Of Bees and Men

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

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.

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

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