Of Bees and Men
From a Limestone Ledge
A good many other people - I guess it will be taken as chauvinistic if I say they are mostly male, but for whatver reason this is so - are from the time of their first experience with bees seized by fascination with them, as I was in my first turn. Time and again I've seen it happen here the pplace, especially in April and May on pretty weekends whn friends drive out from the cities to visit and my hives, freed from the winter's long torpor and swollen with newborn workers, are likely to be in a swarming mood. A roar starts in the bee yard and a swirling tower of frantic, happy, golden bugs evolves in the air above it, to settle finally with their queen in a fat cluster dangling from some nearby limb, from which waystation they will send out scouts to find a new abode. It is an exhilarating and somehow awesome sight for old hands and neophytes alike, though the beekeeper's own enjoyment of it may be tempered with a mild disgust at the fact that his early-spring manipulations in the hives, designed to prevent such divisions and thus to increase his take of honey, have yet once more been bilked by the bee's overriding instinct to be fruitful and multiply and spread themselves through the world.
But having failed in that, he needs to at any rate to catch the swarm and start another hive with it. So he fetches his paraphernalia - a new hive box with frames and wax comb foundation, a saw or pruning sheers, a ladder and catch bag maybe if the swarm is high - and dons a veil and fires up a smoker. And at about that point, nearly always, certain of the visiting friends start wanting to know if their are extra veils for them. There are, so they take part int he whole business with him, helping or hindering but with dogged interest stickig to the end even if he bungles and, as I did once last spring, manages to drop the sawed-off limb with the swarm while descending his ladder and creates large-scale angry uproar. Swarming bees are gentle creatures, full of honey and looking for a home, but no bees stay gentle if mishandled. . . At any rate, after he has finally gotten them to the new hive, shaken them in, smoked them down among the frames, and squatted there for a while watching to make certain he has caught the queen and they are going to stay, the friends start asking questions. Unsure of what they've seen, they're convinced it was worth seeing and they want to know as much about it as you can tell them.
Yes, there was another queen left behind in the old colony, which will regain its strength agian by fall. No, you can put the awarm back where it came from, not without more elaborate and skilled machinations than a hacker like me wants to fool with. Yes, it's a nice big bunch of bees, maybe eight or ten pounds, but because of the effort it will need to expend building comb and reading new generations of workers, it probably won't make more than just enough honey this summer to get itself through next winter, which is after all the bee's main purpose that we seek to pervert into surplus production for our own greedy use. Yes, no, maybe. . . And as the questions continue I know quite certainly that a couple of new beekeepers have been created, if they ever get a place wher they can set up a few hives of their own.
But with opportunities for such conversion getting scarcer, I supose that one the hole public opinion in relation to our ancient small friend the honeybee is rather queasy, especially since widespread ignorance causs said small friend to get blamed for many stings inflicted by wasps and other ill-natured hymenoptera. The media, for which alarm and threat are the fodder of daily function, have much to do with this. Bees equal stings equal copy. Hence the uncertain march of Brazillian-African "killer bees" up the Isthmus and toward our own tender skins is always good for a little horrified conversation when sex and football and politics pall, and no spring is complete wihtout newspaper and TV coverage of two or three or more swarms of bees that have clustered on unlikely objects such as traffic lights or motorcycle handlebars or baseball backstops. The beekeeper is called in by the authorities to take the swarm away is inevitably hailed as a Saint George rescuing the public from a menance. If before his arrival the public in question has perpetrated some of the common idiocies like swatting the swarm with poles or pelting it with stones or squirting it with water or fly spray, old Saint George may deserve a bit of acclaim, for a menace has indeed been created and people have been getting stung, as George himself will be too before he manages to stuff his serveral thousand enraged bees into a box or bag. But most often he does the job swiftly and easily and safely and ends up with the esteem of his fellow men plus maybe thirty or forty or fifty dollars worth of insects, as current package-bee prices, for very little labor.
When people lived mainly in the country and in small towns, more of them had an easy, friendly familiarity with bees and their habits, based not only on the presence of hives in back gardens and alongside fields and roads but also on the very old practice, shared by man with bears and other sweet-prone beasts, of robbing wild colonies of their accumulated hoard of honey, and in primitive times and places of their tender young grubs as well, the latter being a protein-rich snack that has somehow lost favor in our time. On the wall of a rock-shelter in eastern Spain, archaeologists found a painting, dating by one estimate from 15,000 B.C., which shows men with ropes and baskets infliciting such larceny on a colony ensconced in a hole in a cliff. The bees are depicted as very large and excited and the human thieves are undoubtably getting hell stung out of them, but insofar as the graceful sketch allows one to jusge they seem happy at their work.
