The Bee Whisperer

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A bee beard at the fairMy grandparents lived in a remote West Virginia holler. The closest telephone was a mile away. They hunted for their meat, raised potatoes, cabbage, and carrots along with a few scrawny chickens. Because they were too poor to keep livestock, my grandmother helped till the garden wearing a horse collar and pulling a plow.

They lived in a tar paper shack with a boulder for a front porch and they cooked and heated with wood. Out of necessity, they burned the dining room one winter when the snow became too deep to chop wood. Water came from an open spring about 1/4 mile up the mountain and everyone used the same dipper to drink from the tin bucket in the kitchen. I remember when the power company came down the mountain with a mule and spool of wire to bring them electricity. The house had no switches or wiring so they unscrewed the single bulb to turn it off.

And they had bees, perhaps 20 boxes of them.

The Matchbox Queen

Grandad started his hives with queens captured from wild hives and put into matchboxes to swarm the wild bees to his boxes. A big bee swarm is an impressive thing, a cloud moving in perfect unison, accompanied by its own buzzsaw soundtrack, following the matchbox queen.

Wither thou goest my queen, we shall follow.

Grandad tended the bees along with my two youngest uncles. One of them is still a beekeeper. He drives his bees from farm to farm in an old U-Haul trailer and releases them each morning to pollinate the farmer’s fields. He returns at night, coaxes them into the trailer, and drives home for dinner.

I spent dozens of hours watching the three work the boxes. My uncles, expert as they were, always covered themselves in full bee armor. Gloves, thick suits, the familiar screened pith helmets.

Before approaching the hives my uncles lulled the bees with the smoke from burning rags in a small bellows. They smoked until the bees acted like they had been on an all-night weed binge, laid back, talking about the wonders of the universe — “Wow, those humans are so big! Hey, are you getting hungry? Some clover sounds good right about now.”

Soothing the Savage Bee

My grandad almost never felt the prick from the southern end of a northbound bee though. He never wore equipment and his smoke was light and deft. The bees weren’t conked out, they were just a relaxed like a lazy dog on a warm day. He would approach the boxes quietly talking to the bees in a soothing voice and they listened.

He simply raised the tops of the boxes and pulled the racks of comb-laden honey out. As he did so, he carefully brushed the bees off with his bare hands and held the racks over a bucket to drain all that golden goodness. He trimmed the comb as needed and used it, along with the honey, as a sort of breakfast spread on his biscuits each morning. At my grandparents house, honey was the sole sweetener. They were too poor to buy sugar after getting their big loaves of cooking lard and salt.

When he was done, he reversed the process. A little more smoke. A careful bee brush. Slide the rack in and quietly close the box top. Then it was on to the next hive.

I lived in the midwest for a time where bee and honey festivals are common. There are fried honey-covered treats, honey butter, honey candy, and honey ice cream. Vendors sell beekeeper garb and keepers trade stories about their business like insurance agents discuss insurance policies amongst themselves.

At the end of the annual “Bee Parade” the high school band usually forms up around a glass-walled box for the festival’s climax. A little Sousa starts up and a man climbs into the box. He wears a matchbox containing a queen around his neck on a string. Not always, but sometimes, he sits in his chair without the full bee costume. As the bees gather one by one around the matchbox he carefully brushes them together in a mass. He pushes this way and that and soon the swarm takes shape.

Bee BoxesBee Beards Ain’t From ZZ Top

They are slowly forming a beard, sometimes a rather long beard. Not a long and stringy ZZ Top beard, but a thick, full mountain man beard down over the man’s chin and ending on his chest under the amassed bees. They are brown so look a little like a real beard, except alive with movement. If the bee man is confident, he might stand and walk around the clear box or carefully move the matchbox to simulate the beard blowing with the wind. It is mesmerizing.

But even the best of these men get stung. You can see them flinch in the bee voyeur’s box and there are usually some welts around their necks or on their hands. It is a small price to pay for such great entertainment on a late summer day in a small midwestern town.

The stings told a story though. These men, as adept as they were still felt the burn of the stinger. Several worker bees would play kamikaze for each performance protecting the queen and their homeland, the hive. My grandfather never flinched or came away from the hive with welts. My uncles were always amazed by such a feat.

My grandfather always had the knack, the perfect touch that calmed the bees even as he stole the honey they worked so hard to make. He became their king and they protected him in much the same way they protected their queen. He did all this using a finely tuned sense of nature. He used to tell me you had to think like a bee and treat them with respect. Not respect in the sense that you had to be on guard, but the respect that one creature shows to another.

I used to walk deep into the woods with him to collect hives and help dip the honey from the bucket into countless Mason jars. He taught me a little about bee behavior, like how they dance to show the others the way to the best flowers. He showed me how they gathered at the entrance slit of the box taking turns madly buzzing their wings to cool the inside of the hive. But I never learn all he knew, just as my uncles never did. In fact, I’m not sure that you could learn what he knew. I mean how do you think like a bee?

Well, a Bee Whisperer knows by his heart and not by his head.