The honeybee, that busy little alchemist, is a marvel. No other insect has inspired so much poetry, so much rapturous prose. After a few of my friends got bee hives and raved about the contemplative pleasures of beekeeping, I decided to take up the hobby myself. Here is my story.
I got a beehive this spring. I set it in my yard right by the patio and eagerly awaited the arrival of my bees. They arrived on a truck, which I met at the Exxon station beside the Tennessee Titans stadium. The truck was stacked high with a hundred or more shoebox-sized cages (“packages” is the lingo), each containing about five thousand bees.
You have heard a bee buzz; imagine the buzz of five hundred thousand bees, agitated from an hour’s ride on the interstate. The bee truck, thrumming with so much life, was the first great spectacle of my beekeeping career.
When I got the bees home, I put on the bee veil and goatskin gloves that Andrew Peterson either loaned me or gave me (I was a little vague on this point). I opened up the top of my hive. Then I opened up my box of bees, just enough to remove a tiny cage containing the queen, and shut it again before the other five thousand bees came blurring out. The queen cage I attached to the frame in the middle of my hive.
The queen is the center of the whole operation; wherever she is, the rest of the bees will want to stay. Bees are free to come and go from their hive, but they always come back to their queen. The queen is held captive in the hive for the first few days to ensure that the whole hive doesn’t light out for the the next county as soon as they’re out of the package. The means by which the queen gains her freedom is quite ingenious. The exit from her cage is plugged by a piece of marshmallow that takes several days for bees to chew through. By the time she is able to get out, she is accustomed to the hive and chooses stay. And therefore the rest of the bees stay put.
Once the queen was secured, I opened the bee package, turned it upside down, and shook five thousand bees into the hive. I stood there in a swirling cloud of bees. It was thrilling, I don’t mind telling you.
Andrew Peterson claims he has never been stung in three years of beekeeping. Maybe that’s true. It wasn’t my experience. My bees hadn’t been on the premises 24 hours before they started stinging me. I am willing to accept at least part of the blame here; I wasn’t always diligent about wearing the protective gear. I watched quite a few Youtube videos in which beekeepers handled their bees with neither veil nor gloves. It seemed so peaceful and symbiotic and, well, right. It later occurred to me that perhaps those beekeepers had smoked their bees to oblivion before turning on the camera. I don’t know. I just know that my unsmoked bees were surprisingly active–more active than some folks care for.
The first time I opened the hive top after installing my packages, one of those enterprising little rascals flew into my right nostril and stung me. I cavorted and windmilled in ways my alarmed children had never seen. Also, I cried. If you can get stung in the nostril and not cry, feel free to consider yourself my better. I don’t think you can do it. There were four or five other stings on that first day, but the direct hit to the nostril was by far the most memorable.
The next day my upper lip had swelled like a prizefighter’s. I congratulated myself that I had survived the worst bee sting I was likely ever to get. Later events would prove me to be wrong on that count.
I am a forgiving man, and I bore my bees no ill will; the principal offender was dead in any case. The bees had a lot of work ahead of them: they needed to “draw comb” before they could start storing honey, and that would require a lot of energy. So even though it was May and the nectar was plentiful, I installed a hive-top feeder made from an aluminum turkey pan to help them along, regularly filling it with a syrup of sugar and water that I mixed in a five-gallon bucket. You may be surprised to know that it only takes a few days for a hive of bees to empty a turkey pan.
The bees began to do what bees do. They zoomed out of the hive and zoomed back in with pouches of pollen tucked behind their back legs. On the frames they began building those precise hexagons that almost look too perfect to be natural. As often as I could, I sat on the patio and watched the bees come and go. Most days I found an excuse to open the hive and have a look inside. It seems cliched to speak of their busyness, but the impression is unavoidable. Bees look like they know exactly what needs to be done, and they are on it. Watching honeybees quickly became one of the great pleasures of my life.
