Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Alan Mikolich is a migratory beekeeper — he “goes to almonds,” into citrus, into the mountains, out to the Imperial Valley.
There are about 30,000 beehives in San Diego County, and just now, Alan Mikolich and I are standing amid 140 of them. Mikolich is a commercial beekeeper, one of the dozen or so in San Diego County. For his entire adult working life, from the time he was a teenager, Mikolich has worked with bees — six or seven days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day, year-round — moving beehives. Fixing beehives, taking the honey out of beehives.
In San Diego County a hive has to be located 100 feet from a road, 600 feet from a dwelling.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
We’re on a slope west of the San Miguel Mountains, and the bees are within flying distance of a housing development a mile or two away. They have to cross the Sweetwater Reservoir to get there, and the flight is probably a pleasant one, with the cool breeze drifting in. Throughout that housing development between Bonita and La Presa are eucalyptus trees—fully in bloom, offering copious amounts of nectar to any insect willing to stick its head into the flowers.
These bees flying over Sweetwater have collected enough eucalyptus nectar to make about 40 pounds of honey per hive.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
The strategy is an old one, as old as the angiosperm explosion of 100 million years ago— a flowering plant offers sugar in exchange for a transport of pollen, that wondrous male sexual material. These bees, the ones flying over Sweetwater, they’ve collected enough eucalyptus nectar in the last three weeks to make about 40 pounds of honey per hive — and they’ve moved pounds and pounds of pollen in the process.
Mikolich. Almond pollination in California is the biggest beekeeping event in the world.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
It’s a strategy that has worked well all the way around, because Alan Mikolich is planning to “take off the honey,” about 5000 pounds of it, during the coming weekend.
“We got a big squirt of melaleuca when we first came in here,” Mikolich says, as the bees zip by us, over us, around us. “Now other things are coming in on top of it.”
Mikolich moved these hives here three weeks ago from the Imperial Valley, where the bees had been foraging on alfalfa and other agricultural plants.
We’re not wearing gloves, because the bees are gathering honey and their intent is strongly elsewhere. The sound in the air is a gentle one, unthreatening, the cumulative hiss of thousands of diaphanous wings. We are wearing veils, though. Even the most seasoned beekeeper usually covers his face, because there are always a few bees in a hive with the tendency to play the role of guard. Some do fly at us like linebackers and buzz around our heads with an imperious whine. They don’t sting, though — they’re just loud guard bees.
Here, in the bee yard, math is fun. Consider this: 140 hives: 40 pounds of honey per hive after three weeks’ work. That’s 5600 pounds of honey. Not a bad result of the labor of a group of bugs that have to visit dozens, even hundreds, of flowers to get the little drop they carry in their honey stomachs back to the hives.
Apis mellifera: the “honey-carrier.” Nectar, passed mouth to mouth, bee to bee, and mixed with glandular secretions, cured, evaporated, and capped in cells of wax— that’s honey, and here, that’s almost three tons of honey.
When Alan Mikolich came to pick me up downtown, near the offices of the Reader, the first thing he did was show me a corkbark melaleuca growing by the curb. He told me it is an important honey plant and that it was fully in bloom. The tree, covered with fuzzy yellow blossoms, looked like a mohair sweater. The scent cloud around it smelled buttery, like a chardonnay wine.
We got into his pickup, and as we drove out to the reservoir, it became clear that Mikolich thinks highly of the eucalyptus tree. He kept pointing them out along the way. “Yukes there,” he said.
And, “More yukes.”
Farther on, “Yukes everywhere.”
Not to deny other flowering plants, because Alan Mikolich notices lots of them.
Like most beekeepers, he sees the landscape in terms of its floral economy. Beekeepers, especially commercial beekeepers, have the eye of a naturalist and the mind of a businessman. That combination, its mysteriousness, makes for the mental benefit that is one of the chief rewards of being a beekeeper: you see flowers everywhere, and they make you feel really good. You look at flowers, and honey flows from them.
“That’s Brazilian pepperbush,” Alan said, pointing at the roadside. “That’s California pepper.” And, at another point: “Blue gum. There’s some red gum too.”
