I used to be a beekeeper — an urban beekeeper — back in my old neighborhood in Chicago. The missus and I kept several hives on a rooftop on the Northwest Side and had the time of our lives doing it, except when we got stung a lot, obviously. But then the days of getting stung made us appreciate the days when we didn’t get stung all the more. And those days verged on magical. For bees like the very same sorts of days that we humans like: warm-but-not-hot, clear, sunny and low humidity. On those kinds of days we were all in a great mood: me, the wife, and a quarter million stinging insects. One big, happy family.
You can tell when a bee hive is happy just by listening to it: hmmmmmmmmmm. It almost purrs, and you can go about your business medicating, checking for brood, making sure nobody’s sick or choking on mites. Your confidence goes up, your motions become more assured and fluid, and that relaxes the bees still more. The experience verges on playful, and you think: I chose the right hobby.
That, in a nutshell, is how I felt about the blog this weekend. Usually the weekends are the times when I get the highest volume of questions, but also criticisms and, sometimes, outright complaints. This weekend a couple of very nice compliments came in but that was it. I don’t know if it was the weather, last week’s project, the fact that lots of people are on vacation right now or what, but the hive hummed along sweetly. It was a very satisfying couple of days.
All of which reminds me of a funny story that dates back to when Mrs. Pastry and I were just married and learning bee husbandry. We drove from Chicago down to the University of Illinois to take a weekend-long class with one of the world’s foremost bee experts. The way we saw it: if you’re going to learn, why not learn from the best? The day he taught us how to install a mail-order colony of bees into a hive is one I’ll never forget (yes, bees come mail order, in open-air screen boxes so they can breath, and if you think your local post office moves slowly, try ordering bees by mail sometime — you’ll see hustle like you’ve never seen in your life).
Anyway, the fellow was demonstrating the extent to which you can manhandle bees when they don’t have a hive to protect. He tamped the box down on the ground, shook it and whatnot, and generally made the whole class nervous. A moment later he took the lid off the hive he’d prepared, opened the box of bees and poured them in like corn flakes into a bowl. Some of them stayed there, but most of them took off, forming a tornado of wrath over our heads. I’ll never forget the terrifying, almost rattling buzz they created. It’s the kind of sound that goes right to the base of your monkey brain and says: get the hell out of here.
I was standing a good fifteen yard away. We all stood stock still, for we’d been trained not to move. The worst thing you can do, the experts told us, was to make sudden movements around angry bees. I could see that the university team was starting to take stings — a lot of them. Our world expert was taking the most, since he was standing directly over the hive. After about fifteen seconds he said, very calmly: I think…we all…had better…RUN AWAYYYYY!!!! And brother, we scattered for the hilltops waving our arms like crazy people: the students, the PhD’s…everybody. Some members of the class never came back after that. I presumed it was because they were still running. A really ticked off bee will chase you a long, long way.
I sure hope nothing like that ever happens here on the blog. But then I’ve learned over time not to mess with you guys too much. Those stings can hurt!