Dreaming of Wild Bees in Trees
My last thought before I fall asleep is of how I’d catch a swarm of wild bees, install them in the crook of an old tree and let them live up there, just like they were living in a hollow old tree. I wouldn’t medicate them, bother them or even take their honey. I just want to watch them come and go with tiny balls of orange pollen on their feet.
The only problem is I don’t own any bees.
Growing Up With Bees
I haven’t messed with bees in almost fifty years. My dad, Art Harberts, raised them in Wilkes County, North Carolina when I was a kid, and I remember him suiting up in his bee suit, grabbing his smoker and walking out to his hives to do whatever mysterious work he did.
My dad smoked a pipe, and there he was under the blooming tulip poplar tree, Dr. Grabow pipe in one hand, smoking bee smoker in the other, looking like he was about to do something important. He’d pull the veil of his beekeeping suit over his head, and smoke would swirl all around him, and it was hard to tell if the cloud of smoke was Borkum Riff, the brand of tobacco he smoked, or the rag smoldering in his bee smoker, the thing that made the smoke he used to puff into the hives to chill the bees out.
Dad would always work bees alone, and I’d stand off in the distance, well out of the way of the bees swirling around him, and watch him work. I thought he was such a total badass for standing in the middle of all those bees swarming around him. He seemed chill, and they seemed chill, and it was just amazing to me that he never seemed to get stung.
I remember the day he asked me to help him tend the bees under the giant poplar tree. It was a bright spring day, and the tulip poplar was blooming its orange and green tulip-shaped flowers, and I pulled on a bee suit for the first time ever. Back in those days, the late 1970s, there wasn’t a miniature version of everything for kids. Kids just wore their parents’ coats, pants, or shirts. Or bee suits.
My First Bee Suit
The bee suit my dad let me use was one of his old ones. It was about shot, with big holes in it, and before I put it on, he warned me not to wear wool. I was so excited that I was going to get to wear the bee suit and help my dad that I wore wool socks anyway, and then I discovered the bee suit he let me use had holes all over it, especially under the armpits and neck. Then he gave me one of his old bee smokers with leaked smoke from multiple holes like a burn barrel, and I considered myself his equal.
We got to the hives, and dad pried the top off one of them. The bees came boiling out, and he said, “Go ahead and give them a little puff,” and I squeezed my raggedy smoker and shot a blob of smoke at the bees piling out of the hive. Instead of mellowing them out, that just pissed them off and a particularly angry bee beelined through one of the many holes in my bee suit.
The bee took a few laps around the inside of the circular veil on my bee suit, buzzed my ear, hunkered down on the nape of my neck, where I couldn’t reach it, and stung the crap out of me.
I jumped, and another bee stung me, and my dad saw me hopping around clutching the folds in the bee suit to kill the bees that had gotten in, and said in his mellow, pipe-cured voice, “Stay calm, Schatz. Bees know if you’re nervous, and that sets them off.”
That’s when I remembered I was wearing wool socks, which my dad had warned me reminded bees of bears.
That really freaked me out, and I must have pumped out a pint of kid fear endorphins because now the bees really piled onto my raggedy bee suit. They crawled in through all the holes, stung me all over, and I ran off, trailing a string of bees and smoke from where I was still holding the smoker.
So that was my first experience with bees.
What I didn’t tell you at the start of this story was that I used to take great pleasure in throwing rocks at dad’s bee hives. At the time (I was nine when this was going on), I dreamt of becoming a major league pitcher. I was getting a pretty good arm and could throw a rock over a powerline, but I knew that was only good enough to be an outfielder, which, as every nine-year-old knows, anyone can do. I knew that to succeed as a pitcher, which not just any grown-up could do, I needed accuracy. Dad’s bee hive was as close to anything I could find as a strike zone, so I figured that would do.
Every time I nailed the sweet spot of the hive (right above the slot where the bees crawled in and out), the wood made a satisfying thunk. Three thunks counted as three strikes, at which point the pissed-off bees came storming out of the slot in the hive and chased me away. I pretended this was like some pissed-off batter I’d just struck out coming after me on the pitcher’s mound. That gave me hope that if the legendary fellow Tar Heel pitcher of the time Catfish Hunter ever threw out his arm, the New York Yankees would call me to replace him.
So, of course the bees jumped my butt the first time they saw me walking up to their hives with my dad. They were thinking, “There’s the little bastard that keeps throwing rocks at our house.”
Bees be a Whole Lotta Work
The other thing that struck me about having to take care of bees, aside from getting stung, was that it seemed like a lot of work.
I remember my dad medicating his bees with sulfer medication to kill something that killed them, which I later learned were veroa mites.
Then, every now and then, he would tell me in a solemn voice, “Schatz, I think the queen died.” I thought that was horrible, but it didn’t tear him up too much. He’d buy a little wood box covered in what looked like mosquito screen, and it would be full of bees, and he’d point at one that was a lot bigger than the rest and had a blue dot on her back and say, “There she is.” I assumed “she” was the queen. Then we’d put on our bees suits and go put her in the queenless hive.
Then there was the time a bear destroyed dad’s hives, tipping them over and ripping them apart for the honey. The police eventually shot the bear in our neighbor’s garage.
The End of the Bees and a New Beginning
So, as much as I enjoyed lobbing rocks at the bee hives, once I started tending them with my dad, I started thinking, “Man, this is a lot of work.” A few years later, somewhere between when my pig Cookie died of some disease that only killed pigs, and I lost a big tooth that still had blood on it when I tucked it under my pillow, the bees went away.
I don’t know where they went. My dad died in 2014, and I didn’t think about dad’s bees for the next forty-five years.
And then, a few weeks ago, as my wife Julia and I were turning our mules out, I looked at all the bees humming on the white clover we were walking through, and thought, “Damn, I’d like to have some bees.”
Life up the Holler
Julia and I live in a small cabin up a long holler in western North Carolina. We enjoy growing a garden and live in tune to Nature to the extent that it’s possible. We sleep with our windows open year-round and marvel that we don’t need screens. There’s just something in balance about where we live. So when I got the urge to have bees, I didn’t want to have to do all the stuff my dad did to take care of them, especially the part about medicating them.
I just wanted to have some bees that lived in a box as naturally as possible, ideally way up in a tree, where I could watch them. I didn’t want to buy any bees because we have so many wild ones around here. So I decided, instead of buying a colony, I would catch a swarm of wild bees.
How hard could that be?
Well, that’s a story for another post.
Have a great day. And remember, smile the next time you see a bee working some clover, and if you have trouble going to sleep, instead of counting sheep, count bees going into and out of a hive. (And if you’re a nine-year-old version of Bernie, put on your bee suit before you throw rocks at the hive.)
PS: I’d love to hear your bee stories/advice/cautionary tales about throwing rocks at your parent’s bee hives. Just leave them in the Comment section below.
A Few Photos From This Week
Okay, here are a few random photos from this week.
Let Me Give You a Heads-up When my Book “Two Mules to Triumph” Comes Out
I’d be happy to give you a heads up when my new book “Two Mules to Triumph” comes out. It’s about riding my mules Brick and Cracker 2,200 miles from North Carolina to Idaho.