I hold the torn piece of cardboard in my hand as I nervously stand on the ladder and prepare myself. There's really no easy way to do this, I think. Joey shouts encouragement from below. "Nice and easy! Just like shaving Grandpa!"
And with that advice, I plunge the cardboard into a cluster of thousands of buzzing bees, scraping gently and resolutely. They fall in large bulbous chunks, like old pudding, landing gloppily into a casserole pan that I gingerly hold in my other hand. Feeling that this is a task one must do without pause, like walking on coals, I continue to move the cardboard steadily across the gigantic conglomeration of bees and fill the pan with plop after plop of pure insect.
Bees weigh more than one would think, and when the heft of my haul finally registers, I clutch the ladder, look at the enormous hive just inches from my face and laugh. I laugh giddily and uncontrollably and loudly and light-headedly. This is crazy.
For Liz and Joey R, however, it's just another day at work. Doing business as R Honey Pots (the "R" represents a legal last name, coined upon marriage), Liz and Joey specialize in humane beehive removal from all manner of unusual places where humans would rather the insects not reside; they've even removed bees from the county jail. Most importantly, the Rs do not kill the bees. Their task instead is to encourage the swarm to relocate out of people's homes and into a wooden box, whereupon they're moved to an apiary in western Sonoma County to colonize, reproduce and make honey in peace and quiet, a much better fate than that which comes from a can of Raid.
Ten years ago, Liz and Joey, then a just-married couple, joined the Peace Corps and traveled to Paraguay together. Joey was assigned agriculture; Liz got bees. ("I was so jealous," Joey says.) When the two returned to Sonoma County, Joey worked construction and Liz taught at a charter school, but it was apparent that they'd gotten the bug. They started a small apiary and took on swarm-removal jobs here and there. Slowly, their expertise grew, and nowadays they work roughly two to three removal jobs per month.
Today's job is at the Los Robles Lodge, the Santa Rosa hotel that closed two years ago and has sat empty while the city and developers hash out a condominium plan. When I arrive, Liz and Joey have already torn the wooden planks away from the inhabited stucco deck to reveal a massive hive measuring 10 feet long. Approximately 80,000 bees are swarming all around. I've never seen anything like it. "Do you want a veil?" Joey asks me, but I'm tough and I brush it off. Within 30 seconds, however, what I'm brushing off is an irate bee. Zing! I am stung on the ear.
Humbled, I accept the veil, a mesh cloth draped over a toy hat with a plastic police badge on the front. ("I like the little star," Liz says. "I feel like the bee sheriff.") I tuck my pants into my socks. I put on some rubber gloves and I try to stay calm when bees land on me, which is almost constantly. I never get stung again.
Underneath the hive, Liz works a smoking teapot in one hand and a serrated knife in the other, looking like a character in a poorly conceived British horror movie. Soon, I figure it out: the teapot's smoke startles the bees, and once they've cleared away, the knife cuts away pieces of the hive. Liz pulls chunks of comb away, often dripping with honey and usually still covered in bees, and hands them up to Joey on the deck's landing, above the hive, one by one.
Some married couples don't work well together, but Liz and Joey call this their "romantic time." They call each other "honey" and "baby cakes" and other endearments while they work. Even under the direst circumstances, they maintain a level of calmness, cooing pleasant phrases like, "Hey, baby cakes, I'm sorry, but this large chunk of honeycomb is slipping and I'm in horrible danger of having bees fall all over my face, d'you think you could help me out, honey, please?"
They also affectionately call the bees "ladies."
The goal here, really, is to find the queen bee, because once she's moved, the other bees will follow suit. But two hours pass, and still no queen bee. What we're looking for is the honeybee equivalent of a Lil' Wayne video, a cluster of hoochie bees with their asses in the air. Finally, she's found, and I get a good look, it's amazing how much larger, browner and tougher-looking she is. No wonder Liz has a tattoo of a queen bee on her back.
Minutes later, Liz shrieks excitedly. "It's another queen!" she cries. Sure enough, the swarm starts making a different sound, and I can spot the beautiful matriarch. I try in vain, wearing honey-gunked gloves, to get a good photo of this second queen—two queens in one hive is really rare—but I have to settle for second best: a line of hoochies with their asses in the air.
As Joey assembles comb into wooden boxes, he breaks off some "uncapped" honeycomb for me—that is, comb with fresh honey that hasn't been sealed up yet by the bees with wax. "Try it," he says, "just bite the whole thing." So I chomp down and—holy shit!—it's 10 times fresher than the coagulated stuff in the plastic bear at home.
At the end of the job, the total sting count is me, 1; Joey, 4; and Liz, 7. Amazingly, the two bees that got underneath Liz's suit and have been stuck inside her cleavage for the last hour didn't sting her at all. Joey, on the other hand, says he likes the stings. "Those stings are reminders for me that we don't have ultimate control," he says. "I like the fact that a little small creature can wake up and create that much awareness. To me, that's respect."
"What's the worst you've ever been stung?" I ask the two.
"Oh, one time I put my whole arm down a hole," Liz says, "and got stung 10 times all at once and went into anaphylactic shock and went to the hospital. But," she adds with a grin, "it was a really cool hive."
The Rs send me on my way with a bucketful of honeycomb, and I stay up late that night running it through cheesecloth and strainers. "Los Robles Lodge Honey" might not sound like the most attractive-tasting stuff in the world, but man, it's delicious.
A couple weeks later, I meet up with Liz at the apiary, a collection of about seven boxes, each labeled with the location where they're from. I find the box marked "Los Robles" and wave to my old friends, but Liz, who's just suddenly been stung, has ceased calling them "ladies."
"I'm not even touching your hive, beyotches!" she says.
We meet up with Joey at the Ace-in-the-Hole Pub, and we talk about the urge most people have to call exterminators when faced with bees. If there's anything the Rs want us to know, it's that pesticides not only worsen colony collapse disorder but don't finish the job properly. The pest company will spray reachable parts of the hive, Joey says, "but are they gonna reach that 10 feet that you saw at Los Robles? Is that gonna reach all the way in there and kill the queen? Naw. Is it gonna get rid of all that honey, all that fuckin' brood? Naw. It's still gonna be there. It's just gonna create a place for vermin, for ants to come in. It's a surface solution for a deeper problem."
"I feel like they're the most direct connection to the whole natural system," Liz says of bees. "Ninety percent of the stuff that we have is thanks to bee pollination. They're so integral to our way of life."
Joey's reasoning is even more gut-level. "They communicate how I would like to communicate, which is this"—he places both hands on Liz's arm and shoulder—"I'm touching. It's hugging. They communicate tremendously well. They can tell you where a honey source is five miles away by how they dance! That's just like—there are how many millions of years of evolution that have gone into the creation of bees? And that we're still developing? We can learn a lot from bees."
"They're our children," adds Liz. "We don't have human children. We have bee children."
"Yeah," says Joey. "We have to work together—for them."
More information about bee removal services can be found at [ http://www.rhoneypots.com/ ]www.rhoneypots.com.