Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Beekeeping with the Millers

This past weekend we drove up to Auburn to see our friends, Jason & Ginny.  They left the Bay Area last year to work at the family business - Miller Honey Farms.  Since they are going to be gone all summer in North Dakota (where the bee business moves during the hot months in California so that the bees can continue producing), we wanted to go see them one last time.  Jason took us out and gave us an excellent tour of the beehives on Saturday. 

One of the questions I had was why beekeepers wear white suits (although as it turned out  my suit lavendar).  Jason said it actually keeps the bees calmer than darker colors because the darker colors like black remind them of predators like bears who are after their honey.  Ginny helped me get suited up in my lady beekeeper's garb. 

Ginny took Clara and Max (her youngest) into the house while the rest of us went to see the bees.  Thankfully, Clara knows Ginny and likes her so it wasn't too upsetting for her.  Before they left, we took a few group photos.  A few of the hives are visible down the hill behind us, but Jason said that Miller Honey Farm has something like 14,000 hives!

Jason and Ginny's 3-year old, Ollie, came with us.  He was so good and asked all sorts of questions of his dad.  Jason is the fifth generation of Millers working with the bees.

I got chased by an angry swarm.  No, I didn't.  I am just a nerd who does nerdy poses for photos and then commands her camera-wielding husband to "take a picture!!".

I was put in charge of the smoker which is stuffed with burning burlap and has a little bellows that has to be pumped occasionally to keep the smoke going.

But Paul and I traded off smoker and camera duties.

This picture of Jason and Ollie is just too cute.  Ollie didn't have gloves so they rubber-banded the sleeves shut over his hands so bees wouldn't get in. 

Jason was explaining that these are double-stacked hives.  Each box can come apart and be a separate hive, but there is only one queen per hive.  When a new queen is added to a hive by humans (like if a hive is queenless), she has to be placed in the hive in a little plastic container covered in wax that she can "hatch" out of because bees are sensitive to scents and a new queen placed directly in the hive wouldn't smell like the other bees in that hive and they would kill her.  But if she has some time in a wax-encapsulated thingy in the hive before hatching, then she will smell like the other bees of that hive and they will accept her as their queen.

So many bees!!!!!!!  I have to admit, I wasn't scared at all and I felt fairly invincible in my bee suit.  Although Jason got stung (but that was only because he pulled his gloves off). 

Here is a short video of what the frame of bees looked like right when we pulled it out:

In this picture, you can see that some of the honeycomb structure is covered over.  There are bee larva in there that are about to hatch.  We actually watched a baby bee hatch while we were there - the whole thing took about 4 minutes and was pretty amazing.  Baby bees are furrier than older bees.

In the picture below, there are a couple of bees (one almost in the dead center of the photo and a blurry one at the bottom of the photo to the right of the center) with bright yellowish-orangish spots on their legs - they had just returned from collecting pollen.

We kept looking for bee eggs, which Jason could see, but which I could never identify.  Jason says that they kind of look like little grains of rice but that it is difficult to see them for the first time, kind of like those wall posters that used to be really popular where if you stared at them for a long time you could finally see a hidden image.  I never was any good at those.

Paul was playing with some old beeswax. 

In this frame, there is actually honey.  You can see that it is capped over with a layer of wax.  Jason said that this honey is old and no good, which you can tell because of how dark it is.  There is some better, lighter honey later on. 

This is a frame with good honey.  Jason used a little tool to scrape off wax and give Paul a taste and it was interesting to see the bees go right to the freshly opened honey to eat it and/or seal it back up (I can't remember which), as can be seen by the small circle of bees clustered around and opening in the upper right-hand corner of this frame. 

This was a hive where a new queen has just been introduced.  Jason explained bee reproduction, which I am going to try to explain here and it might get a little graphic for some because I am going to use gross words.  Basically, a new queen stays in the hive for like 7-8 days before taking her one and only flight outside, during which period she mates with something like 7-8 other bees (I think I am remembering those numbers accurately).  When she returns to the hive, she starts laying eggs by putting her bum down into the little cylinders of the comb.  If the comb is too big, she will just lay an unfertilized egg that will just become a drone bee and is pretty much good for nothing.  But if the cylinder is just right, it will squeeze her bum tight enough to squeeze off both one of her eggs and a little of the semen she collected during her mating flight.  They will combine in the comb and create future worker bees and possible queens.  A queen is born with all of the eggs she ever has and when she lays all of them, she "fails" and dies and the hive will need a new queen.  Interesting, right?

After the bees, we went and had a picnic in front of the Sacramento temple, which Paul and I had never seen before.  It was very beautiful and a perfect day for a picnic. 

When it got too hot in the afternoon, we went back to Jason and Ginny's house for naps for the kids and hanging out time for the adults.  Then in the evening we went to dinner at a cute italian restaurant in downtown Newcastle.  This is Clara's boyfriend, Max.  She even gave him a kiss.  Aren't they cute together?

I loved learning about the bees.  When I got home on Sunday and called to tell my parents about it, my dad was excited because he and a neighbor spent Saturday setting up a few hives of their own on a creek behind the house across the street from my parents.  My dad worked with bees when I was a kid on a church farm in Omaha as part of his church calling, so it was fun to talk to him about the things that we had learned from Jason. 

We have missed the Millers since they moved and it was fun to visit them again.  They are great hosts and Ginny made us all sorts of good food like German pancakes for breakfast and Cafe Rio salads for Sunday dinner.  I am seriously begging her for recipes every time I see her because she is such a talented cook.  It is so sad that we won't see them again until this fall when they are back from North Dakota! 


  1. How does the bee keeper know when the queen died?

    So interesting! Have you read The Secret Life of Bees? I loved it the first time I read it, but the I read it again and wasn't so sure.

  2. This is kinda cool and kinda gross. You are one brave woman to be holding all those bees. I don't think I would be scared, just a little squeamish. I can handle most insects individually, but the second they start swarming I am done! And speaking of swarming - you are a total nerd with your faux running in terror shot, but I love that you posted it!

  3. Oh, and Ginny if you are reading this - I love, love, LOVE your red jeans!

  4. Let's see how many comments I can leave on this post. Today Isaac and I were talking about bees, so I showed him this post. He LOVED it and requested to watch the bee movie about 20 times (though I only complied for the first 5). He also now says that he wants to be a bee keeper when he grows up.


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