Sunday, April 22nd, was a gorgeous spring day at the Frey Ranch, graced with abundant wildflowers bursting from the scorched earth. Eliza was jogging along a trail and heard the hum. She followed it to a huge swarm of bees hanging underneath a burned Douglas fir log. Little Freylings Bo, aged six, and Yeshua, aged five, and Grampa Jonathan were the guardians of the swarm for two hours while Katrina and Carolyn scurried to gather bee suits, a cardboard box with a secure lid with holes punched in for air, and a custom bee brush to softly sweep the swarm into the box. Just as we walked up with our equipment, the swarm decided to move on. We were so disappointed, but our veteran beekeeper, Carolyn Brown, hoped we would get a second chance. We followed, jogging between charred trees with craned necks, keeping the swarm in sight, and it soared higher and higher. Carolyn told the boys, "Old-time beekeepers used to bang on a pot to bring the bees to earth." And voila, a few yards away we found a little cooking pot lying in the burned dirt. Bo began to rhythmically bang on the pot and within thirty seconds the swarm tightened up and drifted down to earth! The bees settled on a low oak tree branch and five minutes later we had a healthy new colony to bring home. The boys were thrilled and we added the magical pot to our box of bee equipment.
If all is going well within a hive in the springtime, the bees find themselves bursting at the seams with overpopulation. Then the mysterious collective wisdom of the colony signals that it’s time to "give birth" to a second colony. The worker bees fashion special queen rearing cells and the reigning queen lays eggs in them. The embryo queens are carefully tended and fed a royal jelly. Just before the new queens are due to hatch, a powerful agreement between all the bees triggers half of the population to fly out into the world in a great swarm to seek a new home. The old queen goes with them and is carefully protected in the center of the swarm. They will land on a tree branch, fence post, or a gnarled Cabernet grapevine (see below), and send out scouts to find a good site. Bees have only two to three days to find a new home after they leave their mother colony.
They sometimes settle into less than desirable locations for their new hives. Statistics show that fewer than twenty-five percent of swarms survive their first year. If you are a lucky beekeeper, you will have a chance to capture a swarm and provide a secure home for it.
In the coming days we have been blessed with four more swarms of honeybees. We hope that by housing them in clean, well-made bee boxes, they will thrive. If nature provides a steady stream of flowering plants, the honey crop in the fall should be abundant enough to feed the bees through the winter, as well as provide some honey for our friends and family.
If it's a light crop, we never extract honey, but instead leave it all for the hard-working bees.
After our new bees are settled in and the queens begin laying again, we plan to move one hive to our new winery site. Honeybees will play an important role in the pollination cycle of the gardens and native plants that will surround the new winery. Please come and visit the bees when our new tasting room opens in the fall and discover more about nature's gift of the honeybee.
Several insecticides that are harmful to bees will be banned soon in Europe. You can help make it happen in the U.S. as well.
Surrounding our estate organic and biodynamic vineyards are woodlands and forests that harbor wildlife and sustain local biodiversity, including the wild honeybee. This vital pollinating insect is suffering worldwide from colony collapse disorder, widely believed due to it's extreme sensitivity to modern pollutants, including agricultural pesticides, that weaken their immune system. So last year when we spotted a hive in need of help right at the edge of our Petite Sirah vineyard, we quickly gave them a hand.
The hive was located inside this fallen fir tree.
The bees had their home high up in a fir tree, inside the rotted and hollow interior. A windstorm snapped the tree halfway up and the hive fell. Much of it shattered on impact with crushed honeycombs seeping across the splintered trunk. We were tempted to eat some of the honey, but this food was vital to the bees if they were to survive the rest of the winter, so it was hands off the sweet ambrosia. Luke Frey quickly brought an empty beehive box and put the surviving humming mass of bees in it along with every drop of their precious honey. Then he placed it on top of the fallen tree right next to the old hive.
Here's a short video with some live footage of these beautiful wild honeybees.
It was soon apparent the queen did not survive the fall so a frame with two capped queen cells were put in. We crossed our fingers that the orphaned honeybees would take to their new home and raise a new queen. A few weeks later they were still there! Following the coronation the hive raised a new brood into the spring and summer. But then they were gone! We suspect that they swarmed and made a new hive in an old wine barrel by our Merlot vineyard. It's also possible the colony perished.
Wild honeybees and their shattered, exposed hive.
The location of the honeybee's new hive is circled, next to the Frey Biodynamic Petite Sirah vineyard.
Summer is certainly the time that bees seem most at home in the world, flying all about the garden, buzzing throughout the warmth of the season's days, and kissing all the flowering blossoms that need the bee magic to produce.
