Of Bees and Men

Beekeeping is a dying art, but it offers sweet rewards.

August 1977By Comments

Illustrated by Tom Ballenger
Illustrated by Tom Ballenger

People who have had occasion to know honeybees tend to have strong feelings about them, though such occasions are growing rarer in a mainly urban world. As often as not, the feelings come out as aversion, because bees can sting and where there is one bee there are generally thousands more. The other members of my own family, all female, are pretty much of this persuasion, and when I am working—or playing or whatever it is—in the little apiary beside the garden, with veil affixed to head and smoker stuffed with smoldering burlap, I can count on being left severely alone. They do, however, like what the bees produce and are skilled at uncapping combs with a hot knife and spinning them in the extractor and straining and bottling the honey during the various times of harvest in spring and summer.

A good many other people—I guess it will be taken as chauvinistic if I say they are mostly male, but they are—are from the time of their first experience with bees seized by fascination with them, as I was and am. Time and again I have seen it happen here at the place, especially in April and May on pretty weekends when friends drive out from the cities to visit, and my hives, freed from the winter’s long torpor and swollen with newborn workers, are likely to be in a swarming mood. A roar starts in the bee yard and a swirling tower of frantic, happy, golden bugs rises, to settle finally with their queen in a fat cluster dangling from some nearby limb, from which way station they will send out scouts to find a new abode. The sight is exhilarating and somehow awesome for old hands and neophytes alike, though the beekeper’s enjoyment of it may be tampered with mild disgust at the fact that his early spring manipulations in the hives, designed to prevent such divisions and thus to increase his take of honey, have yet once more been thwarted by the bees’ potent instinct to be fruitful and multiply and spread themselves through the world.

But having failed in that, he needs at any rate to catch the swarm and start another hive with it. So he fetches his paraphernalia—a new hive box with frames and wax-comb foundation, a saw or pruning shears, a ladder and catch bag, maybe, if the swarm is high—and dons his veil and fires up his smoker. And at about that point, nearly always, some of the visiting friends start wanting to know if there are extra veils for them. There are, so they take part in the whole thing with him, helping or hindering, but with dogged interest sticking to the end even if he bungles and, as I did once latlely, manages to drop the sawed-off limb with the swarm while descending the ladder and create a large-scale angry uproar. Swarming bees are gentle creatures, full of honey and looking for home, but no bees stay gentle if mishandled. At any rate, after he has finally gotten them to the new hive and shaken them in and driven them down among the frames with puffs of smoke and has squatted there watching for awhile to make certain he has caught the queen and they are going to stay, the friends start asking questions. They’re not sure what they saw but they’re convinced it was worth seeing, and they want to know as much as they can about it.

Yes, there was a new queen left behind in the old colony, which will build up its strength again before fall. No, you can’t put the swarm back where it came from, not without much more elaborate and skilled machinations than I am willing to undertake. Yes, it’s a nice big bunch of bees, maybe eight or ten pounds, but it probably won’t make more than just enough honey this summer to get itself through the next winter, which is after all the bees’ main purpose that we seek to warp to our own ends by building oversized colonies and trying to keep them intact. And as the questions continue I know quite certainly that a couple of new beekeepers have been created, if they ever get a place where they can set up a few hives of their own.

But with chances of such conversions getting scarcer, I suppose that, on the whole, public opinion in relation to our ancient small friend the honeybee is rather queasy. The news media, for which alarm and threat are the fodder of daily function, have much to do with this. Bees equal stings equal copy. Hence the march of Brazilian-African “killer bees” up the Isthmus of Panama and toward our own tender skins is always good for a little delicately horrified conversation when sex, football, and politics pall, and no spring is complete without newspaper and TV coverage of two or three or more swarms of bees that have clustered on unlikely objects such as traffic lights or motorcycle handlebars or baseball backstops. The beekeeper who is called in by the authorities to take the swarm away is inevitably hailed as Saint George rescuing the public from a menace. If before his arrival said public has perpetrated some of the common idiocies, like swatting the swarm with poles or pelting it with stones or squirting it with water or fly spray, old Saint George may deserve a bit of acclaim, for a menace has indeed been created and people have been getting stung, as George himself will be too before he manages to stuff his several thousand enraged bees into a box or a bag. But most often he does the job swiftly, easily, and safely and ends up with the esteem of his fellow men plus maybe thirty, forty, or fifty dollars’ worth of insects, at current package-bee prices, for very little labor.

