Have Bees, Will Travel: Memoirs of an Itinerant Apiarist

TEN years ago this spring I received a phone call from my father-in-law: ``We're down here in south Florida. We've stopped at an apiary, and I have ordered a beginner's kit for you; it should be there in a few days. Assemble your beehive as soon as you get it. The bees will be arriving at your house in about 10 days.'' A sudden fright took over, and I quickly stammered, ``You shouldn't have done that; I, uh, I don't have the, uh, time to fool around with bees. I mean I'm not yet ready to handle bees.''

The die was cast - the purchase was made, and there was no polite way to decline this unusual gift.

My interest in bees began during my first year of teaching a college-level linguistics class. I became interested in animals' communicative systems, and was especially fascinated with the bees' ritual dances. I thus made the mistake of telling my father-in-law that I would one day buy a hive of bees to carefully study the bee dance in order to share the knowledge with my students. Besides, having a hive in the backyard would not only help pollinate the vegetable and ornamental flowers, but it would also provide the family with a reliable supply of honey.

The beginner's kit (complete with pre-cut wood, nails, smoker, hat, veil, gloves, frames, beeswax frame lining, tools, instructions, and a book on beekeeping) was quickly assembled and painted. I read and reread the book, and I solicited the assistance of an experienced beekeeper. If he would only help me in introducing the bees into the hive (I rationalized), then I would have the whole summer to work through my fear and learn to handle bees on my own.

I shall never forget the anxious look on the face of the UPS delivery man. Rather than bring the package to the door, he asked me to accompany him to the van, where he pointed to a small screen-wire, cagelike structure set at the very back of the van. Even before I saw the package, I heard the buzzing of some 4,000 bees. Breathing a big sigh of relief, the man wished me luck, grinned, rolled up his window, and drove off leaving me with a very angry bundle of feisty insects. The fun was just about to begin.

Much to my chagrin my friend was not to be found. I had two alternatives: I could take the bees to the edge of town and release them in the woods, or I could follow the instructions and do the job myself.

Because the bees had been in transit for about three days, and because they were cramped in the heat, scores of them had died. I quickly reread the instructions, donned my hat, veil, gloves, and plenty of light-colored clothing; I started the smoker and smoked the bees to calm them down; and I carefully removed the queen bee from her separate container and placed her inside her new kingdom. With my wife and three-year-old son giving me their support from behind the safety of a screen door, I proceeded to introduce my new ``pets'' into their hive.

Between coughing spells (due to my inexperienced use of the smoker) and clumsy actions (due to my fear of being stung by an uncooperative host of buzzing friends), the job was finally accomplished. Sensing the queen bee's special scent, the bees promptly settled in, and within an hour they began to forage for pollen, with which they quickly built the honey comb.

I learned much during those few early weeks. All the printed materials I had read began to make sense, and as my scientific understanding of the social structure and life cycles of the colony's occupants began to deepen, I began to develop a fuller understanding and appreciation for God's beautiful creation. That first year I learned to handle bees and harvested four quarts of delicious honey to boot.

Upon hearing that this father owned a beehive from which delicious honey had been extracted, my son's nursery school teacher asked me to speak to her children on the life and value of the bee to mankind.

Once the rumor that a local college teacher was willing ``to give a presentation on bees'' leaked out in the community, elementary level teachers began to invite me to talk about my hobby. Naturally the presentations were geared to the grade level at hand. In my second year of being an itinerant apiarist, I acquired a ``demonstration hive,'' complete with frames and drawn-out honeycomb which I use for the demonstrations.

To those unfamiliar with a man-made beehive colony, it consists of rectangular boxes that sit one on top of the other. The bottom box, better known as the brooder chamber, is where the queen deposits her eggs. Also in this chamber reside the newly hatched worker bees, whose hierarchical re- sponsibilities include building the honeycomb, feeding the larvae, cleaning, sealing, aerating, and guarding the queen and the hive. Upon maturation these working bees forage for food (pollen and nectar), which they convert into honey, which is in turn deposited in the brooder chamber and the other boxes (better known as supers). Once the honey is deposited into the symmetrical pentagonally shaped honeycomb cells, the now elevated young bees begin to cap off the full frames with beeswax. A queen excluder keeps the queen in the bottom chamber, thus separating the honey supers (as many as five) from the brooder super. This makes ``robbing the hive'' easier.

Insofar as the queen is concerned, she leaves the hive only once in a lifetime on what is known as the nuptial flight. Should the old queen cease to be productive, she is either driven out of the hive by a newly hatched queen bee, or she might be killed by a newly hatched queen. Queen bees are hatched in special peanut-like cells, and they are fed a special diet known as royal jelly. The drones, best known for their droning noises, are present in the hive solely for mating purposes. They live high on the hog all summer, consuming honey and droning away. In late fall many of them are expelled from the hive; only a small number of young drones are allowed to stay in the hive for mating purposes. An average bee hive colony will have about 65,000 bees.

The bees' skills at communicating with one another include the figure eight dance, the clockwise and counterclockwise dances. The speed at which these motions are carried out and the speed of the flapping wings performed by the returning scout-foragers tell would-be foragers about the distance, direction, and type of food source. Bees use the sun for bearings, and they have been known to forage as far as 15 miles from their hives.

On occasion I carry my demonstration hive to schools in neighboring towns. It is such a pleasure to sit on the floor with kindergarten children or stand in front of groups of 60 to 70 older students to share my hobby with youngsters and to teach them about the value of the honeybee to the farmer and to the farm economy ($9.7 billion per year).

On these occasions I end my presentation by carrying a quart of honey with me so that children may get a taste of the rich golden liquid. Frequently the teachers serve their students biscuits or hot rolls. Finally, my audience, with plastic spoons in their hands, file past me and dip into nature's vessel of gilded confection.

There is nothing like discovering a hobby in one's vocation and then taking that avocation back to younger children for a communion of ``sweetness and light.''

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