A local gentleman bee keeper stirs up childhood memories of my father's love of the bees and honey.
I have an aversion to honeybees.
Yes, I know they are a keystone species and our ecosystem depends on their work for balance. My parents may be responsible for these negative feelings toward the hard-working, well-organized honeybee. You see, Dad practically lived outdoors and even the bees were his friends. Electric company right -of- way workers, hunters and timber men came to our home to tell Dad when they had spotted a “wild bee” tree or they had noticed a bee swarm. His eyes lit up and the preparation began to bring in the swarm or move the colony from the bee tree to a hive at our home.
He always worked with minimum equipment. When capturing wild bees from a bee tree or a swarm, he wore a bee veil, (wide brim hat with a veil to cover his face), and carried a bee smoker. The smoker is a contraption that works somewhat like an accordion; it’s a box with leather bellows and a metal spout. He gathered up old rags and stuffed them in the smoker for a slow burn and thick smoke. He would squeeze the bellows and the smoke would roll out. He once said the smoke settled the bees. He carried a pair of old work gloves to handle the bees, and a burlap sack for transporting them to their new home on the farm.
The bee hives were located in a row near the front of the house in the midst of our play area, the field, meadow and creek; an inconvenience to us, but to him and the neighbors, who were farmers and coal miners, bee hives were a status symbol. Now back to my parents being responsible for my shameful, negative feelings towards the honeybee. Bee stings were a common occurrence. After she, female bee, hit me with her ovipositor (stinger) full of venom for no known reason, I immediately began to swell around the area of the sting. Bee stings were painful and itched for days. I would run into the house with an arm, hand, or side-of-my face swollen twice its normal size announcing I was hurt. Mom or Dad would ask, “What’s wrong?” Seeing no blood, they assumed it was minor. I would show them my swollen limb or eye expecting a great deal of sympathy. One look and they would remark, “Oh, it’s just a bee sting.” Mom would mix up a little baking soda and water into a paste, smear over the swollen area, and send me back out the door to play as if the sting were no more than a figment of my imagination.
a swarm occurred in the woods or from one of our bee hives, Dad was
summoned immediately.And when there was a bee swarm, meaning the old queen bee had been pushed out of the hive by a younger queen bee; she took thousands of her workers with her. They hovered, after attaching themselves to a tree limb, jagged rock, or corner of the house, in an oblong solid looking mass, humming, and doing the waggle dance. The waggle dancers turned and swirled, making a figure eight pointed in the direction of the prospective new home. Each dancer tried to convince the group, their choice was best. There is a great deal of discussion among the swarm, explaining all the noise.
When a swarm occurred in the woods or from one of our bee hives, Dad was summoned immediately. Time was of the essence. If he were not around, then, a neighbor would step in. In other words, the bees are not hanging around long. This departure from the original home had been planned and they would have at least four or five prospective new homes nearby. The swarm is a congregation so that a decision can be made about which home to choose. Dad always responded to the call with as much enthusiasm as possible from a 6’4” rail thin, laid back outdoorsman, who got warning tickets for driving too slow. He gathered his hat with the veil, bee smoker, gloves, burlap sack, and handsaw in case the bees were attached to a tree limb and needed to be sawed down. After the bees were captured, making sure the queen bee was included, he gingerly and tenderly, as if they were a new born baby, carried and placed the bees in their new home, a white square box, a bee hive. Honey or sugar water was placed inside the hive for food and as enticement to make our home, their home.
Dad enjoyed the quarts of honey harvested from the hives as a natural sweetener. He left some of the comb in the jars. He would hold a quart of honey up to the light and smile at what nature had provided for him. When someone in the community died, a miner got injured on the job, or someone was baptized, Dad often gave them a jar of honey as a token of friendship. Dad was a beekeeper.
A gentleman farmer by the name of David Brammer has come to town here in Summersville, West Virginia. David grew up a city boy in Huntington, West Virginia and surprised even himself upon retirement by moving to the country to take up farmer’s duties. He and his wife, Bobbie, moved back to her roots and bought a 192- acre farm up a one lane paved gravel road. Bobbie wanted to retire to the beach and still laments over the luxuries of city life.
David spent 31 years with the Federal Government mostly in DC. Thirteen were spent oversees.
In the first spring on the farm, David and Bobbie planted various berries and vegetables but the harvest was lacking. David noticed there were no bees around the place to pollinate their crops. Kermit Salisbury, a long-time bee keeper, sold David two hives and told him a thing or two about beekeeping. Even though Kermit’s information was invaluable, David went in the hole the first year.
In his second year of beekeeping, he obtained two more hives. Now, he owned four beehives. He placed two hives in each corner of his garden. Now, in the Federal Government they would call that placement, “good strategy,” but in beekeepers, they would call that placement, good strategy for “getting multiple bee stings.” Later, he found the bees a new home about 50 yards away from the garden and they all became better friends.
The bees did their work and their berry and crop production increased considerable. His nearest neighbor, one half mile away, commented that his cucumber crop had never been better. David’s bees got the credit.
The number of beehives, called an apiary or bee yard, increased to 12 hives. He placed the hives in a row as he had seen others do. Then, David read that when hives are in a row, some bees may get confused and lost. They can’t find their way back home and sometimes they are attacked by guard bees and killed. It is the duty of the guard bee to keep strangers out, at all costs. Honey bee foragers have the reputation of being able to fly up to miles away and return to within a foot of where they started from in most climatic conditions.
Back in 1919 an Austrian zoologist asked the question, “Does color -vision in bees exist?” Through experiments they soon discovered the answer is, “yes.” They can see colors below red and into the ultraviolet. Red looks like black to them and they have five eyes for vision; two compound and three simple.
This intrigued David, so he began an experiment. He painted the hives to aid the bees in getting home. The four colors chosen were, pastel shades of yellow, green, blue and purple. Two hives were painted with each color.
In the spring of 2009, new packages of bees, a queen and three pounds of workers with some drones, were placed in the newly colored hives. All of the colored hives performed as well as the white hives; however, the bees calling the yellow hives home, performed exceptionally well producing a surplus of honey for harvesting.
In spring 2010 a new color was added—“bubble gum pink.” Now David’s bee yard looks like it had a visit from the Easter Bunny. “All the colored hives did well and there has been less drifting,” David said.
Author’s note: In 2006 honeybee colonies suddenly began to collapse across the United States. Honeybees are essential for production of more than 90 food crops. The losses of the colonies, reproduction cycle and pollination process threaten the honey and pollination industries.