And “That’s buckwheat there, all through those hills. In the spring, that’s all green.”
Now, at this bee yard by the Sweetwater Reservoir, Alan lifts up the cover of a hive, squeezes the bellows of his smoker, and lets the cool smoke suck down between the frames of comb — inside the hive, honeybees fan their wings to create air currents to cool the interior and to evaporate nectar in the processing of honey. The smoke now moves along those currents, and for some reason, it tends to keep the bees from getting into the defensive mode, from, as some beekeepers like to put it, “stinging our asses off.” Alan Mikolich lifts up a frame, jiggling and prying it with his hive tool. He holds it up to the light, shakes off the bees, and shakes out a little raw nectar. Most of the comb is filled with honey and capped with fresh wax. “All white wax here,” he says.
He opens another hive, and another. In nearly every hive it’s the same — packed to the rafters with nectar and honey. There are four or five hives that are weak for various reasons — a poorly laying queen, a bacterial infection, the presence of parasitic mites — and they’ll get attention later on. But for the most part, this apiary is a beekeeper’s dream. When we walk back to Alan’s truck and stand downstream from the hives, we can smell the currents of processing nectar, as if standing in the scent range of food factories in a city. But this smell is delicate, plantlike, fragrant.
Yet there is a strange, insective quality to the scent too. All this, the millions of bees and the tons of honey and the beekeeper looking about—it’s like a science fiction concept, really: this person, with plants in his eyes, controls colonies of insects, and those insects go out along the planetary surface, fly to the angiosperms, licking and sucking the juice from flowers, thereby bringing a golden fluid to their master, who distributes it among the populace, thus living a.comfortable life in Temecula. Day by day this person with plants in his eyes continues his communion with insects, carrying them about the land on trailer trucks, which are, strangely, propelled by the decomposed products of the plant life of millions of years ago. This person also freely and generously distributes his golden fluid among the suburban neighborhoods, delivering it to the houses near his hives, paying a kind of tribute to the owners of the land upon which he sets his colonies. They like to see him coming. They call him “beekeeper.”
On the way out, leaving the dry slope (upon which a coyote, also exploiting the suburban environment, had edged up to check us out before moving to where a buzzard was dropping), Alan Mikolich points to a house near the entry gate.
“I just dropped a case of honey off there last week,” he says. “They were real thankful. They were almost out.
Mikolich is a migratory beekeeper—most commercial beekeepers are. He moves his hives several times a year in order to exploit “honey flows” and to pollinate crops on a rental-per-hive basis. Mikolich “goes to almonds,” into citrus, into the mountains, out to the Imperial Valley. Five years ago he began moving into the suburbs, those “microclimates” with their floral landscapings. They have become an increasingly important part of his annual cycle, bringing at least 30 to 40 pounds of honey per hive per year. Since Mikolich has about 1000 beehives, that means 30,000 to 40,000 pounds of honey—or as commercial beekeepers measure, 50 to 60 barrels. A barrel, the size of an oil drum, holds 660 pounds of honey. In 1995 Alan Mikolich’s total honey crop, for the 1000 hives and the various places, was 300 barrels, or 200,000 pounds — or, 100 tons.
Back to the science fiction concept for a moment — how many drops, how many loads in a little honey stomach, does it take to make 100 tons of honey?
Or, a comparable question: How many stars are in the sky?
It’s a tricky business, placing hundreds of beehives near hundreds of houses. In San Diego County a hive has to be located 100 feet from a road, 600 feet from a dwelling. Now if you thought it was easy to convince a property owner to let you set a truckload of beehives in his field, you were wrong. There’s liability to think of — somebody could get stung (Mikolich signs releases, and he has a million dollars’ worth of sting coverage). But fortunately in his line of business there’s honey, that great ameliorator, that great sweetener of deals. When Alan Mikolich—brown hair, blue eyes, medium build, a scholarly look, a ready smile, a beekeeper’s loquaciousness—walks into a place to talk about putting beehives on someone’s property, he brings cases of honey. He brings beeswax candles. He brings honey barbecue sauce. As I’ve mentioned, they like to see him coming.