A couple of weeks into my beekeeping career, I left to spend a month at a boys’ camp. I left the bees in the care of the house sitter. My nostril healed. I missed my bees—less than I missed my girls, but more than I missed my dog. I thought about them every day and assumed they were thinking about me. I texted the house sitter for reports on the bees, and he assured me that they were doing fine. My leaving them for a month, I figured, was the best thing that could happen to them. They could establish their hive in peace, without my taking the lid off every day and bothering them.
The whole drive back from camp, I envisioned a happy reunion with my bees. I could hardly wait to pull the frames and see what my little colonists had accomplished in my absence. Would there be comb drawn on every frame? Would the queen be laying eggs? Would there be honey?
We didn’t even have the camp trunks out of the car before I was at the hive. If the bees were as glad to see me as I was to see them, I figured, there would be no need for any veil and gloves. I opened the hive and saw the bees busily attending to the matters at hand. And, yes, they did seem glad to see me. Inspired by a strong sense of my oneness with nature, I began to pull one of the frames out for a little peek-a-loo. Within one second I found myself in a cloud of bees that sounded to me exactly like the buzz-roar of the bee truck. One of the bees stung me squarely in the left temple. Reeling, I dropped the frame back into the hive, which caused a whole new commotion. Within minutes, the swelling from my stung temple produced a pretty impressive black eye. It really, really hurt.
I believe in facing one’s fears, getting back on the horse. So the next day I returned to the hive–suited up this time. When it comes to bees, however, I discovered one problem with facing one’s fears: bees smell fear. It whips them into a frenzy. When I opened the hive, it was as if I were a pork chop and they were a pack of 5000 hungry dogs. They covered me up. But what did I care? I had my veil. I had my goatskin gloves.
Apparently, the gloves that Andrew gave me were some kind of gag gift. Four bees stung me through the gloves. Through the gloves! One of those four stings got infected. My middle finger looked like a thumb, only bright purple. When I went to the Kroger Minute Clinic for medical attention, the nurse practitioner looked at my black eye and purple finger and said, “Wait–you’re saying that you have these bees on purpose?”
My black eye healed. The infection cleared up (thanks to a course of antibiotics). I left the bees to their own devices for a while. We left for another two weeks of travel. I brought a couple of beekeeping books to read at the beach, but I didn’t open them. The wounds were too fresh.
A couple of Sundays ago, I finally ventured back to the hive. I suited up, removed the top, and pulled a couple of frames. The bees were much calmer this time. Actually, they were more than calm. They seemed listless, even aimless. The only thing sadder than a bee with no sense of purpose is 5000 bees with no sense of purpose.
There were very few eggs or larvae in the hive. But there were hive beetles. An experienced beekeeper like me knows how much heartache hive beetles can cause. I immediately went to YouTube to find out how to make hive beetle traps.
But it wouldn’t be necessary. My opening the hive, it seems, was the last straw for the honeybees. I was still looking at YouTube when my son said, “Look! The bees!” My lethargic honeybees had come to swarming life. They streamed out of the hive and formed a bee tornado. They looked like the bees you’d see tormenting a bear in an old Warner Brothers cartoon. They were still swarming when we left for church that morning. I told my family to get a good look at them, for it would be the last we would ever see of our bees.
When we got back from church, I opened the hive. Five or ten bees crawled around the frames, looking confused and lost. They were far outnumbered by the beetles, who seemed glad to have the place to themselves.
I was consoled by the fact that the absconding bees left behind two frames of capped honey–a good three to five pounds, probably. But when I crushed it out of the wax, it wasn’t even honey. It was straight sugar syrup. The bees had taken my sugar syrup from the feeder and deposited it directly into the combs where other, un-fed bees would have put honey.
It was their final insult: “So long, sucker–and you can keep your sugar syrup.”
Still and all, I hope they’re happy. I hope they have found a hollow tree beside a blooming field of clover. I hope they are busily drawing new comb and filling it with nectar they have had to work a little harder for. I hope they find purpose in their work. And I hope they know I meant well.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we’ve ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.