I saw a picture on Facebook today that reminded me of a honey of a story. I’ll call it “Mr. Ed and the bees.” I have had a lifelong fascination with honey bees. When I was kid we would go visit my uncle Art and Aunt Christine. They lived in a cool place in Brainerd near the Mississippi River. Uncle Art had a two story workshop, heated by a wood barrel stove. He collected model T cars. He restored and rebuilt wagon wheels. He made dog sleds and kids wagons. Coolest of all, he was a bee keeper.
I fondly remember having golden honey on fresh bread at their house. I was fascinated by the white boxes he kept in his workshop in the winter. I’ll never forget when he carefully lifted the lid to show us the bees. Sluggish in their semi-dormant state, they emitted a low hum. Scary and exciting at the same time.
My maternal grandparents lived about a mile from us. In the upstairs of Grandpa’s granary under a thick layer dust there were several of these white boxes. According to my Uncle Raymond, Grandpa used to have many hives of bees which he kept under the stand of plum trees. Grandpa had retired, the boxes tucked away and forgotten.
One summer, mid July I think, something happened in our granary where we stored oats. Threshing season was only a week or two away when the bees moved in. I know, because it was my job to sweep out the bins. Unfortunately the bees noticed me before I saw them and they made their presence known by giving me a good stinging. “Put some mud on the stings,” Dad advised. I did, the pain subsided, I went back to investigate, from a safe distance.
About that time my Uncle Raymond stopped over. “They’re honey bees, Italians, I’d say. Must be a swarm that moved in.” He was always good at explaining things and told me how colonies of bees split in two when they get too full of bees.
“What can I do?” I asked.
“If I were you, I’d catch them and put them in a hive and raise honey.”
“I don’t have a hive to put them in.” He left and soon returned with a dusty old box.
“Put them in here. Make sure you get the queen. She’s the big bee.”
The thought of having jars of golden honey to put on fresh baked bread slathered with butter helped me overcome my fear of the little stingers. The first thing I had to do was fashion a bee hat. I got an old straw hat and some screen-door screen. I put on a pair of dad’s coveralls and yellow chore gloves and I was ready to go in. The bees saw me coming.
I remembered something else Uncle Raymond said: “Calm people work bees with their bare hands. Bees can smell fear.” The way they acted, I was really stinking. The first action required a claw hammer and a pry bar to open the wall. Trust me, that really ticked them off. Buckets of fear laden sweat poured off my brow and ran down my back. Did I mention it was about 90 degrees?
Wall open, I discovered a huge mass of angry bees. “Gotta find the queen. Look for a bigger bee.” His words ran through my mind. I’ll admit I looked, but I didn’t study the mass. By this time, the bees had located a small hole in the coveralls just above the right knee. I could feel them crawling on my leg. “Bees sense fear. Remain calm” I told myself. I sensed that my time and luck were running out, so I did the next best thing. I started scooping bees and putting them in the hive hoping the queen bee was in there somewhere. When I had several gobs in the hive I slammed the lid. He didn’t tell me slamming the lid is a sign of fear. I quickly confirmed this when the squadron of Italian honey bees launched their attack inside my coveralls.
My escape was made with lightning speed. Anyone watching out the picture window of the house must have wondered what the heck was going on when I flung off the makeshift hat and coveralls and headed for the muddy barnyard. For the next few hours the angry confused bees flew around the yard, chasing off everyone including the dog.
“Bees don’t fly at night” Uncle Raymond said. I waited until way after dark before cautiously approaching the hive. It was quiet, except for the internal hum. “YES! I got-um.” I moved the hive under the plum tree. By fall it would be full of honey. Remember that part about the queen? No queen, no honey. I’m pretty sure it’s true.
A few years ago, bee fever hit me again. This time I got it from my buddy Mike. He had several hives.
“Can I buy one” I asked “Sure.” I picked it up after dark and brought it home and put it under the plum tree. Visions of honey danced in my head.
“Any tips?” I asked. “Just make sure you divide the hive before they swarm.” “How do you know when they will swarm?” “When they make another queen. Look in the hive and check. She is the big bee.”
I am at work. It is mid afternoon, mid July. Phone rings. It is Matt. He is old enough to be home alone. “Dad, there are bees all over the yard. What do I do?”
“If it were me, I’d stay in the house, the bees are swarming.” By the time I got home, the bees were gone. I guess they couldn’t decide what queen should leave so they both left. Foiled again.
Years passed, Matt grew up and left in search of his future. Last spring my brother Ron called. “Mann Lake is taking orders for bees. Want some?” Without thinking too much, I said, “Sure.” I readied the hive and waited. The day came to pick up the bees. I drove down to Brainerd. The bees came in a six-by-six wooden cage. They buzzed menacingly in the back seat of the car. I got home and waited for dusk to release them in the hive.
For some reason I couldn’t locate my bee helmet. No problem. I had a helmet that came with my sandblaster. It fit down to my shoulders and had a glass plate to see through. I found a pair of coveralls and a roll of duct tape. I taped up all the holes in my Carharts and wrapped my ankles to keep the bees out of my boots. Somehow I managed to tape the sleeves to my leather gloves. I wasn’t going to make that mistake again.
I retrieved the box of bees. They hummed louder, anticipating their impending freedom, possibly catching a scent of fear. I slid the hive cover open and removed two combs. I felt sweat starting to drip down my back. I fumbled with the little pry bar I had brought to open the cage. It slipped, clattering on the metal hive cover. The buzzing increased by a couple decibels. I recovered the bar and lodged it between the cover and the box. The nails yielded. The top fell free. Bees began to realize freedom was now in their grasp. The scouts began to investigate the masked figure that exuded fear.
About now, my head, covered by a bee proof and nearly air tight canvas helmet began to sweat profusely. My moisture-laden breath began to condense on the glass. My vision began to cloud. I fumbled with the box, tipping it upside down shaking bees into the hive. Hands shaking, I still had to remove the queen from her capsule. By this time, the glass had completely fogged over. I was working blind and running out of time. In my haste, the duct tape sealing the helmet to the coveralls, began to fail. Driven by the scent of fear emanating from a neck line crack, a squadron (sound familiar?) of angry bees launched an attack.
Did I mention Mrs. Ed and DJ. were observing this from a safe distance? By the time I ripped the helmet from my head, they were both laughing. I thought they were going to fall over when I started slapping myself and tried to undo the duct tape holding the gloves on. He’s got bees in his pants. Ha Ha Ha. “Can somebody please get me some mud?”
I had high hopes as I watched the bees work the plum and apple trees. As the summer wore on, I noticed the hive never really grew. I surmised something happened to the queen. No sweet golden honey this year. In the meantime I ordered a real bee suit. Now I am just waiting for the new Mann Lake catalog.