As well they may have been. Honey is the only concentrated sweet that can be used in its natural form without processing, and it was the only concentrated sweet that Europeans knew at all before the advent, at some point in the so-called Dark Ages, of sugar, which for a number of centuries thereafter was a scarce and costly item. Honey was the old sweet, the real sweet that men have always known.
At an uncertain but very early date, people learned enough about bees' ways to start keeping them in hollow logs and inverted pots and baskets and other such receptacles, and a passion for honey extended itself into a respect and often a reverence for the wee beasties who knew how to make it. By the time of the First Dynasty in Egypt, around 3000 B.C., beekeeping had taken on a bit of sophistication and involved such practices as floating large numbers of stacked clay tube-hives up and down the Nile on rafts to take advantage of the bloom of nectar-producing flowers here and there, and the Pharaohs appropriated the sign of the bee as a personal symbol. Assyrian notables' corpses were painted with beeswax and submerged in honey for entombment; the Old Testament holds pleasant references to apicultural products ("My son," said the Solomon of Proverbs, "eat though honey, because it is good; and the honeycomb which is sweet to thy taste. . ."); and a few nature-minded thinkers of note in classic times, from Democritus and Aristotle down through Virgil and Columella and Pliny, failed to pay their repsects to Apis mellifera and to add to the store of information and misinformation that was piling up. Medieval monks advanced the art a bit, and in more recent centuries a series of discoveries by bright men who got themselves hooked on bees, like me and my April friends, led to the more or less scientific management prevalent today.
This management has little to do with the "domestication" of bees, which remain essentially wild creatures capable of surviving on their own, even though particularly gentle or productive strains have been identified - even bred - and then promoted and spread around. What it mainly consists of is a set of techniques for guiding their complex wild instincts toward greater usefulness - techniques of hiving and adding or subtracting space and manipulating colonies for their own wellbeing and for a bigger yield of honey. It is, of course, still possible to keep them in the old ways that date back forever, and for a non-scientific type like me there is sometimes a temptation to so when modern methods gang agley and fail of their main purpose. An old man who died here in our cedar hills three or four years ago maintained dozens of colonies in gutted TV cabinets and surplus ammunition boxes and cracked Styrofoam ice chests and whatnot, worried very minimally about them, and got a lot of honey too.
As Old World men spread over the globe they took their sweet tooth and their Old World bees along with them, often supplanting native species like the tropical American stingless bees, whose honey and wax had been demanded as tribute from conquered jungle tribes by the Incas long before Columbus. New England settlers brought honeybeesm, as did Virginians and others, and the Spanish are said to have introduced them into Mexico and our present Southwest. The bees took it from there, dispersing to the wilds as escaped swarms and moving so far ahead of the white frontier that they became a part of the untamed Indian's lore and way of life as well. Here in Texas, for instance, the main sorthern band of Comanches, by the time history took much note of them, had asumed the name of Honey-eaters. They didn't take on sweetness of nature with it, though. Like moderns who get their honey in supermarkets, they were willing enough to let others take their stings for them; one account exists of naked white captives being dangled on lariats by such Comanches down a cliff face to rob a hive in a crevice, much in the manner of those immortalized Mesolithic Valencians, except that the captives don't appear to have been very happy about the whole thing.
But I would not want to dwell overmuch on stings. If you duff around with bees the fact is you get stung a little nad sometimes more than that, but nearly always through your own awkwardness or haste or because out of pigheadedness or necessity you go into the hives on a chilly or wet day when the workers are all at home and waiting around for something to resent. In good times, say during the May-June flow of nectar from the sweetclover that we often sow in fall among the winter grain, the bees at their work pay you little mind and you can play with them and study their growing larvae and the buildup of honey for days on end without a single sting. Nor with time do the stings seem to matter as much; you take those that come with relative calm, not only because you've learned that jerking about and swatting merely lead to more stings but also because, unless you're one of the rate hypersensative types, you've developed a sort of immunity to them. It always hurts when a bee prongs you hard, but you stop swelling and itching afterward. One old hawknosed fellow I knew long ago used to work his crude box hives quite ungently wihtout a veil and with only a burning roll of old quilt for a smoker, hacking out full honeycombs wiht a butcherknife, and when he got through, that great beak of his, that veritable prow, would be so stuck full of stings it looked furry, but it never turned red or enlarged. His eyes didn't even water.
