After working as a bricklayer and hay baler in the summer, I decided that there had to be a less exhausting way of earning money for dates. Working in the garden on yet another hot summer day, I shooed away a bee trying to pollinate a plant near me. As the bee buzzed on his way, I realized he worked all day without complaint and the garden would benefit from having more bees nearby—a plan, a tale.
I went to my parents and explained my reasoning. More bees meant more vegetables for my mom, who had recently gone balls to the wall on canning and organic food, so she was all in for the plan. My dad took a little more convincing because: money. I sweetened the pot by explaining that I could run the hives like a business. I could sell the excess honey at the local farmers market to make up for operating costs, and, of course, keep any profits that happened to be made. This, I thought, meant I could relax all summer and then collect when the bees had finished their work.
My parents called around and found out that first, there is a county hive inspector, and second, that he supplies most of the beekeeping equipment in the county. He was a wily old fellow in slacks and a disarming Fred Rogers sweater. He was also an encyclopedia of bee facts and skills. I witnessed him opening a beehive using only gloves and a hood. He knew his business: bees and people. He was a master of the soft sell: “If you don’t need it, of course don’t get it. I just thought I’d mention it since it increases pollen production by twenty percent.”
The Bee Man
By the time we left his garage-salesroom we had the wood to construct three beehives and had ordered the nuclei, a swarm of bees and a queen, for each hive. These were three packages of Italian Honey Bees, supposedly the most gentile type of honey bee. I learned that each hive needed two boxes about eight inches tall. In those, they stored honey and incubated larvae.
One or two smaller boxes, only six inches tall, went on top. But there was a trick: between the two types of boxes went a metal grate big enough to admit only worker bees who deposited their nectar in the smaller boxes. The queen could not pass the grate to use the smaller boxes for breeding, so that those would be filled only with honey and no larvae. There we were, with the equipment to build three hives. and an order for three packages of gentile Italian Honey Bees and the queens. I felt a little guilty, at the time, thinking that I was setting these bees up for the easiest score possible.
You may not know this, but the USPS ships bees with “very specific packaging requirements” and the boxes that they are shipped in are terrifyingly fragile. The bees are shipped in a thin wooden frame with a fine screen stapled to its top and bottom and a slim reinforcement bar holding down the middle of the mesh. Most places that ship bees measure their contents in pounds, and the average seems to be three pounds per box of bees. Can you imagine coming in that morning? “George? Buddy, we have more—”. “Oh, God damn it, just fucking give’em to me.”
In the United States, many of the farms that raise bees cluster in consistently warm areas. Bees tend to like it warm. Our bees were coming from Georgia to Ohio. For a reason that is unclear to me (money), we opted to pick up those three boxes full of nine pounds of bees shipped all the way from Georgia at the bee whisperer’s shop rather than have him deliver them to us.
When we arrived, the air was already filled with honey bees. The definition of “filled with bees” will change over the course of this story, but at this point it meant more than two or three. We proudly received our new beekeeping gear: hat, gloves, suit, and smoker. A smoker is a little metal tube, a funnel on top and a billows attached to the back, which, and I think it should be obvious here, makes smoke. Blowing smoke into a beehive causes the bees to think that the hive is on fire, and, in order to have supplies to start their new life elsewhere once their home has burnt down, the bees gorge themselves on honey. Once full of honey, it is difficult for them to bend their abdomen around to sting and they become more docile. It is a first order dick move, but also very necessary anytime you open the hive.
We cautiously accepted our bees (again, look at that box above) and loaded them in the rear of our silver Volvo Station wagon (homeschooled, Volvo—you get it: my parents were aging hippies) with the vain hope that distance would keep us safe. We were assured that the boxes were tightly made and that the few bees around the shop were from nearby hives. Within two miles we learned that was not true.
How many valiant postal workers were stung, I do not know. But once they were in our car, the bees started immediately and successfully hatching miniature renditions of the Shawshank Redemption; though, they were more likely to end up having an unfriendly encounter with a car-side than completely escape. The car was full of bees (we’re upgrading here to 8 or 10), but we had a tactical advantage: we all had rolled our windows down for the ride home. You try flying in a hurricane.
When we finally made it home, dad zipped carefully into the bee suit and we sealed the seams with duct-tape. Since we had already assembled and placed the hives, introducing the bees to their new home was relatively easy. You dump them in the new home and give them sugar water as a welcome to their new home and a please-don’t-starve-to-death home-warming present. Then they are off to work.