Alan Mikolich’s cycle of migration goes like this:
In February, after doing various things to build his colonies to peak strength and to get his numbers at 1000 hives, he moves his entire operation to almond groves in the San Joaquin Valley for pollination rentals. Depending on the strength of the colonies, which are rated by inspectors, a beekeeper receives from $30 to $40 per hive. Almond pollination in California, incidentally, is the biggest beekeeping event in the world. Virtually every commercial beekeeper in California goes into almonds, transporting altogether about 500.000 hives. But even that many is not enough. There are 400,000 acres of almond trees in California, and since the rule of thumb is two hives per acre, 200,000 to 300.000 more hives are brought in from out of state, from as far away as Florida.
In March, after the almond bloom, Mikolich trucks his bees back to the coastal areas and the inland valleys. He takes off honey, continues to bolster the strength of his colonies, and he makes “divides” (one of the wonders of beekeeping is that a colony of Apis mellifera can be split in half, like the fission of a cell; Mikolich pulls a colony apart, puts half the frames of comb into another box, adds a queen purchased from a honeybee queen farmer—there are several in California, in Texas, in Hawaii — and in a few weeks, one colony has become two, or three or four).
By April, Mikolich is setting up apiaries in the inland valleys, near wild sage and wild buckwheat. He sets up near stands of eucalyptus, alongside avocado groves (usually he’s paid by the avocado growers, who need him for pollination). Citrus trees are in full bloom, and citrus produces the highest grade of honey. There are productive growths of wild mustard in some places. Where there have been fires, there is newly sprung wild alfalfa. Choices for locations often depend on the weather and on the amounts of rainfall in the various areas of San Diego County. Mikolich keeps track of the rain and acts accordingly.
In some years, when there has been enough rain and the desert flowers are blooming, Alan Mikolich takes his bees into the Borrego desert. But the heat can be a problem. He sets out barrels of water with floats in them, so the bees can land and suck up the supply they need to cool the hive. Inside, they lay drops in spaces and fan them, a kind of air conditioning. Some of the bees bend films of water in their mouths, exposing a greater water surface to the air. One year in Borrego, a bee yard consumed two barrels of water — 110 gallons — per week. Mikolich also moves bees to the Imperial Valley, for melon pollination, onion seed pollination, and alfalfa seed pollination. Again, the heat is a problem, though the bees in the Imperial Valley can get water from the irrigation canals. Hives there are usually set under “shades,” shelters that protect them from the sun. “I’ve been out in the fields,” Mikolich says, “when it’s been 125 degrees. Bees stop flying at 105 and go just for water, to keep the hive cool. In the Imperial Valley they’ll stop flying at 12:00 or 1:00, if the temperatures are high, and spend the rest of the day cooling the hives.”
By August the honey flow in the Imperial Valley is done, and it’s time to move back to the coastal areas or inland valleys.
Mikolich’s favorite locations are the mountain sites, where wild buckwheat and wild sage bloom in the spring and summer. These plants are the native honey plants, the traditional crop utilized by the first commercial beekeepers in California. (Harbison Canyon, east of El Cajon, is named after John Harbison, California’s most famous beekeeper, the first beekeeper to ship railcars of honey back East.)
We head along Route S17, then south on 805, toward a bee yard Mikolich keeps in the Tijuana Valley. All along the way, as he talks about his life, he points out plants.
“I love yukes,” he says. And then, a passing thought. “Balboa Park, if you could put a bee yard in there, you’d make 200 pounds [per hive] a year.”
And, “The few people that have hives in their back yards in the city, they make honey year-round.”
Alan Mikolich is in his early 40s. He grew up in Chula Vista. A friend of his family had a few hives, and Alan became fascinated with them — you might say he had the particular type of rare curiosity that makes a person want to own a whole lot of beehives. At 15 Alan started going to beekeepers’ meetings. One night he spoke up and announced that he wanted to work for a commercial beekeeper. He got an offer and after graduating from high school began working full-time for Robert Flick, who had a 2000-hive operation near Harbison Canyon, with summer locations in Montana. Next, he worked for Phil Baker, who hauled 1500 colonies to the San Joaquin Valley for alfalfa pollination, to the Imperial Valley for alfalfa pollination and honey crops, and to the Coachella Valley for grapefruit and orange honey.