On the Frey farm we have been experimenting with several different styles of creative bee hive designs. The hive that I've been tending and observing the most this past year is a Warre style hive that my woodworking neighbor Kevin designed and built. The hive currently drips with honeybees, coming and going from their floral pursuits (see images below). It's built in the top bar style with multiple pieces of parallel wood spanning the top of each hive-body box. Unique to this model is that the hive-body is built in the form of a hexagon, to honor the bees own sacred geometric building. Kevin also built the hive completely without the use of metal to respect the bees' keen sensitivity to vibrations in their home. This particular model is on the roof of my bedroom, to protect it from unwanted visitors, such as bears, who have been known to go out of their way to taste the farm honey! On certain days, if I sit quietly on my bed, I can hear the bees buzzing and vibrating through the walls!
I've seen the hive swarm twice this year, each time swirling in elaborate lemniscate patterns, up higher and higher until they landed on nearby redwoods: too high for me to reach safely. I hoped these brave convoys made new homes successfully in the surrounding woods. We harvested a small amount of honey recently, which was a deep rich golden/bronze color and tasted of the Spring flora. As the summer winds down, the bees will travel far and wide to seek out late blooms to help flush out their sweet stores for the rest of the year, when forage becomes less and less available. But, for now, the bees are a buzz!
Warre style honeybee hive.
Honeybees taking off from the beehiveHoneybee launch pad!
View inside the beehiveTop of hive-box body.
"In Love with Bees," a day of hands-on exploration into the science and soul of honey beekeeping is happening Saturday, June 30th from 9am-6pm at John Woolley Ranch, 11650 Westside Road, in Potter Valley, California.
$20 admission per person will allow participants to explore the following topics:
Creating a diverse garden where honeybees can thrive,
Hands-on hive construction with mud,
The relationship between flowers and bees,
Honeybee hedges and other plantings,
Placement of Hives
Invited speakers include:
Michael Thiele of the Melissa Gardens and Gaia Bees,
David Basile of Rudolph Steiner College
and there will be a special screening of "The Bien"
Sponsored by Frey Vineyards and the Waldorf School of Mendocino County. For RSVP and info contact Luke Frey 707 485 8684. Water and herbal teas provided. Please bring a hat, water, and a bag lunch
The beekeepers at Frey vineyards have collaborated the past several years to create a habitat specifically for bees. This past spring, Luke Frey helped install a bee border to support the pollinators of our locality, and now this hedgerow has come into full bloom. Master gardener Kate Frey helped choose plants that would be beneficial to the bees by having a late-summer onset of blossoms and a drought tolerance for our California clime. Every day I see the bees taking full advantage of the precious August nectars, and I'm looking forward to the future of this perennial garden space.
Preparing the bee hedgerowLuke Frey preparing the bare land for the bee border.
Plants for the bee borderPlants in the pots, ready for planting in the bee border.
Bee plants are plantedThe bee hedgerow takes root.
Bee border in full bloomThe hegerow this August, with the plants in bloom, offering sweet flowers for the bees.
Last week Marie and I tucked our bees in for the winter. Our esteemed teacher from Sonoma County, Serge LaBasque, advises that these winter preparations be completed by Nov 5th. We removed empty boxes and reduced the number of frames in each box from 9 frames to 6 in addition to solid follower boards that form an inside wall about 3 inches from the outside wall. This results in improved circulation throughout the hive to combat the damp of our northern California winters.
Marie harvested 3 beautiful frames of honey from her strongest hive and donated two of them to my weak hive that is still rebuilding from their bear attack last spring. In spite of the rich diversity of bee fodder plants here on our Biodynamic® ranch, our other 4 Golden One Room hives had only enough honey for the bees to get through the winter. Other local beekeepers have also observed that it is not a big honey year. The rains of May and June slowed down the major honey flow.
As the days grow colder, the bees hunker down in a cluster in the heart of the hive and keep their queen and each other warm, only venturing outside if it’s a warm sunny day.
Honeybee sipping Frey organic Sauvignon Blanc grape juice during harvest season.
Early in April, a dramatic example of the biodiversity of Frey Vineyards played out in my front yard. A bear paid a nocturnal visit to the beehives that are 20 yards from my house. Three of my four hives were knocked off their stands, opened up, and scattered in all directions. Everything you learned about bears and honey from Winnie the Pooh is true. But this bear not only devoured all the honey, he or she feasted on the unhatched bee brood, as well.
I was shocked at the devastation and also puzzled that it happened now, after 4 years of successful beekeeping in this location. Then I realized that my 16-year-old border collie, Chester, who died in December and neighbor Tamara Frey’s old dog, Madrona, who died last month had not only been good dogs, but were also apparently maintaining a bear-free zone around our houses. Googling the California black bear, I learned that bears are diurnal, but will adjust their schedules to the challenges of their surroundings: in this case, foraging at night to avoid the humans. (Note on the California State Flag above: it depicts a grizzly bear, which no longer roams the state. But its smaller cousin, the black bear, still thrives.)
