I’m occasionally asked if I have a hobby. It’s hard to say because as my interests change, so do the toys. I am usually totally absorbed in music too but you’re gonna love this, and this is true.
I’ve always loved bees. When I was young (6-8 years old) I was head of the “Bee Catchers Club”. They’re really amazing little creatures and I was always fascinated with the idea of having a colony of them.
When I was living in Hollywood, our neighbors had honey bees nesting in the wall of their home. On hot days the honey would drip down from their ceilings. Pia’s garden looked amazing because the bees kept it so heavily pollinated.
So along comes the internet and all of it’s vastness, allowing anyone to research just about any topic in the world to the hilt. I found all this great info on honey bees. After careful consideration, Pia and I decided we wanted to get a hive because we now live on 2 acres of land and there are tons of flowering things. I planted a dozen fruit trees in the back and some are pollinated best by honey bees.
Now, believe it or not, the honey bee is close to being endangered, and will be eventually. Within the past several years the environment has experienced the loss of 95% of all wild hives due to urbanization and disease. There are these mites that were accidentally introduced into the environment about 5 years ago called Verola mites and Tracheal mites. They attack the honey bee and without proper care and treatment, the hive will die.
This poses a huge problem on the environment and the bee keeping community urges citizens (who are in a position to keep honey bees) to farm a hive or so, (about one hive for every 3/4 of an acre of property). We were concerned with the pollination of the property but most important, how cool would it be to produce your own honey, eh?
Well, like everything else I do, I got obsessed with the idea of having a few colonies of bees so I researched it and found some great people here in LA who sell and supply honey bees, queens and products. Pia and I got books and videos and away we go to the bee store for all sorts of paraphernalia to wear along with all the tools and honey sifting gizmos. (I always do this when I latch onto something and she always makes fun of me) .
The more you learn about bees the more you realize how absolutely incredible the politics of a hive is. I could go on about it but there are books filled with the stuff, I have to tell you about what happened when we got our hive.
So, Simon the bee man comes over with our first hive. It had a very prodigious queen, she was laying eggs like a Bad Horsie and her little workers were going wild collecting pollen and making the hive bigger. Once the main hive gets populated enough, you’re supposed to put a honey super on top and the bees make surplus honey for you the bee keeper. Don’t worry, they have plenty for themselves too.
Things were going great. We were having a blast. A perfect hobby with low maintenance that returned something important to the environment and eclectic enough to fit my own physiological needs. I kept the hive right outside the window of the studio so I could sit and watch them as I work. Hey, some people take drugs and some people like to have sex all day, I like to watch my bees as I make music, so what?
If the hive gets too populated, the queen will swarm. That means she leaves the hive and takes half the bees with her. The other half stay and rear a new queen. When a queen swarms she will usually first buzz about in the air creating a huge black cloud of bees anywhere between 30 and 100 feet in diameter. Could be much bigger with multiple swarms or large hives.
I thought we were pretty safe because it was relatively a new hive but when I checked it after just about a month, it looked really crowded in there. We had some very beautiful days here in LA and the bees were just jammin’. Every frame was filled with brood (eggs) so I ordered a new honey super.
On Sunday March 15, 1998, I’m sitting on the phone talking to a friend and I look out into the backyard and see this swirling frenzy of insects. I immediately knew my queen was swarming. Now, honey bees have a bad rap. People think that they’ll sting you at the drop of a hat. On the contrary, you really have to provoke a honey bee to sting you, like pinch it or step on it etc. They will usually never sting when swarming. Yellow Jackets are the little pricks. They’re mean and nasty and they don’t even make honey. They are actually meat eaters and like to nest in the ground and eat shit. Hmm, I know some people like that.
After her little aerodynamic swarming display, the queen will usually land on a branch or something and the other bees will all gather around her creating a blobulant hunk of solid bees about the size of a microwave oven. When they are still in the air swarming, if you make a loud noise like banging pots or pans together, you can confuse the queen and she’ll come to the ground. They’ll sit there in a bunch for sometimes 3 days until they head off in search of a place to build another nest. When they are sitting there like that, you can shake them off the branch into a box or another hive and as long as the queen goes in, you have another colony.
When I first saw them swarming I went out into the cloud of bees with a huge pot in one hand and a pan in the other. I whacked the two together and the handle of the pan broke off, sending the pan flying over the fence.