Finally he worked for Robert Von Gunden, who owned a 2000-hive operation that made migrations to the San Joaquin Valley for alfalfa seed pollination and for honey crops on cotton blooms. Mikolich kept bees on his own too, and by the time he finished working for Von Gunden he had 500 hives, keeping them in his spare time and on weekends. Von Gunden let him use his locations and his honey extraction equipment. In 1985 Mikolich went on his own. He took out a loan, bought a flatbed truck with a hydraulic boom, and increased his colony count to 1000 hives.
Unfortunately, 1985 was not a great year for honey flows in San Diego County, and several drought years followed.
Mikolich made 60 barrels his first year — 40,000 pounds of honey, and a lot of honey by most standards, but it was not enough to live on (honey went for about 50 cents a pound wholesale then, with the Sue Bee Cooperative). The next year he made 100 drums, about 65,000 pounds, but still not enough to pay the bills. Then, in 1988, the bank called in the loan. Mikolich took a second mortgage on his house. He took on odd jobs, hauling things with his truck, lifting things with his boom. He and his family had plenty of honey, which probably made it easier not to have plenty of a lot of other things.
But in 1991 there were heavy winter rains, a flood year, and though that meant disaster for some people it meant heavy nectar flows in San Diego County. Mikolich made 200,000 pounds of honey that year, working his various migrations. In 1991 he also, for the first time, moved into the suburban microclimates. Every year since 1991 has continued to be productive. Now, instead of looking at plants and seeing the honey he needs, Alan Mikolich looks at plants and sees the honey he has.
In 1993 Mikolich served as the president of the California State Beekeepers Association, and for several years he was a member of the Imperial-San Diego Counties Africanized Honey Bee Task Force, helping to devise plans of response to the anticipated widespread arrival of the Africanized bees, or killer bees—which, fortunately, hasn’t happened. Since the appearance of the Africanized bees in Texas in 1990, there have been two deaths from stinging incidents, both in Texas. There have been 23 ahb finds in California, most of them in the Imperial Valley — most, for some strange reason, along railroad tracks (one wonders: do the migrating bees follow the lines?). And so there has been no need, as of yet, for the response of a task force.
Additionally, 1995 was a great year for beekeeping because the price of honey rose dramatically. Wholesale prices had been between 45 and 65 cents for many years. Prices had been tending toward the low end, after the termination of the federal honey support program and with the importation of Chinese honey at rock-bottom prices. But in 1995, after imports were restricted, wholesale prices went from 46 cents a pound at the beginning of the year to 72 cents by the end of the year. By the spring of 1996 the price was up to 85 cents for amber-colored honey, 90 cents for orange and sage, the light-colored premium grades. A barrel of honey in 1995 brought $304; in 1996 that barrel was worth $561. With a 40-cent increase, Alan Mikolich’s 200,000-pound crop was worth $80,000 more.
The pollination scenario had changed too. There was a kind of irony in this change, in that an epidemic of honeybee mites that had debilitated the colonies of beekeepers nationwide had also altered the supply and demand of pollinators— thus driving up pollination prices. Honeybee mites also attacked other kinds of bees, the indigenous pollinators — further increasing the importance of the presence of commercial beekeepers.
A mile or so outside of San Ysidro, Alan Mikolich leaves the paved road and drives down a dirt road to his “nuc” yard (pronounced “nuke,” the word comes from “nucleus”). Here, 240 little nuc hives, the size of large birdhouses, are set out in rows. From the truck, they look like a housing tract from an altitude. Mikolich is using 60 full-sized hives, two boxes high, each with 50,000 bees or more, to provide comb and brood and young bees to the nuc hives. All in all, despite the dusty road, and the somewhat trashy setting, this apiary is a neatly ordered place (anyone who has kept bees in large yards would know that Mikolich is an organized, if not artful, beekeeper — his yards, with their well-arranged yet seemingly haphazard groupings, are reminiscent of Zen rock gardens). He has set telephone poles around for fences, so that someone in a big truck looking for a laugh can’t knock the hives over to see what happens.
