Making a Beeline For the Woods in September

This time September arrived graciously on schedule and not with a morning to make young ladies stand about and shiver. In the gentle salubrity you might have heard me say, ''Oh boy! What a day to line a bee!'' For many years now, it has been illegal in Maine to strike out in the fall and hunt for a hiding place of wild honey. I do not attempt to figure out all the reasons our state legislature cooks up for enactment excuses, but I did ask about this one. People who line bees, I was told, intend to steal the honey they find, and it doesn't belong to them. I couldn't argue with that, so I just ignore the law and line bees only for the joy of being in the September woods. I'm glad our Maine legislature hasn't yet tried to amend my memories. The usual good time was had by all. This time I began by bringing a long ladder and looking on the high beams for the beelining box I have had since I was wee and went with Grampie. I went to the house to borrow some comb honey from the larder for bait, to cajole a lunch, and to ask, ''Want to go line a bee?'' Instead of the ''no'' I should have received, I got a reminder that the pastime is still unlawful, and how was it going to look when the paper came out saying I was in jail? ''That law,'' I said, ''was enacted to make the criminal element use more cane sugar, and there isn't a bee in Maine that knows about it.'' Then she said, ''No.'' I put a knife-load of honey into my little bee box, wrapped my chicken sandwiches against pocket erosion, and strode off o'er hill and dale to celebrate the happy arrival of Maine's best month. You never saw such boundless beauty and serenity as crowded upon me as I went along. I think it's a good 60 years now since I lined a bee and brought home any honey. I assume our Maine law excludes the recreational amateur. Perhaps many people haven't realized that a considerable part of Maine gets along without honeybees. There are no honeybees in the wilderness valley of the Allagash River. Other insects do the blossom chore, if it gets done. Now and then a swarm will escape from a down-state apiary and establish itself as a wild colony in the area, but the season of honey flow is short, and an Allagash swarm doesn't store enough food to carry it through the long winter. Bees do not hibernate and need stored food until spring blossoms again. Even in beekeeping parts of Maine, apiarists feed sugar-water to their colonies if needed. So a big hullabaloo about stealing wild honey has its smile side. More to the point, wild bees like to locate in hollow trees, usually an elderly maple, and if a wild colony is found the tree is cut down to get the stored comb honey inside. Most sensible farmers would have cut such a tree before it rotted its heart. Besides, cutting a tree on another man's land has been illegal in Maine since early colonial days, bees or no bees. If I felt like tackling a bee tree I'd found, I would find the owner and offer to cut his old tree into cordwood for him and bring him a washtub of honey. The other three washtubs would be mine. Fall flowers decorate September, and I walk about until I find some bees. It won't be long to frost and snowfall, so every bee is busy. I open the hinged cover on my beelining box and get ready. Inside, my dab of pantry honey is waiting for a bee. (And let us remember that all bees out in the field gathering nectar are neuter. It offends them deeply to be addressed as Miss, Madam, or Sir.) I select a candidate, remove it from the blossom, and put it in my box. I then close the cover because the bee is mad at me. It buzzes and fusses and carries on inside the box, and uses invective and calumny until I am ashamed of it and hold my hands over my ears. But the little dab of honey shortly engages the attention of the prisoner, and it loses its mad and begins to fill up, soon stuffing its little transport satchel so it can hardly waddle. It is ready to fly to the colony with its swag, and who is stealing honey now? I can see this through the glass fitted into my box cover, and I let the bee go. A bee thus picked off a blossom and thrust willy-nilly into a covered box is perplexed about its whereabouts when released. It is great fun to watch it ascertain the latitude and longitude, which it does by flying a couple of circles overhead, and, once re-oriented, it takes off like a bullet in what is often called a beeline. It will be back. The time it is gone tells me how far away the colony is. When this first bee, having put its purloined honey in the colony comb, returns to steal another load, it will have one or two bees with it, cousins from its own hive curious as to where it got its load. Before too long, each bee has brought bees, and a real line of bees is going and coming, so I can walk along looking up and find the colony in the end. If you want, you can use two little trap boxes, setting them apart after a while so the position of the colony can be triangulated to the inch. One time, enticed by the September sun, I had my lunch and fell asleep with my head against a soft rock. I woke to find my little box, by my count, full of 379,684,833,792 bees, all waiting for me to rouse. They had cleaned up my dab of comb honey and had carried it home. They were waiting for me to refill. It's no use to try to tell a bee anything. They lack ears.

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