Buzzing Through the ABCs Of the Much Maligned Bee

With due allowance for my unfailing good fortune, I received a swarm of bees for a Daddy's Day gift this year, and Old Saw says it's worth a silver spoon. But I did not keep it or cash it in. I put it in a brown paper bag and gave it to a gentleman one town over, Mr. Eugene Tolman, who thanked me and said to keep him in mind should I chance to come upon another swarm that nobody wanted. Fifty odd years ago, I was myself an apiarist and would gladly have added a gift of bees to my collection.

In my time, I had also been giving away swarms of bees to grateful recipients, until I had achieved some notoriety for it. I retired upon the sad occasion when they mailed me a petition that somebody started up. It was signed by the entire population of our township, except for Homer Porter who was in New Zealand at the moment and unavailable. I used what my bank now calls a ''random methodology'' in presenting somebody with a swarm of my bees.

That is, when one of my hives parturitioned to surprise me and I didn't have an empty hive ready to receive the newborn, I would walk slowly in the other direction until I found somebody sitting in hopeful posture at an idle cribbage board, and I would linger until I felt my swarm had found a home in somebody's keyhole, or perhaps in his letter box. If, au contrairily, I had an empty hive all ready to go, I would put my surprise swarm in it and would forego cribbage for the nonce.

This may seem a haphazard way to keep bees, and it was. There are also ways to prevent an established hive from swarming, and sometimes I'd try that. But my public-spirited nature preferred to let a hive swarm to live in a keyhole, because I believed solidly that a home and a neighborhood that doesn't have bees is lacking. It was a small thing for me to let a swarm go now and then in terms of the great joy it bestowed on the community.

The common honeybee has been abused. There are numerous insects similarly equipped that constantly wreak great surprises, but the victim always comes running home with the cry, ''A bee stung me!'' The very idea that anything save a bee ever stings is humorous, as per the following:

There was a young man of Dundee,

Who was stung on the arm by a wasp....

For trillions of years, honeybees have faithfully flown this earth, bringing abundance to man's fruits and vegetables. But the minute some kid tosses a stone at a hornets' nest, the kid runs home because a ''bee'' stung him. It has been my hope to get a swarm of honeybees into every home in the land until the truth hushes this canard forever. I never knew a honeybee to sting anybody except my Aunt Martha. Nothing else liked Aunt Martha either. There was something about her.

But essentially my generalization is true. Bees live under an absolute dictatorship. If the normal conduct of the hive is not disturbed, each bee has its set duty that it cannot question or shirk. The male bee, laughingly called a drone, has no stinger anyway. The queen, the only female in a hive, can sting, but reserves this only for another competing queen, which I'm told she does purely for political reasons before the victim is hatched.

The neuter bees, thousands to a colony, all have stingers, but the rules forbid using them except to defend the queen or the colony. Yes, I know you didn't know this.

When I was small and would go in the summertime to visit my grandfather on the farm, an ancient apple tree stood on the edge of the front field, close by the town highway. It produced Red Astrachan apples, a variety good to eat briefly in early summer. It would make delicious applesauce and pies, but it was great to pick up in the morning before the dew dried and keep in your pocket as needed. The Red Astrachan was not a keeper, so we never picked it for market, but every morning the ''drops'' would get picked off the ground for sauce and munching.

So when the Red Astrachans began to show red, and would soon be ripe, my grandfather would put a beehive under the tree to deter incipient thieves who came along the road and would step in to have an apple. This would keep away all the people who think bees sting people, but Grampie and I would walk down every morning with a small basket to get the drops. The air under the apple limbs would be full of bees, already going and coming on the day's honey harvest.

We never paid attention to the bees, and the bees, under strict orders to gather honey, paid no attention to us. Anybody going along the road could have had an apple. As soon as the Red Astrachans were done for the season, Grandfather would move that hive out to his cucumber patch, not to thwart thieves, but to work the cucumber blooms.

When the neuter bee, which is the worker, flies far enough, its little wings begin to wear out. When they've worn down so the bee can't fly his load of nectar back to the hive, it expires in the sweet summer field, and the hive will provide a new worker to take its place.

My grandfather showed me how to reach down gently and grasp a worker bee on the landing board of the hive, taking it by the wings. The bee, thus interrupted, construed this as an assault on the castle and queen, and I could see just how it works its stinger when duty calls. I could also tell if it were full of honey and see how old it was by its wings. There can be worse things in life than a swarm of bees.

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