We get out and walk around in the swirl of bees. This yard, Mikolich says, is to get his numbers up for almonds. He says he reached a low point of 850 colonies over the summer, that he has had 20 percent losses this year. It used to be 10 percent per year. The honeybee mite, he says, is probably accounting for the difference.
Tijuana, shimmering in the heat of the day, is a hop, skip, and a jump away. “One time I was working here,” Mikolich says, “opening up hives, and I heard a helicopter. Then this guy, a Mexican, came running out of the brush. He looked at me, watched what I was doing, and then went over to a hive and opened it up. The helicopter came over, hovered over us, and watched us for a while. He kept on doing just what I was doing, opening hives and pulling frames, with no gloves on and no veil. Finally the helicopter left, and he ran off. I thought that was pretty clever.”
Alan Mikolich and I drive around the countryside, on a circuitous route to another apiary in La Jolla. In Harbison Canyon he pulls over to the side of the road and shows me some wild sage. He also points out several stands of wild buckwheat He tells me that development for housing cuts up the natural vegetation — the buckwheat and sage he cherishes so much — but that people water gardens and plant eucalyptus, so the land is actually improved for beekeeping. He also tells me that in the Borrego desert he used to get good crops of mesquite honey. “There’s a whole other variety of plants in the desert, just on the other side of the hills.” He’d get an early spring crop on agave, a crop on creosote bush, on wildflowers. In the foothills, there was wild lilac.
Forest fires, he says, are good for the beekeeper—honey plants come back first. At one place, Mikolich stops and picks some black button sage, shows me the flowers, and says that the bees get powder all over their heads when they forage it. Then he picks a stem of sweet anise, in bloom, and hands it to me to smell—the fragrance of licorice. He points out a stand of wild mustard, curling down over a hillside.
Driving along, he tells me that he once had a location at a cemetery, off behind the workers’ area, 50 feet up a hill (“I always made honey there”). He tells me that the traditional average yield for a beekeeper in the San Diego area is about 90 pounds. He gets about 200, moving around. He says that beekeeping can be hard on a marriage and on family life — the 12-hour days, the seven-day weeks — and that he and his wife had been going round recently over whether he’ll spend money on a forklift for moving hives. His wife, he says, is allergic to bee stings. It’s a common condition among beekeepers’ wives, he says.
We drive through University City, and then off the road, through a gate kept locked with a cable. Alan Mikolich tells about going into the office, talking to the landowners (who will eventually commercially develop this land), and giving them honey, and how nice they were about the idea of his putting bees on the property. We follow a dirt road, go by a tree with a squatter’s camp under it, turn around a bend, and come to another grouping of hives.
Across the way, over a valley and a freeway, are office buildings, and beyond them, the UCSD campus. Beyond that, white clouds piling up at the shore. Mikolich points out that although everything is dry where we stand, it’s all green to the west, around the buildings. “Yukes all over the place,” he says. “Doesn’t hurt my feelings one bit.”
And then, “I’ll make a killing here.”
And later, after we take a walk through the apiary and look around at the hives, after he shows me the barrel of water he’s set out, with floats in it, and bees on the floats, lined up like pigs at a trough, he takes another look around and says, “This is my paradise.”
It’s true that the beekeeper, though working in the realm of agriculture, is different from any other kifid of farmer. They use the land, are dependent on it, and on the weather, but they are not tied to the land, to one place. Their livestock, though they are kept, are still untamed and wild and at any time can migrate away to become feral again. There is a mystery in the beehive, and together with this unrootedness from the land, the beekeeper is left to think and ponder on both the mystery of bees and the floral economy, while he simultaneously enjoys the landscape in all its floral beauty—landscape that he pays for with honey while he appreciates it with the free mind of the philosopher. As a result, beekeepers tend to be loquacious. When I rode around with migratory beekeepers in the 1980s while I was writing a book about them, I found that they were full of talk. And though I may not have adequately shown it here, the same was true of Alan Mikolich — he talked, about bees, about honey, his plans and ideas, his life, from the time he picked me up early in the morning until I left him late that night. It’s a metaphysical husbandry, this keeping of bees. There’s little inspiration in a cow, to my eye. But it’s everywhere in these mysterious bugs with their waxen architectures and their flights over the land. The beekeeper inhabits that land only with his mind. He’s a metaphysical agriculturist. And the bee, too, is a metaphysical little thing, with all its mysterious doings.
