New Horizons Writers Group

Bees, Bees: Holy Smoke!

Bob Hirt

My Dad, a dairy farmer, was the consummate beekeeper. It always appeared to us kids that he was in his total heaven working the occasional Sunday afternoon in his various bee yards in the area’s farming community. Of course, farmers were happy to have well-managed honeybees on their property for they were responsible for pollinating the apple or pear orchards on their farms. At times my father had a total of up to 150 colonies of honey bees in the local orchards. When spring came he’d placed his order for bees and they would arrive at the train station in neat little screened boxes with the queen bee tucked safely into her own smaller screen box within the larger one. Father would pay us a nickel each to hammer together the wooden frames with the wax membrane secured within their borders. They would be the foundation for these ingenious little critters to build their store of honey for the future. Their hives are their pantry for the daily food supply and in all reality also their IRA, with “no penalty for early withdrawal!”

It is claimed by some that bee venom has great value in the fight against arthritis and my father firmly believed in that theory. He knew almost intuitively how to manage bees. It was rare that he was stung, for he knew, possibly through the experience of years at this craft, that bees keenly sense the attitude of the bee handler. They can smell anxiety, anger, and how the handler treats them. If he was occasionally stung he would gently pick the insect up by its wings and remove it without fanfare. Killing a honeybee causes a familiar sweet scent to be released which triggers others to take action since it disturbs their sense of quietude immediately. Additionally, colors, odors, vibrations, weather, time of day and seasons all play a part in the behavior of honeybees.

When fall came it was time to take the honey from these unsuspecting workers, but leaving enough in their pantry for them to survive the long winters of the East coast. They had very little to say about the matter. They would angrily leave the hive and circle around our veiled heads protesting such a larcenous act with the most audible and angry buzzing. Only a few well directed puffs of smoke by one of us would tend to settle them down. Smoking them with smoldering burlap is a well-recognized and accepted way of calming down irate hives of honeybees.

In a good year it was not unusual to take frames of honey, each weighing upward of 20 pounds and to extract or separate the honey from the hexagon-shaped cells so beautifully constructed by these master craftsmen. Our entire family was involved in this venture. After using a steam knife to melt the wax covering over the cells of honey we would, by way of an extractor, spin out, with centrifugal force, the amber liquid within. One year, in the late 1940s we had over 3000 pounds of clover honey to take to market, most of it put up in five pound pails. Father even had some customers in New York City to whom he shipped what he referred to as his liquid gold.

Insects are the largest of all families in the animal kingdom. And bees are part of that family. There are known to be over 10,000 types of bees. Yellow jackets, with which we are all familiar, are actually not part of the bee family. Rather, they are part of a different group known as wasps.

The intelligence of bees has long been underestimated. The worker bees, the drones, the forager bees and the queen bee all comprise part of a bee colony. When a source of nectar is found the direction in which fellow bees are guided to that source is well documented. Each bee is given a minuscule taste of the procured nectar and then in a very intricate dance done by the worker bee, the others are directed to that source. So intricate is that dance performance that it has been shown that, since the sun moves one degree to the west every four minutes a calculation is made by the dancing bee to allow for that movement and then adjust the flight pattern accordingly. Even the distance to that source of nectar is calibrated and noted in the lead bee’s guidance system. Who would ever imagine that these little creatures are endowed with such unbelievable intelligence?

It is more than a little ironic that many years later I, as a veterinarian, was called to a farm on a Sunday afternoon to examine a small Jersey cow that was lying in a shallow creek. Farmers love to let their cattle roam in their orchards. It can be difficult to keep weeds and overgrowth from around the trees with a cutting mower but cattle can easily keep brush and weeds under control. The cow got too close to a bee hive and was stung around the face; apparently she panicked and butted her head onto the hive tipping it over. That apparently unleashed the angry bee colony to the point of self defense; running wildly through the bee yard she tipped over still another hive of bees. Blinded by her swollen eyes she attempted to cross a stream bed and fell. While not drowning she lay there for over two hours and the toxins of the stings caused massive swelling around the poor wretch’s face, neck and front quarters. Fortunately, the farmer, a family friend, called in desperation and in fear of losing the animal. Thankfully, when I arrived the bees retreated and I was able to inject intravenous fluids, and a steroid as well as an antihistamine intramuscularly. I stayed in attendance for almost an hour, left on a quick errand to another nearby farm and then returned to witness a rather dramatic improvement in the animal’s condition. She recovered uneventfully overnight.

My brother waxes nostalgically on those years when we were youngsters. He still manages to take care of a hive or two of honeybees and, if lucky, probably reaps just enough honey for the occasional stack of pancakes. I, on the other hand, prefer to be as far away from them as I can be regardless of how intelligent they are! Thank God we don’t all love the same things!