When people lived mainly in the country and in small towns, more of them had an easy, friendly familiarity with bees and their habits, based not only on the presence of hives in back gardens and alongside fields and roads but also on the very old practice, shared by man with bears and other sweet-prone beasts, of robbing wild colonies of their accumulated hoards of honey—and in primitive times and places of their tender young grubs as well, a high-protein snack that has somehow lost favor in these days. On the wall of a rock-shelter in eastern Spain, archaeologists found a painting, dating by one estimate from 15,000 B.C., which shows men with ropes and baskets inflicting such larceny on bees ensconced in a hole in a cliff. The bees are depicted as very large and excited and the human thieves are undoubtedly getting hell stung out of them, but, insofar as the graceful sketch allows one to judge, they seem happy at their work.

As well they may have been. Honey is the only concentrated sweet that can be used in its natural form without processing, and it was the only concentrated sweet that Europeans knew at all before the advent, at some point in the so-called Dark Ages, of sugar, which for a number of centuries thereafter was a scarce and costly item. Honey was the old sweet, the real sweet that men have always known.

At an unknown but very early date, people learned enough about bees’ ways to start keeping them in hollow logs and inverted pots and baskets and other such receptacles, and a liking for honey extended into a respect and often a reverence for the wee beasties who knew how to make it. By the time of the First Dynasty in Egypt, around 3000 B.C., beekeeping had taken on a bit of sophistication and involved such practices as floating large numbers of clay tube hives up and down the Nile on rafts to take advantage of the bloom of nectar-producing flowers here and there, and the Pharaohs appropriated the sign of the bee as a personal symbol. The corpses of Assyrian notables were painted with wax and submerged in honey for entombment; the Old Testament holds pleasant references to apicultural products (“My son,” said the Solomon of Proverbs, “eat thou honey, because it is good; and the honeycomb which is sweet to thy taste…”); and few nature-minded thinkers of note in classic times, from Democritus and Aristotle down through Vergil and Columella and Pliny, failed to pay their respects to Apis mellifera and to add to the store of information and misinformation that was piling up. Medieval monks advanced the art a bit, and in more recent times a series of discoveries by bright men who got themselves hooked on bees, like me and my April friends, led to the more or less scientific management prevalent today.

This management has nothing much to do with the “domestication” of bees, which remain basically wild creatures, even though particularly gentle or productive strains have been identified and promoted and spread around, and hybrids deliberately bred from them for vigor. What it mainly consists of is techniques for guiding their complex wild instincts toward greater usefulness—techniques of hiving and adding or subtracting space and manipulating colonies for their own well-being and for a bigger yield of honey. It is, of course, still possible to keep them in the old ways, and for a nonscientist like me there is sometimes a temptation to do so, when modern methods go agley and fail of their main purpose. An old man who died here in our cedar hills three or four years ago maintained dozens of colonies in gutted TV cabinets, surplus ammunition boxes, Styrofoam ice chests, and whatnot, worried very little about them, and got a lot of honey too.

As Old World men spread over the globe they took their sweet tooth and their Old World bees along with them, often supplanting native species like the tropical American stingless bees, whose honey and wax were demanded by the Incas as tribute from conquered jungle tribes long before Columbus. New England settlers brought honeybees, as did Virginians and others, and the Spanish introduced them into Mexico and our present Southwest. The bees took it from there, dispersing into the wild as escaped swarms and moving so far ahead of the white frontier that they became part of the untamed Indians’ way of life as well. In Texas, for instance, the main southern band of Comanches, by the time history took much note of them, had assumed the name of Honey-Eaters. They did not take on sweetness of nature with it, though. Like moderns who get their honey in supermarkets, they were willing enough to let others take their stings for them—one account exists of naked white captives being dangled on lariats by such Comanches down a cliff face to rob a hive in a crevice, much in the manner of those Mesolithic Valencians, except that the captives do not appear to have been very happy about the whole thing.

But I do not want to dwell overmuch on stings. If you duff around with bees the fact is you do get stung a little and sometimes more than that, but nearly always though your own awkwardness or haste or because out of pigheadedness or necessity you go into the hives on a chilly or wet day when the workers are all at home and waiting around for something to resent. In good times, say during the May-June flow of nectar from the sweet clover that we nearly always sow in fall among the winter grain, the bees at their work pay you little mind and you can play with them and study their progress for days on end without a single sting. Nor, with time, do the stings seem to matter as much; you take those that come with relative calm, not only because you’ve learned that jerking about and swatting merely lead to more stings but also because, unless you are one of the occasional hypersensitive types, you have developed a sort of immunity to them. It always hurts when a bee prongs you hard, but after a couple years you stop swelling and itching. And for that matter, stings may be good for you. According to folklore and the lore of beekeepers, bee stings can prevent and alleviate some cases of arthritis.