We drive out, lock the gate. Mikolich tells me that he doesn’t think the bees will “spot the cars” (poop on them, kind of like an airplane dropping a little fuel over the runway as it takes off) from this location because the hives are a good distance away from the parking lots. We head north, through Sorrento Valley: “This used to be one of the prime black sage areas around here.” He points out a yard across the freeway from the Del Mar Racetrack: “I made 23 barrels here this spring. Eucalyptus and mustard, sage and anise.”
We pass through Rancho Santa Fe, a fabulous area for bees: “A great sage year here sometimes.” Mikolich says that another commercial beekeeper with a much larger operation of 10,000 hives sent workers door to door, trying to get locations, offering honey and money, but without much success.
“The bee business is like real estate. Location is everything. You’ve got to have producing locations.” Mikolich pays for three locations only—$300 each, per year. The rest of course come by way of honey.
Later, after dark, after a stop in Temecula for dinner with Alan Mikolich’s family, we head for a location near the Cleveland National Forest. It’s time to move the yard. Some of the hives will go to La Jolla, the rest to the nuc yard by the Tijuana River. Bees are moved at night, usually, when it’s dark and they’ve returned from the field, when they’re less likely to fly.
Now as we drive, Mikolich talks about moving bees. Migratory beekeepers can tell incredible stories about their moves, about the things that can happen with bees and highways. I’d heard about trucks that had tipped over, about piles of hives in parking lots, about breakdowns, about bees in the heat of the day bulging the nets out from the trucks, trying to get into the air.
One time, Mikolich says, he got a call from a friend, a commercial beekeeper whose helper had driven a truckload of hives off a road and then down into a gully. The hives had slid off the truck, and the air all around had gotten messy. Beekeepers tend to rely on each other when this sort of thing happens—who else could they call? Alan went out with his truck, doing unto the other as he would have them do unto him, and they worked for several hours, putting the hives back together, setting them on the truck, getting stung again and again. With a truckload of bees he reached Temecula — a well-settled neighborhood, I might say—late that night, and tried to rest, but “I don’t sleep well at night when I know there’s a load of bees out in front of my house.” Quite a few of the bees had already begun to assess the local floral economy when Alan started up the truck the next morning.
And then there was another time, traveling through the Borrego desert on the way back from the Imperial Valley, when he got a flat tire. He had asked the mechanics to put the nuts on only hand tight, and they had told him they did, but he couldn’t budge them. It was midday and the bees were coming out of the hives and pushing against the nets with such collective force that the nets bulged out and turned black. He was trying to figure out what to do when a car stopped, a college student who happened to be the son of a beekeeper that Mikolich had once worked for, hauling hives into almonds. The student spent the rest of the day with him, and at a former bee yard they found a pipe to use as a lever to get the lug nuts off. When Mikolich finally got to the intended location later that night, he took the nets off and the bees sprayed into the air. He didn’t unload the hives though — it would have been disastrous. Instead, he came back the next night, when the bees had settled down after a day of foraging, and the unloading went easily.
Near the Cleveland National Forest we leave the road and climb a hill. Mikolich parks by a house trailer to talk to the caretakers of this ranch, to let them know what he’s doing. He takes several jars of honey along — wildflower, buckwheat, orange, sage.
Another half-mile in, we reach an open area, a kind of basin surrounded by mountains. Palomar Mountain is off to the southeast. Nearby on a hillside is a citrus orchard. The sun is going down and the sky is a deepening red over the western hills. The first evening star is brightening. It’s been a hot day, but a cool air, a sea breeze, is drifting through. I say, several times, that it’s an extraordinary night.
“It’s like this, picnic days, all the time,” Mikolich says. I’m beginning to turn envious, of his daily travels in life. “In spring,” he says, “it’s green here. Streams flow through.”
