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The ABCs of bees

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As beekeeper Robert MacKimmie opens their hive, the deep hum of 40,000 bees fills the air. Where have I heard this sound before? Oh, yes - in horror movies.

Mr. MacKimmie checks honey stores, pollen supplies, and the bee "nursery." Dozens of bees crawl across his bare arms and hands, but they don't sting. The buzz chorus may sound creepy, but honeybees are sweet.

"Yellow jackets give honeybees a bad name," MacKimmie says. "Bees are really very gentle." He cares for about 750,000 bees like these - while living in a one-room apartment in San Francisco!

Most beekeepers live in the countryside and keep their beehives in orchards or on farms. This hive is in a small backyard, close to streetlamps, parked cars, and sidewalks. San Francisco may not seem like a bee haven, but its mild weather means blooms all year.

He has 15 such hives. He keeps them in the backyards of bee-lovers. "Some people just enjoy watching bees, and others are gardeners," he says. "One woman had an apple tree and got just three apples from it. After we put in the beehive, she had an apple bonanza!"

Bees help flowering plants. As they travel from flower to flower, bees carry pollen from plant to plant, fertilizing the seeds. Bees pollinate one-third of our food.

Before opening a hive, MacKimmie dons a net-covered helmet. "I don't get stung that often," he says, "but I never want to get stung around my eyes."

Next, he puts dry pine needles into his bee smoker and lights them. The smoker looks like an old coffee pot. "When the bees smell smoke," he says, "they rush into the hive and gather honey. When the bees are full of honey, they can't sting."

He lifts off the top of the hive. Rows of rectangular frames hang inside the box. He lifts out a frame full of honeycomb. He urges me to try some, which I do very carefully - bees are crawling on my bare hand, on the frame, and over my net-covered helmet. I hope they don't mistake me for Winnie-the-Pooh.

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