Back at the scene of the crime, my son Johnny and I scooped up pathetic clusters of stranded bees and patched the hives together. A few days later, our new intern, Keith Gelber, who has had the privilege to work with the famous Biodynamic beekeeper, Gunther Hauk, showed me how to cut out sections of comb with newly laid eggs and unhatched brood from an undisturbed hive. We rubber-banded them onto frames and placed them in the bear-attacked hive. We also combined two colonies into one. Now, a few weeks later, one of the colonies is alive and well. The clever bees transformed a newly laid egg into a queen. If all goes as nature intends, she will soon hatch and fly off for her virgin mating flight. She’ll return well fertilized from the neighborhood drones and begin her egg-laying career -- laying an astonishing 1500 eggs per day.
The other hive gave up the ghost. Their population was probably too decimated to carry out all the tasks necessary for colony survival. I guess it’s time to get another dog.
Helping the bees has become a way of life for us at Frey Vineyards. We love our bees, and do everything we can to give them the healthy habitat they need to thrive. Biodynamic beekeeping is a symbiotic relationship between the beekeeper and the bees, who both give and receive from the exchange.
During these recent weeks of sunshine, we took a peek into the hives to see how they weathered the winter so far. Some hives sadly did not make it. We're now working to further support the bees by creating a bee-border hedgerow that will provide delicious fodder for our hives between the gardens and the vineyards: just for them!
Because the bees need everyone's help these days, I encourage you to watch "Queen of the Sun," a documentary made by Taggart Siegel (who also produced "The Real Dirt About Farmer John"), and is showing across the country right now.
This past spring, Katrina and Marie added an innovative type of hive box construction to the ranch apiary. Both hives are thriving in their specially designed homes, and the engineering of the boxes allow the beekeeper to be less invasive and more observant, while fostering natural comb building tendencies of the bees. For more information on biodynamic beekeeping, and the "golden" one-room hive design, check out the Melissa Gardens of Healdsburg, California.
In the photo above, Marie's bees dwell at the entrance to the winery, welcoming one and all to Frey Vineyards. Situated between an Asian pear tree and a small orchard of hardy lemons, the bees are across the road from the winery weigh station for grape gondolas. The bees find themselves "helping" out with the wine grape harvest by tapping the grape juice flowing in during this season. We wonder if we can tell the grape honey from the other floral creations the bees provide throughout the year.
They say “a swarm in May is worth a bale of hay,” and working on the farm, I know the value of both! Last February I attended the Honey Bee Symposium at Sommerfield Waldorf School, where renowned Biodynamic beekeeper Gunter Hauk discussed the loving being that is the honey bee, with a panel of Northern California apiculturists. I left the event with a keen desire to build my own hive as a sanctuary for the honey bee. On my quest for a hive design I came across work being done internationally with the “top bar” model, which utilizes the bottom half of a hexagon (the shape the bees draw in wax) as the principle structure. Because of these dimensions the bees are able to draw honeycombs in perfect, heart-shaped arcs, as they would naturally do if they were not impeded by man’s engineering. My husband Daniel and I created two such hives using wax to seal cracks. We added features of which we hope the bees will be able to regulate themselves, such as really small ventilation holes that can be filled with propolis as needed.
Katrina and Marie, on their respective Melissa quests, have found a Biodynamic hive popularized in Germany that has similar aspects to a top bar hive, but with some fancy features added. Called the “one-room-hive” (in German: “Einraumbeute”), it includes such additions as a waxed cloth that can be kept over the hive while one works with the bees, to minimize the disruption of opening the hive. Additionally, these new models offer observation windows to watch the queen cells as they develop. (Knowing the mature cell dates are important in Biodynamic beekeeping, which allows the hive to swarm, as Hauk describes, for the joie de vivre the bees experience). Beveled frame edges, a special insulation layer, and dove-tailed carpentry make these hives a special gift to the bees.
In late May, Katrina and I journeyed down to a local organic beekeeper’s apiary in Healdsburg and collected our bees in the twilight. We brought all of our unconventional hives with us and shook the bees in, all 40,000 of them per hive. With a total of 4 hives in the back of the car, it was over 100,000 bees buzzing as we made our late night sojourn home. Suited up in full regalia, just in case, we unloaded our sweet vessels on the Frey Ranch under the midnight moonlight.
The next morning, at the break of dawn, our bees found their new foraging grounds on the ranch. Daniel’s bees got a little disoriented and decided to swarm. Luckily, they opted to settle into a nearby apple tree in our orchard. We were able to catch them again and put them back into their hive, after which we made some improvements on the design. Katrina’s bees decided to swarm too, and it was quite the climbing expedition to recover them high up in another tree. Katrina and Marie caught another swarm, and this one decided to make its home in a wine barrel. Now, at the beginning of July, all the hives are blissfully buzzing away, gathering sweet nectars from the summer garden blooms.