It’s just getting dark when he begins to load hives on the truck. To do this, Alan Mikolich uses a cleverly engineered contraption —a hydraulic boom 24 feet long, a swinging arm with cables and 16 pulleys that culminate in a hand truck operated by push buttons. With it, he can walk up to a hive, lift it onto another one, pick up the pair, a load of more than 200 pounds, and lift them effortlessly onto the bed of his truck.
As he works, there’s the whir of pulleys, the sound of the scraping and sliding and pressing of wood against wood.
I walk ahead of him with the smoker, puffing clouds into the hive entrances to keep the bees calm. And while we work, between the lifts, I keep looking around, watching the sky change, the reds falling away, the blues deepening, the stars brightening. The Pacific air, a touch of the desert in it, drifting against my face. It’s times like this that make you remember that you’re alive, that you’re supposed to appreciate being alive. That you’re not supposed to forget you’re alive.
He stacks the hives six to a row, two tiers high. He can go ten rows deep and load 120 hives on a truck, but there are only about 100 hives here. Stopping now and then to set a weak hive aside and to rearrange rows, Mikolich has the truck loaded in about an hour. He ties everything down with ropes. He’s not using nets — they’re only necessary on daytime moves. At night, the bees tend to stay put, and strangely, the hum of the truck engine has a stilling effect on them.
(Which puts us back into the realm of the science fiction concept — the beautiful and mysterious but dangerous insects, stilled by the humming of the diesel.)
We extinguish the smoker and drive off, out of this basin, down the hill, onto the highway, with our load of beehives. The truck lumbers a little heavily now. Down I-15 we go, and then west to La Jolla. Mikolich waits in the truck while I unlock the gate, and then we drive into the bee yard. Beehives look strange at night, lit by headlights— they seem a little interplanetary. Again we light up the smoker, and Alan Mikolich does his magical act with the 24-foot boom and the pulleys. There’s a whirring sound, as hives lift into the air and swoop away from the truck into the field. He walks briskly, like he’s out for a fast stroll. New haphazard and artful rows form in the apiary.
The lights are on in the office buildings a mile away, the buildings with the recent plantings of eucalyptus and other flowering things around them. Tomorrow, when the sunlight hits the hives, the bees will take to the air. The ones that have been here a while will head straight away to the certain locations, ones that are producing. But the bees that have been in hives near the Cleveland National Forest, they’ll take to the air and make ever-widening circles around the hives, memorizing the location. Then they’ll range out, following scent trails, and probably those trails will lead diem to eucalyptus. They'll return to their hives — even if they go to the wrong hive they’ll be let in by the guards, since they’ll be carrying nectar; that’s the way things go—and there they will broadcast their finds by means of dances, the bee language, one of the few symbolic languages, if not the only symbolic language other than ours. With gravity as a symbol for the sun, a run straight up and down — straight against gravity—a symbol for a flight straight at the sun, and with a “vibratory episode” communicating distance, the news of the floral economy around University City will get spread through hive after hive. Day by day, pound by melliferous pound, the hives will gather weight.
Alan Mikolich looks around, and he likes what he sees. He says it again: “Yukes everywhere.” It’s true, the man loves yukes, and who can blame him? After all, there are far worse things to love. There are in fact evil things to love. Yukes are in the realm of goodness. Honeybees know that, they know yukes are a good thing.
We drive out, and by now, after a long day, I’ve become immune to stories about bees. They’re falling away before they even hit my ears. But driving through University City, waiting for the light to change so Mikolich can head to the highway and on to the Tijuana River apiary, I do mention honeybee stings and their benefit to those who suffer from arthritis.
Alan Mikolich says that he has an uncle who lives in Oakland and has arthritis. He brought two hives up to him and put them in his back yard. The uncle went out to the hives regularly and got himself stung all over the place, but especially on the arthritic places. It worked, Alan Mikolich says. He improved.
And, “He also made a lot of honey.”
Douglas Whynott is a freelance writer. He is the author of Giant Bluefin and Following the Bloom. He is now working on a book about Maine boat builders to be published by Doubleday in 1998.