Check your bees

NOW is the time to inspect your bees. Very carefully. And feed them if they are running short. The four-square shingle palace my great grandfather built was the home of my grandfather during my growing up, and he kept house alone except for a widder-woman who came once a week to ''do'' for him. Along one March he told her to help herself to the apples down cellar before she went home. Then he went out to the barn. To get apples, she had to go down the cellar stairs, gained by a door from the kitchen - the kitchen being the only room in the house ''het'' in winter. This she did, and when grandfather returned to begin to think about supper, he was sorry for his generosity.

Farmhouse cellars had no heat; it would shrivel the vegetables. But they never got cold enough to freeze anything. When Gramp got the last of his turnips into their cellar bin, he would close the bulkhead tight and cover it with hay. Fir boughs went all around the foundation, and he would pack everything with snow at the first storm. The foundation had no windows, so with that insulation the cellar kept somewhere around 40 degrees F. And sometimes a lantern or candle would burn out for want of oxygen.

The house was 35 feet square, which would have made an adequate cellar except for the central chimney base. The chimney had eight flues - two for the kitchen, the others for parlor and chambers. The base, accordingly, was 15 feet square, which left a walk-around cellar only 10 feet wide. The bins for vegetables and some 10 or a dozen kinds of winter apples took up most of the room, and one side was shelved for jams, jellies, preserves, and pickles. Then there were two-three casks of vinegar, a hogshead (hokset!) of salt pork, and some stone crocks with eggs put down in waterglass. Hams, bacons, and numerous traces of onions, were suspended from the beams.

You might think a cellar closed up thus and filled with such goodies would smell like a farm cellar closed up thus and filled with such goodies, but it didn't. It had a reeking sea-spray flavor from the salt-slacked pollock Gramp kept hanging from nails in the cellarway. They were handy for chowders and fishballs, and Gramp liked to snack from them. He'd chew a piece, and then go to the sink and pump a bumper of water. There was only one winter that Gramp put his bees down cellar.

Bees do not hibernate. They stay active in the hive, generating their own heat from the stored honey they eat, and moving about on the combs. In subzero weather a healthy hive maintains a comfortable temperature. But if a beekeeper removes too much honey in the fall, a colony can run short and there will befall what is improperly termed ''winterkill.'' A better word is starvation. And, of course, in a mild winter a colony uses less honey than in a severe one. As I say , now is the time to check your bees and see how they are making out.

My grandfather talked to his bees and said they always answered him, so he knew these things well and never had any trouble bringing his many colonies through. But as he meditated he realized that if he could keep his beehives warmer during the winter, he would have more honey for himself and the grocery store. So, experimentally, he trundled three hives from his apiary, one at a time, on a wheelbarrow and carried them down to be lined up under the preserve shelves. After winter set in he would pause, whenever he went down cellar, to tap on the lids of the hives, and the bees would tell him they were doing fine. He had drawn a plausible conclusion about how much it would mean to him in surplus honey if he had room for a dozen hives.

Then the widder-woman opened the cellarway door and went down to get a peck of Baldwins to carry home.

There's little doubt about what happened. Gramp hadn't told her about the bees, so when she went down she left the cellarway door open. Light thus penetrated the cellar, the bees thought the winter was over and the time had come to seek nectar, and they all boiled up into the warm kitchen. She, with her basket of Baldwins, came back up, probably screamed, and departed, never to return. Gramp came from the barn to find a peck of apples on the kitchen floor and 10 million bees in magnificent confusion.

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