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Learning to Appreciate Our Local Honeybees

By Nancy Oster

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My first contact with a swarm of bees came about 30 years ago. Returning from a shopping trip with my kids, I pulled into my driveway-right into a swirling mass of bees. Swarm catcher Charlie Vines tells me that a swarm of bees, thousands of them, landing on the walls, fences, buzzing around you frenetically, are usually not aggressive. They are in transit to a new home, not protecting one.

I wish I’d known that at the time, trapped in my car with a 1-year-old, a 3-year-old and lots of groceries.

Charlie assures me that within 15 minutes a swarm either moves on or reaches its destination and settles down. To be honest I don’t remember how we escaped from the car, but none of us got stung and within a short time the bees formed a football-shaped cluster hanging from a branch of the tree near our living room window. Apparently that was their destination. We called someone listed in the phone book, who came that night with smoke and a box to remove the football cluster.

I figured it was a once-in-a-lifetime event. However, we later moved to a new home in what beekeeper Don Cole of San Marcos Farms refers to as a “bee corridor.”

Swarm Catching

Our neighborhood area was once an orchard. Apparently we still have wild beehives nearby that swarm frequently, the most memorable time being into the water meter box located just beneath our mailbox. That was when we first met Charlie Vines.

Most people hear of Vines by word of mouth. I like to think of him as our local bee whisperer. Vines arrives confident and reassuring as he explains what is happening. In this case, we have scout bees going into our water meter box. Vines says they’re measuring the space for their future hive, including the size of the entrance. Worker bees can get through holes smaller than the queen, but they allow for that in their measurements. He explains that the scouts will return to the hive to bring the newly hatched queen and the portion of drones and worker bees leaving the overcrowded hive. They use odor trails and a bit of dance language to guide the bees to their new location.

This is far more awesome than it sounds. The full swarm arrives en masse while Vines is standing there. The sky turns dark with bees; the buzz of approaching bees is loud and ominous. They funnel toward the water meter opening. Fascinating!

Vines has many years experience coaxing bees out of water meters, house walls, attics and fences. He is 77 and has been observing bee behavior since he was 10 years old on his family farm in eastern Texas. At 10, he’d sit near a large tree that had a hanging beehive, much larger than the ones he finds today. Stings on his lip or ears didn’t stop him from going back to watch the bees.

Vines says the trick to relocating bees is to move the queen to a bee box and wait for the other bees to follow her into the box. Each hive has its own scent, so even forager bees out collecting nectar

will find their way back to their queen if the collection box is left close to the original spot. He usually leaves the box and comes back in the evening when the workers have returned for the night.

Hanging hives and newly clustered swarms are the easiest to relocate. Colonies established in house or garden walls and fence cavities are more difficult, requiring a new queen to attract the worker bees to a more desirable location. It may take a month to draw all of the bees into the new box, but patience is rewarded by removal, not destruction of a valuable ecological resource. According to Vines, most bees in Santa Barbara are docile, good pollinators and make delicious honey.

Tuning into the Community of Bees

Another swarm catcher, Elisa Robles (a.k.a. The Worm Girl) has been catching swarms in Santa Barbara for about three years. She had her first Zen-like bee experience working on a farm in New Zealand. Robles describes listening to the hum of the bees and watching them work in unison.

Worker bees are all female. Male drones help keep the hive warm and mate with the virgin queen during her brief aerial mating period. Worker bees live about one month during the peak foraging season (spring and summer) and are continually being replenished by the egg-laying queen. Drones usually live longer than the workers, but will die off when food becomes scarce. Queens can live up to eight years, but are strongest in the first three years. A queen lays up to 2,000 eggs a day, fertilizing only the female worker eggs from the lifetime supply of sperm she has stored in her body. Larger cup cells are built for laying new queens in anticipation of upcoming swarms. A queen bee is fed only royal jelly, secreted by the worker bees. The jelly transforms a worker larva into a queen.

Young worker bees nurse the baby bees as they emerge from their birth cells, builder bees construct new cells, housekeeper bees keep the hive clean, guard bees protect the entrance to the hive and forager bees go into the field to bring back pollen and nectar for food and storage. Worker bees move through all these phases during their short lives, knowing instinctively how and when to perform each task.

Robles says, “I love going back to pick up the swarm at night. Before I lift the lid to see that they are tucked in for the move, I put my ear against it to hear their peaceful humming. I peek through the doorway to see them huddled together in this gentle fluttering cluster.” The bees use the fluttering of their wings to circulate air through the hive, which controls the temperature and helps to evaporate excess water from the newly stored nectar. They eventually cap these nectar cells with the same wax secretion they use to build the honeycomb cells.

