my glove back on and checked to make sure I had no exposed skin. At one point I felt a tiny painless poke through my glove, and looked around to see if a bee had dropped dead at my side, but the bee had managed to fly away before dying or the stinger didn't get stuck—or maybe the sensation was my paranoid brain playing games.

"I don't know if you just heard that change in tone. That's the alarm. They're sounding the alarm," Levine said. The bees' drowsy buzz turned into an agitated whine and they began to circle the area. Levine slowly replaced the top on the bee box while ineffectually trying to comfort them with assurances that it was alright.

No one was stung, and our sense of alarm seemed misplaced. These were European bees, docile by nature. The alarm in recent decades over "killer African bees" relates to a strain of more aggressive honeybees. African bees produce larger quantities of honey, so entrepreneurial beekeepers tried to interbreed the two strains to get docile yet productive bees, but the aggressive phenotype dominated and spread. The state and the American Bee Federation recommend exterminating all Africanized bees, Levine said.

Levine approached one of his bee boxes when "they just went berserk," and attacked, he said. "It was like someone threw a bucket of pebbles at my face. Thousands of them were crawling all around my face." Levine immediately exterminated the volatile Africanized hive.

Farm Manager Juan Araya drove a tractor into a hive of Africanized bees once. They stung him 51 times and chased him for about a mile, he said. "I had them hanging from my ears." He went to a health center, but had no lasting physical or psychological effects. When I asked whether you can see the bee's stinger, Araya picked one up that was resting on the picnic table to examine, an action which Levine described as "gutsy." The bee futilely thrust its stinger at him and retracted it into its abdomen, and I could see why I had not been able to see the stingers on calm bees.

"I'm petrified of bees," Levine said when I asked them if they were not at all afraid. I described the experience as a rush, to which Levine replied, "I guess you could call it that."

Levine said his inspiration for picking up beekeeping just over a year ago was watching a few PBS specials about beekeeping and colony collapse disorder. "I just got curious," he said. "I wanted to learn more about bees and the role they play. When you buy an apple, you don't really think about the bees."

Bees are essential for pollination in modern food production, yet a mysterious condition called Colony Collapse Disorder threatens bee populations throughout North America and Europe. The cause is unknown, but theories for the population collapse include insecticides in genetically modified crops, parasites and the stress of the industrial agriculture system that necessitates traveling with the hive to fertilize nutrient-deficient monocrops.

"There is a renewed interest in beekeeping," Levine said, in part due to the popular PBS specials on the topic, concern for the bees' troubles and an interest in picking up old hobbies that families have dropped in the last few generations.

Araya and Hazlett's students will be learning about the process, agricultural benefits and environmental issues associated with beekeeping, as well as taking home a small jar of Pomona College honey if all goes well. The workshops are available to all students and community members at 9 a.m. on Sundays, maximum 10 people. Email Farm Manager Juan Araya at Juan.Araya@pomona.edu to RSVP.