For that matter a reasonable amount of stinging may be good for you. In reinforcement of what has been observed for centuries among elderly apiarists, some quite respectable medical authorities think bee venom helps to prevent and alleviate certain forms of arthritis. Others say good honey will help the same affliction, and once it was used as an effective antiseptic for wounds, since germs do very poorly in it. In recent years in Oklahoma allergist has made a case for pure and unprocessed honey - not subjected to hear and only coarsely strained, unlike the pretty commercial stuff - as a cure for much hay fever and asthma. Suspended pollen does the trick, apparently, and I believe the recommendation is that the honey be taken from bees working within fifteen miles or so of where the sufferer lives and that it be swalled in small quantities each day. Unfortunately for a good many of us it has no effect on allergies to things like caret-mold and dog hair that does not interest bees, or our Texas juniper whose pollen permeates the air in winter while sensible bees are holed up sucking on last summer's honey.
Bees open your eyes to all sorts of matters around you - to weather and winds and soil moisture that affect the prospects for nectar, to creatures like toads and tanagers and skinks and dragonflies and wax moths that prey on your hives in one fashion or another, though seldom to the point that they have to be fought off. But most of all to plants, to the multitudinous species of wildflowers and blossoming trees and shrubs that bees work during the week or two of their glory, and to those more useful blooms of wild or seeded things (here where I am, mainly sweetclover and vetch and mesquite and sumac, and mayube a few miles off a completely fifferent array) that last for five or six weks and in good moist seasons provide a "honey flow" for your aggrandizement and the hives'. Or someties for theirs alone, as with broomweed, which makes an unpleasant dark honey smelling faintly of dirty socks but, flowering as it does copiously in fall, packs the hives with fuel against the winter.
As students of plant life, beekeepers tend more toward pragmatism than toward scientific detachment. An occasional misfit gets led astray into esthetic and purely botanical realms of interests; not being wholly practical myself I have sinned a bit in that direction. But your real hard-line dedicated apiarist focuses his considerable powers of discernment on a restricted field of botany, specifically on nectar-yielding flora within a mile if wherever he has set his hives, which is about as far as he can expect his bees to wander foraging. He distinguishes among plants too, according to the flavor of the honey they yield, and takes a dim view of things like prickly ash, broomweed, and privet, who product is unpalatable to most human tongues. Such a man's eye miss very few flowering things and he is full of information if you can get it out of him. But a rare orchid from the jungles of Darien could sprout miraculously some morning on one of his pasture oaks, and unless bees were sipping its fluids his gaze would vary likely pass along elsewhere.
All is not well with beekeeping nowadays. Here in our limestone hills, which though pretty and private were subjected to agricultural ruination so long ago and so thoroughly that they're not worth trying to use intensively any more, we have so far escaped the main threat - insecticides. But in small towns not far away, where until rather recently little beat-up backyard apiaries were a common sight, only a few stubborn bee men keep trying, sorely beset by the Sevin and Malathion and chlorinated hydrocarbons with which most householders now slather their yards and gardens and trees. And in rich farming regions of the state, especially where cotton is grown and regularly dusted and sprayed, the number of hives have diminished hugely since the old days. The most notable commercial honey produced in Texas now, I believe, is in the brush country south and west of San Antonio, where catclaw and mesquite and guajillo and whitebrush and such things bloom in crazy profusion whenever rainfall permits. But even there trouble looms in the form of bulldozers clearing the land for crops and pasture grass. So maybe battered, relatively useless corners of nowhere like ours are best for keeping bees.
Uncommercially, at least. We have no blooms wild or tame that would sustain hundreds of hives in a yard or thousands through the region. In present economic terms keeping bees on a small scale doesn't really make much sense, any more than do most other small-scale rural projects. On a dozen hives, each averaging a hundred pounds' production of honey each year, which is a good bit more than I usually get but not as much as a more dedicated apiarist can expect, you can gross at present bulk wholesale prices about six hundred dollars. This can be upped considerably by peddling bottled honey around and swinging whatever retail sals you can. But when you put your hours and your investment equipment in the balance, you'll probably find you'd have been better off sacking groceries or digging post holes for hire.
On the other hand Winnabagos and season tickets at the Astrodome don't make much economic sense either, and they require a good bit more outlay in both time and cash, from those who cherish them, than do we rustics' undomesticated, melliferous bugs. Therefore the hell with economic sense, at any rate in terms of bees. Our bones know well, if our brains do not, that dollar values have nothing to do with the pleasure of watching the hives' intricate functioning through the seasons, of botanizing pragmatically or otherwise, of storing up great jugs and carboys of precious golden stuff and using it during the year and giving it away at Christmas, of making mead, of catching swarms and the rest.
Not to mention all those free stings one gets for one's arthritis.