Robles says, “I feel like there’s some sort of communication between us. Watching them drink the sweat off my body, the salt. Letting them chill out to let their wings dry if they’ve gotten honey on them. Everything else is tuned out. It’s just me and these little critters. I guess that’s what keeps me coming back.”

Protecting Local Bees

Don Cole says, “Santa Barbara is a wonderful area for bees. There are so many different trees and plants. The blooms are offset, so there are blooms from the winter until the end of summer.” While we don’t have extreme cold weather like the East Coast, our bees struggle with lack of water and fewer nectar-filled blossoms during our dry period from August until about November.

Cole has been tending bees since the late 1960s, when his father first became interested in beekeeping. Cole maintains about 500 hives in Santa Barbara, Santa Ynez, Carpinteria and Ojai.

Beekeepers face new challenges with mite infestations, viral and bacterial diseases and concern over newer systemic pesticides, all of which may be contributors to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Cole points out that there have been cyclic episodes of dwindling disease in the past, but there is not enough historical data to know if CCD is part of a natural cycle or man-made.

This mysteriously sudden bee disappearance is a concern for agriculture as well as home farmers who largely depend on European honeybees to pollinate their fruits and vegetables. An apple tree without bees to pollinate the blooms will produce about 25 apples, while the same size tree with honeybees will produce about 1,200 apples.

Cole keeps a close eye on the health of his bees. He breeds additional queens from the most robust hives, hoping to keep the stock of bees best suited to Santa Barbara strong and hardy.

Producing Local Honey

While commercial honey is a commodity sold in 650-pound barrels to large industrial honey packers, Cole has kept his honey business small and artisanal. His bees keep all the honey and pollen they need to keep their hives vibrant. Only the boxes of stored excess honey are removed for extraction.

Cole works to keep his honey tasting as close to fresh from the hive as possible. His San Marcos Farms local honey, bee pollen, and candles are sold at our farmers markets and many local grocery stores. The product moves quickly from hive to shelf and doesn’t travel long distances to your plate.

Supporting Local Bees and Beekeepers

I have to admit I have a whole new respect for bees since meeting Charlie Vines, Elisa Robles and Don Cole. I now listen for the hum of the bees in my garden, and I plan to plant more flowers that bloom during the drier months of the year. When my friends discover bees in their attic or a swarm in the yard, I’ll urge them to call a beekeeper to collect the bees, rather than call an exterminator.

Will I try beekeeping myself? Hmm, that’s a thought. Cole just might offer a beekeeping class in the spring. Check the Edible Santa Barbara Event Calendar (ediblesantabarbara.com) for updates. In the meantime, I’m going downstairs to make a cup of tea with honey.

To Bee Continued…


Nancy Oster lives in a Santa Barbara bee corridor and loves to eat honey. She now has a cautious new appreciation for the bees in her yard and supports the beekeepers who tend and protect those bees.

Photo by Fran Collin


Santa Barbara Bee Keepers

Don Cole, San Marcos Farms: 681-0312

Paul Cronshaw: 453-7863 (Montecito to San Marcos area)

Debbie Daily: 245-0568 (North County)

Jim Dale: 679-3274

Tony Diloreto: 896-4804 (Montecito to Hope Ranch)

J.P. Bee Rescue: 708-2995

Brenton Kelly: 722-2523 (Goleta)

Elisa Robles, The Worm Girl: 815-7233

Jacob Rodrique: 570-4749

Charlie Vines: 967-6442

Luring More Bees into Your Garden

  • Avoid the use of pesticides, especially systemic pesticides that are absorbed into the plant.
  • Choose plants that bloom in colors bees like such as blue, purple, white and yellow. Bees don’t see red, it looks black to them.
  • Plant a grouping of the same flower in one space. Bees tend to select one type of flower per trip from the hive, so a grouping makes their feeding more efficient.
  • Plant in sunny spaces. Bees follow the sun.
  • Include plants that flower in all seasons. Blooms from August to November are especially important.
  • Plant groundcovers with lots of small flowers in places you won’t be walking barefooted.
  • Provide water with a platform. Bees need water, but they don’t swim, so put water near a place they can land on safely while they drink. A lily pad in a pond or a bowl of wet sand will help them immensely during the dry days of summer.
  • Some plants to consider are: African Basil, Borage, Buckwheat, Clarkia, Gaillardia, Lavender, Poppy, Rosemary, Scented Geraniums, Sunflowers.

Why does it matter?

Berries, apples, cucumbers and many other fruits and vegetables require pollination to develop fully. If you are pulling withered squash or melons off your plants, you need more bees. An apple has five to six seed pockets, each containing two seeds. Each seed is pollinated individually, often requiring multiple bee visits to the bloom. The number of seeds pollinated affects both the size and sweetness of the ripened apple. We need to keep our local honeybees strong so they can survive another few thousand years.

Categories Fall 2009