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.
Sorry, I have been a lurker for a long time and now must tell you how impressive you are. A woman of many talents!! Thank you for blogging, I love your wit, pictures, and writing. Someday I want to see your bayou, until then thanks for teaching me about it.
Hi T – Welcome to the bayou and thanks for coming out from behind that curtain and commenting!!! Your words make this blogging venture worthwhile. At least I know a few folks are reading and learning. My continued goal is to introduce the world to the rich culture and way of life experience here in the Louisiana wetlands. And why don’t you consider doing one of the Bayou Woman Weekends? Just pick a season and start saving up.
Great post! Have you thought of a book about your life on the bayou?
Dear Kim, we really do need one of our girl visits! You just might have to fly to New Orleans and let me kidnap you for a couple days. Find something for Sam to do while you’re gone!! Yes, I CONSTANTLY think about that book—I’m sure I’ve told you or at least I’ve mentioned on this blog that I discovered Marjorie Kinnan-Rawlings books about life in the Florida Everglades and hammock in the 90’s and fell in love with her. She was a writer from up north somewhere, and she moved down there and stayed. (our stories run parallel) She would visit the locals with her notebook in hand collecting stories to write for magazines like New Yorker, Harper’s, et. al. and before long, her editor was encouraging her to write books using the local characters. She did, and she was amazing–but she was a “short story” writer first. A couple of the readers here have been dogging me about posts that could be tweaked into short stories, but it feels like I’ve injured my creative writing skills by writing journalistically for the past three years. But that book is brewing and brewing in my soul. It truly is. All in due time.
I second Teresa, you are truly a woman of many talents!!! They say if you suffer from pollen allergies, taking a tsp of LOCAL honey will desensitize you..I have been looking for some from around here…its hard to find. I fell in love with the book “secret life of bees” and can only imagine the joy of beekeeping..but alas, I am too allergic to try it…ive already had one anaphylactic shock., it was no fun. I keep liquid benadry in the house at all times now.
Your writing & life stories keep me coming back, Your photography takes me there…now if you could just perfect smellaputer…..lolol….keep writing!!!
order of clarification: that would be one tsp of honey every day….just in case anyone else would like to try it. but never give a child under 2 any natural honey.
The benadry may not stop the severe allergic reaction, but will slow it down until EMS can arrive. liquid form enters the system faster than the pill, which has to dissolve before it starts to work. just fyi.
Yes, SweetM. You are right about very local honey helping build immunities to local pollen allergies. Makes sense, too. I don’t intend to get stung again, but I will keep the liquid on hand when I get my next hive.
The honey from your bees is priceless. I’ve had some of my local honey and it doesn’t come anywhere near the goodness of your’s. I’m hoarding the last little bit that remains from your bees! I continue to mourn the bees lost to Rita.
Dear, dear Katy, I had a jar of liquid gold for you at the wedding and it never made it out of the vehicle simply because I had other things on my mind, like how to be the mother of the bride!!!! But I have another jar for you, and maybe I could transfer it to a plastic one and ship it to you! Those bees might have been mean, but they did make a lot of honey, honey!
I sure do enjoy your stories. The bees remind me, one day I thought I heard a plane flying low. When I looked it was a big cloud of bees. There must have been thousands. They made a home in one of our trees for a season. Neat to see.
Susie, it’s so good that you came back here and you weren’t just being polite by stopping by in the first place!!! I hope I can hone my story telling skills and weave some of the more interesting ones into our late nights during BBWW! And I guess you know that big cloud of bees was a swarm, gathering up to follow the queen. If wild honey bees can survive down here, I definitely did my part to repopulate them because my colonies would produce several swarms each season. They would leave the hive and spiral upwards like a cyclone of bees, and it’s true–the humming was so loud, it was almost electric!!!
Your story reminded me of the one time I got into a particularly aggressive hive which would not have been a problem except for the small hole in my veil. I ended up with about 20 stings on my head including one on my eyelid and one on my lip. I looked kind of funny for a while.
We could have used your “Whispering” skills at our church. We have a hive in the wall right behind the choir. Palm Sunday I noticed about 50 dead bees on the floor behind me. It seems when the roofers were there that week they disturbed the colony. I guess they sprayed something to kill them. We’ve tried in the past to get a beekeeper out there to get the Queen. It”s been a problem off and on for about 8 yrs. We think they’re gone and then they swarm inside the church. Thank goodness they have not all left the hive on a Sunday morning. We have streaks on the wall where honey has leaked down .
When I was a kid our neighbor had hundreds of hives at his mom’s farm (which is no longer farmland and is now in the middle of Baton Rouge) I spent many an hour helping his kids restring the frames. I found out years later they got paid 10 cents a frame. I didn’t even get a jar of honey!
Oh, the joys of beekeeping 🙂
Wow, what a harrowing tale of the hybrids!
Off subject but…Just got around to reading yesterday’s (Baton Rouge) newspaper, and what did I read, you say? A very nice article about Bayou Fabio and his Alligator Gar fishing business.
It appeared in the local paper about a month ago. Did the AP pick it up or something? I mean, who wrote it for the Advocate?
Mmmmm! Wendy’s Gold
Choup – Please return empty jars for refills! LOL!
Such a bummer that the hurricane took your girls…but have hope…try again…bees need beekeepers now more than ever!
I have tasted that honey – Honey and there is NONE to compair it to! I have savored every drop and licked the counter top if a drop went astray, dont picture that ok….. I sure have missed you!!!! My puter pooped on Friday night and I am just coming out of the stone ages again!
This was a GREAT story, I love when you give us a story like that! You are truely a great story teller BW!
So glad you’re back, Heidi, I missed you too! We do get attached to our blog readers, don’t we? LOL! I’m glad you liked the honey. Is it all gone yet?
BW, the article in Sunday’s paper was written by Robert Zullo (Houma Courier) and was credited as an “AP Outdoor Writters Exchange”.
Yes and no – there is about 5 drops left in that little bear container… I am saving it for a bad day, so I can use it to lift my spirits… I may have to cut the bears head off and lick the inside clean though.
Wendy, you never cease to amaze me. You have such a full and exciting life.