Springtime. Flowers. Blooms. Pollen. Nectar. Honey. Bees. Bees?
When was the last time you sat in your yard in the middle of a clover patch surrounded by wild honey bees? Probably not since your childhood.
Chances are, if you do see a honey bee, it belongs in a white box in someone’s back yard. Wild honey bees are a very rare thing these days due to pests like varroa mites and wax moths, which they can’t battle against in the wild. (We can treat for them in the hive boxes, though.)
And just how might I know that? I’d like to tell you that I wrote The Secret Life of Bees, but I’d be lying. It’s because I once had a secret life of beekeeping.
And I often wondered what kinds of secrets my bees kept in the dark, deep recesses of their hives. I must tell you, though–it all began with LilSis and her husband.
LilSis and RenRed, started the gentle art first, about 15 years ago. When RenRed introduced me to his bees, I was mesmerized and intrigued, even letting him practice bee venom therapy on my psoriasis.
On the next Father’s Day, RenRed and LilSis sealed up one of their hives and brought it down the bayou–a gift for The Captain. Yes, it was my idea, but I just knew he would love keeping bees.
Those north Louisiana city bees became bayou bees in no time at all. RenRed taught us the basics of beekeeping, and I read a couple books and a bunch of back issues of Bee Culture. We even joined a beekeeping club and drove two hours–one way–to meetings once a month.
Since the bees at RenRed’s were so docile, I had no fear of them. Not having a suit or helmet with netting or gloves, I just pushed my hair up under a baseball cap and handled them calmly and quietly.
By the time the first spring rolled around, The Captain insisted on having all the protective gear and the smoker before we harvested our first honey. We looked like aliens, and I certainly felt like one.
The idea is to smoke the opening to the hive, making the bees think they are being invaded. They then gorge themselves on nectar/honey and by the time you take the top off and smoke them really good, they are preoccupied enough that you can remove the honey-laden frames with relative ease, brushing off the excess bees before taking the frames into the house.
The key is to be patient, move slowly, quietly and practice the “gentle art of beekeeping” the best you can.
In spite of the hot, cumbersome gear, it was exciting to take out the frames loaded with the sweet goodness and then spin it out with a hand-cranked extractor.
The first taste had me hooked. Saving the wax from the comb had me hooked. I couldn’t wait to make candles. With wildflower honey costing up to $5 a pint and craft store beeswax going for $14 a pound, these bees were definitely worth their weight in wax and honey!
By the third year, we had made friends with an elderly man who kept bees in town. He shared his knowledge with us and brought us several swarms he had collected around town. Before long, I was getting calls to go get nuisance swarms for people.
When the bees get crowded in early spring, part of a hive decides to leave with their own queen and start a new colony. When she takes off, they follow her. It’s true love, because where she leads, they will follow. It’s the secret of her lemony Pledge aroma.
When she lands, they surround her in a tight clump, literally clinging together. Usually, they are weighed down with food, having gorged themselves for the journey, making them easy to capture.
And in comes the bee whisperer. This particular day, I backed my truck under a low-hanging branch, lowered the tail gate and climbed in, bucket in hand. No smoke. No poison. No panic. Just calm confidence.
Inside the five-gallon bucket was a frame with a little honey on it and nearby was a lid with air holes in it. The home owners watched from behind their screened kitchen door.
With my left hand, I held the bucket just under the ball of bees, grasped the branch with my right hand and gave it a hard downward shake. Phlump! The bees fell into the bucket with a big thump.
I took them home and put them in a hive box that was waiting for them. This would be their new home. Free bees. By this time, we had three strong colonies.
My interest in beekeeping continued to grow, but The Captain changed jobs and had to be gone weeks at a time. Naturally, his involvement with the bees declined. Danno helped me a couple times. Termite even tried to help, but they obviously lacked the bee whisperer gene.
We had begun to notice that some of the bees seemed more aggressive than when we had first begun keeping bees. I had even gotten stung a couple times just walking near the hives. That was not characteristic of the docile bees RenRed had originally given us. I did some research and learned that Africanized bees had infiltrated European colonies in Texas and south Louisiana, resulting in a more aggressive hybrid bee. Could this have happened to ours?
The last spring we harvested honey, The Captain helped me, though he didn’t seemed so thrilled to do so. Bees have a way of detecting agitation. It’s a known fact that if you smash a bee, it releases warning pheromones to the other bees who may become more protective than usual.
The day was hot, the boxes were heavier with honey than ever before, and The Captain wanted to have the task over with.
He said, “Okay, let’s lift this box on three–one, two, three!”
I said, “Wait, it’s too heavy. I don’t have it. Careful, set it back down. Wait! Watch out for those bees! Don’t smash . . . .”
As we tried to set the box back down on the hive, there was a long chain of angry bees hanging from the bottom–some of which got smashed.
Next thing I knew, bees were everywhere. Typically, the guard bees only chase you a couple feet and “bump” you as a warning to stay away. But not these bees!
They formed a cloud of bees like you see in the cartoons and literally chased me–out of the back yard, into the front yard, up the porch steps and INTO THE HOUSE!
They clung to me. They stung me. They put out so many pheromones, even I could smell them.
Hoping my little boys wouldn’t get stung in the house, I raced to the bathroom and closed the door. My helmet and hood were now off. In a panic, I turned on the shower thinking I should hop in clothes and all, but they would not quit stinging me through my overalls, so I jerked them off and ran into the next room and closed the door, not turning on the light.
With bees buzzing madly in my long hair, I frantically smashed them against my skull with the balls of my hands.
I could hear The Captain in the bathroom killing bees. When I heard his hand on the doorknob, I screamed at him not to open the door.
Now, several years later, I can’t tell you how long it took me to smash the last of those bees; but the next thing I remember is sitting at the kitchen table trying to fuss at The Captain for being so impatient, wanting to blame him for the attack.
As I talked, my words were abbreviated with a little cough–my throat was swelling. There was no Benedryl in the house.
The Captain insisted on taking me to the hospital. We stopped at a friend’s house along the way and I took a Benedryl. Halfway to town, my throat relaxed. The scare was over, so we returned home.
My suspicions of hybrid bees were confirmed. The state inspector in Baton Rouge heard about the attack and called to warn me that I must be very careful because another sting might put me in anaphylactic shock.
The day of the attack of the hybrid bees, they stung me six times on my face, making me look like a chipmunk with swollen eyes. There were about 50 stingers stuck in my overalls, with about 18 of them making it into my skin.
The Captain killed at least three dozen more bees in the bathroom, and I’ve no idea how many I killed with my bare hands.
That winter, the hybrid bees froze. Poor suckers. But the gentle ones lived on.
From that day on, I practiced the gentle art of beekeeping by myself, trying to regain my calm confidence so that I might once again be the bee whisperer of yore.
The next fall, Hurricane Rita drowned all my bees and dashed that dream.
After which, The Captain said, “No more bees.”
To which I said, “Aye, aye Captain.”
So, I’m jarring up the last of that last harvest of our unique-tasting honey, made from the flowers of the marsh and bayou.
And when this honey is gone, what will we do for a taste of that delicious liquid gold? Who knows?
A new box of bees just might find its way into my back yard.