I began beekeeping with my dad at age 15. At that age, indeed at any age, a rebellious or irresponsible nature benefits from any lesson which teaches there are consequences for our actions, and there are immediate consequences from any action with honeybees.
If you hurry while working with them, bees protest. If you get angry, they get angrier. If you are scared or nervous they will react to the pheromones those emotions release. If you work with bees on a regular basis, you will develop an almost “zen” state of calm or you will be stung often.
For Dad, keeping bees became an avocation which brought him contentment for the rest of his life. A corner of his basement became a workshop for preparing hives and frames, and he and my mother spent many hours extracting honey with a hand-cranked extractor. Our entire family gradually overcame hay fever eating large quantities of raw honey.
As a mountaineer, Dad had a tremendous respect for Nature. When he spoke the word you could always tell that the “N” was capitalized. To him, honeybees were one of Nature’s most mysterious and fascinating creatures. Their stylized dancing to communicate the location of nectar sources, their ritualized mating flights, their ability to tell friend from foe and to recognize individuals were all part of God’s plan partially revealed in the mysteries of Nature. Everything, he believed, is connected to everything else, and the truth of that statement could be found everywhere we might care to look in the natural world.
At the height of his beekeeping career, Dad had hives from central Georgia to the mountains, and after he retired he even had his own honey label. As he grew older, his activity diminished, but not his interest. In his eighties he was down to a single hive in the back yard, but his desk was still covered with beekeeping books and periodicals.
When my mother passed away, we thought Dad might die from a broken heart. For a while he lost interest in everything, including his bees. When his last remaining hive succumbed to one of the many ailments that plague honeybees, he sadly remarked, “I guess I’m finished as a bee man.” But when we surprised him with a new package of bees and a queen that spring, his interest rekindled, and soon he was back in action.
Dad’s last beehive was still thriving two years later when he had to leave home for assisted living. Fortunately, his retirement community was only 4 miles from the family home, so we were able to take him back home to visit on a regular basis. Every time he came home, Dad would to walk to the back of the yard and visit his bees.
During the third year of the life of his last beehive, Dad was able to make that walk under his own power with the help of a cane. In year four, the terrain was too uneven for his walker, but he could make the journey using two walking sticks. In year five, the short walk to the back yard took about half an hour each way, with several rest stops for conversation and contemplation. It was a highlight of the day for both of us.
When we visited his bees, Dad would stand quietly just a few feet from the entrance of the hive and watch them coming and going. He was always happy to see their legs covered with an abundant supply of pollen because he knew that this meant the hive was getting plenty to eat. The bees would fly all around him. Never once did they offer to sting.
Dad’s beehive was healthy and thriving during his last autumn, and still looking forward to the future, he planted turnips and cabbages in his garden at the retirement home. Nature never pauses to consider our plans. My father passed away quietly in January of the next year. His last beehive died soon after him.
That beehive was five years old when it died, which is a ripe old age for a hive. Science could probably provide a technical reason for its demise, but I think there was more mystery than science involved. It might have been disease, colony collapse, or the brutally cold winter, but Dad always said that science could only scratch the surface of the mysteries of Nature. The year my uncle passed away, the three remaining apple trees in his beloved orchard all died as well, though he was hundreds of miles away. My grandmother’s oak tree departed the same year she left us.
As for me, I’ll be looking for a package of bees arriving in the mail this month, grateful for a gift of a lifetime from long ago. When I’m working the hives, I’ll feel a familiar presence and hear Dad’s voice saying, “Give them just a little smoke. Slow and easy now. Talk to them.” And they will listen.