The swarm settled in a huge avocado tree right by the studio. They were dangling from a branch way up high, about 50 feet or so. Was I gonna let this stop me from getting up there and saving my babies from the wild urban wilderness? No way. First I suited up into my trusty protective white bee suit and then climbed the roof of the studio and about half way up the tree. There was no way I was gonna reach them so I got this big cardboard box (the one my new Apple G3 computer came in). Pia is video taping all this while laughing hysterically. She ties a rope around the box and I tie the broken handle of the pan around the other end.
I secured myself between two branches directly under the swarm. Like I said, I’m wearing my protective bee suit in the event they get a little pissed off. The plan is to throw the pan handle, with the rope tied to it, around the branch that the swarm is on and then hoist the box up under the swarm, shake the branch, and carefully come down with the bees in the box. After I get the bees safely to the ground, I would dump them in the new hive when it arrives the next day. Great idea, right? The only problem was I couldn’t quite get the rope over the branch because I had my veil on and couldn’t see very well, so what does smart guy Steve do? He takes his veil off. I figure I could throw the pan handle over the branch and then put my veil back on and pull the box up under the swarm. I may have perfect relative pitch, but a pitcher I’m not.
When I threw the pan handle I hit the swarm and a chunk of bees the size of a cantaloupe fell right on my head and then down the back of my suit.
Now I did say that honey bees usually don’t sting unless provoked right?. Guess what… they were provoked and they had a party on my neck.
Yes, I screamed. And before you could say Bangkok, I jumped onto the roof of the studio and had just about all my clothes off.
I discovered, quite fortunately, that I was not allergic to bee stings, but it ouched a lot. The back of my neck looked like… well, never mind. So was I gonna let this stop me? No way. I wanted that swarm but finally I had to face the fact that they were too high and I was not going to get them without a very tall ladder.
So the next day they’re still up there and we get this big ladder. I climbed up about 50 feet to be parallel with the bees and then it dawned on me — what the hell am I doing up here? The ladder is shaking and can still barely reach the bees. And further more, down in the studio I’m working on two of the most interesting pieces of music I’ve ever written. If I fall and break my neck I will not be able to finish these two songs. I thought that maybe I should wait until I finish these songs before I risk my life. When I look back, it seems unbelievable to me that I would postpone risking my life for two songs so I could catch some bees. What up wit dat? Needless to say, a person’s life in general is worth much more.
So I sent Kenny up. A strapping young worker at the house. He wasn’t afraid of heights and climbed ladders for a living. He bravely gathered the hive and returned them to the ground safely. Pia and I were happy, proud parents and were thrilled to have our children back. The next day Simon the bee man comes by with a hive, and later that day I take the box of bees and dumped them into the hive. But low and behold, the queen was very flighty and took off. All the bees followed her and the hive was empty.
I was heartbroken. I could hardly go to work, but what are ya gonna do right? I called Simon and he said he never heard of such a thing. Usually the queen goes right into the box. He said he would bring another swarm over, so the next day he came by and filled the hive with bees. Although I lost the first swarm, now we had two hives.
Marcelo picked me up to go to the Hollywood studio the next morning and we drove through this mysterious cloud of frenzied insects. This was right on the corner of a pretty big intersection on Ventura Blvd. It was a swarm of honey bees. I couldn’t believe it. We found them. The people in the streets were either fleeing in panic or curiously watching from afar as this weird guy (yours truly) got out of his car and paraded through the swarm with his arms raised in a victorious V.
The swarm settled in a bush on the street. I fled back home for my trusty bee suit and computer box. Piece of cake, I plucked the branches and put the swarm into the box and carried it home about three blocks away. Once again Pia witnessed my antics in disbelief. This time she took pictures. [Above left.]
I got the bees back home and called Simon to make another hive box for me. He laughed as much as Pia. But wouldn’t you know when we got back from work that night, they were all gone. I was once again crushed so I went back to the spot were they swarmed and noticed a little tiny swarm on one branch of the bush, about the size of an orange. I grabbed that swarm and put it in a jar, brought it home and placed it in the empty computer box. Well, that little swarm must have been the one that the queen was in because by the end of the next day there was about 3 thousand bees in the box busy making a hive.
As I write this I have two happy and healthy bee hives and one colony in a box that awaits to be transplanted to a new honey hive.
So there you have it, my hobby. By the way, one colony can produce over 150 pounds of Surplus honey a year. It’s possible that by the end of the summer, I will have farmed 400 to 500 pounds of raw wild flower “Fire Garden Honey”. Don’t ask what I will do with all that sweet stuff. I have a lot of friends, and Christmas is coming…
Yours truly (in the thick of it),