I’ve been reading about beekeeping over at Flimsy Sanity. They’re endlessly entertaining creatures – although a bit anal-retentive (do bees have anuses?) – in their perfectly ordered societies. No wonder Sherlock Holmes kept them as a hobby.
Poor But Sweet
My grandfather and two uncles were beekeepers. They lived in a remote West Virginia holler, so poverty-stricken that their tar-paper shack was one step up from a homeless person’s cardboard box. Baths were taken in a creek behind the house. The toilet was a two-hole, open pit outhouse where old, crinkly Sears catalogs served as paper. Water came from an open, leaf-choked spring about 1/2 mile from the house. Wood chopped from near the spring heated the place – although one year they disassembled the dining room and burnt it in the single pot-bellied stove when the snow was too deep to cut wood.
As a boy of 12 or so, I clearly remember electricity coming to the holler courtesy of a spool of wire on the back of a mule and tree-mounted insulators leading from the gravel road atop the high ridge. Food was a combination of spuds, corn, and cabbage from a rock-strewn garden, supplemented by squirrel and coon killed in the surrounding hills. A dozen chickens had the run of the place, sometimes coming into the house in the summer. They laid eggs under the house where I collected them immediately before being fried in lard. Ten or 12 beehives provided sweetener for coffee and fresh biscuits.
The three men of the house were practiced beekeepers, able to understand the intricacies of bee life and capable of gathering fresh bees into the fold by carefully moving wild bees into their pitiful homemade boxes. As my grandfather grew older, my uncles tended the bees more and more. They wore thick clothes tied off at the sleeves and ankles and topped with netted pith helmets for protection. They always approached the hives hesitantly, armed with smokers – small containers with a bellows atop and smoldering rags inside. Sprayed into the front of the hives, it induced a lazy euphoria – a sort of marijuana high encouraging the bees to be less active. But even with the protection, the uncles suffered stings and yelled loudly in pain each time.
Zen and the Art of Beekeeping
But watching my grandfather was a zen experience. He connected with the bees in a supernatural way, a sort of “bee whisperer” who understood them better than most folks understand their neighbors. He rarely wore the beekeeper getup and gave the bees the most fragile of highs.
He approached the hives slowly and methodically, creeping so slowly the bees must have considered him a tree suddenly sprung up from the ground around the hives. With bare hands, he gently scooped the bees away from their front door, opened the tops of the hives, and slowly drew out honey-dripped screens full off comb and royal jelly. He softly brushed the bees off the screen and removed the gooey gold. The bees never seemed to mind his benevolent robberies of their sticky home. They rarely stung him for his efforts.
As a suburban kid raised on refined sugar I didn’t like honey. But as the years flew by I adjusted and came to love the sweet nectar spread on fresh biscuits and in my tea. When I eat it today, I flash back to those visits over home and think of my grandfather, the bee whisperer, gently going about his business while the bees went about theirs. The old man may have been achingly poor, but his relationship with the bees kept him spiritually fed.
And, that’s just not something you can say about fresh squirrel meat in a pool of red gravy.