Others say good honey will that same ailment, and once it was used as antiseptic for wounds, since germs do not live in it. In recent years an Oklahoma allergist has made a case for pure and unprocessed honey—not subjected to heat and only coarsely strained, unlike the pretty commercial stuff—as a cure for much hay fever and asthma. Suspended pollen does the trick, apparently, and I believe the recommendation is that the honey be taken from bees working within fifteen miles or so of where the sufferer lives, and that it be swallowed in small quantities each day. Unfortunately for a good many of us, this cure isn’t like to work on allergies to plants like cedar, which blooms in winter while the bees are holed up sucking on last summer’s honey.

Bees open your eyes to all sorts of matters around you—to weather and winds and soil moisture that affect the prospects of honey, to creatures like toads and tanagers and skunks and dragonflies and wax moths that prey on your hives in one fashion or another, though seldom to the point that they have to be fought off. But most of all to plants—to the multitudinous species of wildflowers and blossoming trees and shrubs that bees work during the week or two of their glory, and to those more useful blooms of wild or seeded things (here mainly sweet clover and vetch and mesquite and sumac, and maybe a few miles off a completely different array) that last for five or six weeks and in good moist seasons provide a “honey flow” for your aggrandizement and the bees’. Or sometimes for theirs alone, as with broomweed, which makes an unpleasant dark honey, but flowering as it does in fall, packs the hives with fuel against winter.

As students of plant life, beekeepers tend more toward pragmatism than toward scientific detachment. An occasional misfit gets led astray into aesthetic or purely botanical realms of interest—not being wholly practical myself I have sinned a bit in that direction. But your real hard-lined dedicated apiarist focuses his considerable powers of discernment on a restricted field of botany—specifically on nectar-yielding plants within a mile of wherever he has a set of hives, which is about as far as he can expect his bees to wander foraging. He distinguishes among plants, too, according to the flavor of the honey they yield and takes a dim view of things like prickly ash, broomweed, and privet, whose product is unpalatable to most human tongues. Such a man’s eyes miss very few flowering things and he is full of information if you can get it out of him. But a rare orchid from the jungles of Darien could spout miraculously one morning on one of his pasture oaks, and unless bees were sipping its fluids his gaze would very likely pass along elsewhere.

Sad to say, all is not well with beekeeping nowadays. Here in our limestone hills, which though pretty and private were subjected to agricultural ruination so long ago and so thoroughly that they’re not worth trying to use intensively, we have so far escaped the main threat—insecticides. But in small towns not far away, where until rather recently little beat-up backyard apiaries were a common sight, only a few stubborn beemen keep trying, sorely beset by the Sevin and Malathion and chlorinated hydrocarbons with which most householders now slather their yards and gardens. And in rich farming regions of the state, especially where cotton is grown and regularly dusted and sprayed, the number of gives has diminished hugely since the old days. The most notable commercial honey production in Texas now, I believe, is in the brush country south and west of San Antonio, where catclaw and mesquite and guajillo and whitebrush and such things bloom in crazy profusion whenever rainfall permits. But even there trouble looms in the form of bulldozers clearing the land for crops or pasture grass. So maybe battered, relatively useless corners of nowhere like ours are best for keeping bees.

Uncommercially, at least. We have no blooms wild or tame that would sustain hundreds of hives in a yard or thousands through the region. In present economic terms keeping bees on a small scale doesn’t really make much sense, any more than do most other small-scale rural projects. On a dozen hives each averaging a hundred pounds production of honey each year, which is a good bit more that I usually get but not as much as a more dedicated apiarist can expect, you can gross at present bulk wholesale prices about $500. This can be upped considerably by peddling bottled honey around and swinging whatever retail sales you can. But when you put your hours and your investment in equipment into the balance, you’ll probably find that you’d have been better off sacking groceries or digging postholes for hire. But then neither do Winnebagos or season tickets at the Astrodome make economic sense and they require a good bit more outlay in both time and cash from those who cherish them than do we rustics’ undomesticated, melliferous bugs. Therefore, the hell with economic sense, at any rate in terms of bees. Our bones well know, if our brains do not, that dollar values have nothing to do with the pleasure of watching the hives’ intricate functioning through the seasons, of botanizing pragmatically or otherwise, of storing up great jugs and carboys of precious golden stuff and using it during the year and giving it away at Christmas, of making mead, of catching swarms and the rest.

Not to speak of all those free stings one gets for one’s arthritis.

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