Yes, Mrs. Pastry saw the movie Ulee’s Gold a few too many times and before I knew it I was at the University of Illinois taking a weekend bee husbandry course. We don’t keep them anymore (Mrs. Pastry eventually developed an allergy to stings) but it was one of the most interesting hobbies I’ve had. Bees are endlessly diverting as pets. You never know what those little suckers are going to do or why. Sting you, sure. But over time, as you start falling in love with your hives, you come to regard the stinging as nearly pleasurable.
Did you know that bees have politics? They do. Every hive has a queen — and only one — who lays all the eggs. Which means all the workers (females) and drones (males) in the hive are her sons and daughters. If you can find the frame she’s on, which is easy if you paint a little nail polish on her back, you can watch her moving among the little wax cells, inspecting them for cleanliness and depositing a single, tiny white egg in each. All goes well for her until one day the hive decides it’s time for a change. It’s easy to spot the signs of unrest: oblong, peanut-shaped “queen cells” hanging off the bottoms of the frames. Out of these will come pretenders to the throne who’ll fight it out — with her and each other — for dominion. Why does this happen? Sometimes you know, sometimes you don’t. Bees are funny that way.
They may spurn you affections. Being in the middle of a big city Mrs. Pastry and I worried our bees would have a hard time finding good quality water, so we left out a supply we changed twice a week. Not a single bee ever drank from it as far as we could tell. One day I observed a few drinking from a gunky pool inside an old tire in the alley. I tried not to take it personally but I’ll be honest, it hurt.
Of course they may decide to just one day up and leave you. You crack open the hive and it’s all but empty. The honey’s gone and a few stragglers and unhatched brood are all that’s left. Talk about a feeling of rejection. Baby, couldn’t we have talked this?
And then of course there are the times they sting you all to hell. But mass stinging is something that’s mostly easy to avoid. Hives are in a good mood on the same sorts of days we humans are in a good mood: bright sunny, low-humidity, not-too-hot, not-too-cold sorts of mornings or afternoons. If you take care to open your hives under those sorts of conditions all is (usually) well. The danger is that after too many easy days you start thinking your bees will be happy to see you any old time. You crack open the hive at dusk on a cloudy, humid day and all hell breaks loose. And when that happens God help you, no veil or bee suit will keep them out. Just about every beekeeper encounters that sooner or later, and learns to run the four-minute mile in fifty-three seconds.
But that’s bees. They’re entirely and consistent and predictable except on the days that they aren’t. Trying to figure out why they do what they do is the great joy of beekeeping. The days you realize how smart they are, indeed how much smarter than you they are, are the days when your cute little weekend hobby becomes profound — an intimate and humbling encounter with a miniature animal society whose tolerance of you is as joy-inducing as it is provisional.
Hm. Guess it’s obvious I miss it, no? I confess there are days when I catch sight of a fuzzy-backed honey bee on a clover flower in the yard and I get a little choked up. I’m that sort of a sap. But God love those little insects, they did me a world of good. I owe them a debt, for all the honey I took and a lot more.