While waiting for them to make me money, I ended up learning a lot about bees. They keep an antiseptic environment in the hive, sealing small spaces with a stronger version of wax called propolis. To prevent another hive from stealing their honey, guard bees check the distinctive pheromones of their comrades as they return and will fight to keep foreigners out (just like uneducated humans!). Bees can even do complex dances to indicate the location of food sources to other members of the hive. They also really do not like it when you open their home.
Too Close for Comfort
Another summer day, I received orders to add a small box to hive number two since the others were almost full. Procedure: Jumpsuit first, secure the boot cuffs. Gloves next, secure the cuffs. Hat last, make sure there are no gaps in the drawstring keeping the net down. Even though the suit is all white, it is still a sauna.
Suited up, I started the smoker and filled the hive to pacify the bees. After a few minutes, I took off the top of the hive. It’s hard to keep down the terror of seeing infinity of the creatures you feared like death for your entire childhood, but everything seemed to be going well. The air was filled with bees (we’re upgrading again to twenty or thirty—they’re hard to count). I placed the new box on top as I heard them humming all around my face mask’s mesh. Finally, I closed the hive and allowed myself to feel a bit of hubris as I walked away.
Then I heard it. The buzzing of a bee at least two inches too close. They were in. It was almost coordinated when they started stinging. Apparently, even the gentle Italian bees pack a punch. Trapped with my carefully duct taped coveralls and gloves, all I could do was tear off the helmet and run for the nearest water. For whatever reason, maybe because it knocks them down or maybe because they associate it with rain, bees seem to hate water. I tore my mask off and drenched myself in the coldest well water I have ever felt. I’d caused enough commotion by this time to be noticed, so my family came to help me out of the suit. We counted fourteen stings, but I didn’t swell too badly so the doctor on the phone said to take some Benadryl and a nap.
Our dog, Joey, who was a German Shepard-Australian shepherd mix that had an obsessive need to keep things in her version of order around the farm, had a similar experience. She was cautious when we first installed the hives, keeping her distance from the agitated swarms. But, after a few months, she decided to assess these newcomers more closely. While working in the garden, we heard a loud yelp and a dark blur as Joey raced to her safe haven under the back deck. When we finally coaxed her out, she had a nose like a hammerhead shark. We couldn’t count all the strings but she didn’t swell too badly so the veterinarian on the phone said to give her half of a Benadryl. A few minutes later we were napping on the living room floor.
The Open Market
When the end of summer finally came, I was looking forward to my profits. Everyone was going pumpkin and leaf crazy, and I knew I could tap into that lunacy. We wanted to be professionals so we bought a heated knife to slice off the top layer of the comb and expose the honey. Once the comb had been opened, it went into an extractor. An extractor is a tall, cylindrical stainless steel tube with a nozzle on the bottom, and racks to put the honeycombs in.
Once full, the device was capped and used centrifugal force to sling the honey out of the combs in an attempt to damage them as little as possible (our little stingy-buddies had already worked hard enough) while retrieving the honey. True to form, we botched our first attempt at closing the extractor and slung honey in a circular pattern around the entire kitchen—floor, ceiling, cabinets. Joey had a great day licking up spilled honey. Since, again, we had no idea about the economics of farming, we got gallons of honey. That’s no hyperbole. We actually had about twenty gallons of honey sitting in five-gallon buckets.
Then we prepared for the farmers market. First of all, to a sixteen year old the hours of a farmers market are obscene, bordering on illegal. We had to set up our stall by six am and be ready by seven am. Look, the people, the few people, who come to peer at things in the farmers’ market at seven am are strange. They just zombie their way around, touching everything, buying nothing, and trapping you in weird conversations about some niece. Then there are the other sellers. I was a homeschooled farm kid, and I thought those people were odd. I met one man who, when I extended my hand to shake his in greeting, drew suddenly back only to say “I have nothing against you, but I don’t want your germs and I’m sure you don’t want mine, but I’ll look you in the eye.” This was followed by an eternity or five seconds of eye contact.
The actual buyers didn’t start to get to the market until around eight am. Because only insane people voluntarily wake before seven on a Saturday. I’m not ashamed to admit that my brother and I tried every trick in the book to sell. We dressed in matching outfits. I sent him wandering around handing out samples with his fat red cheeks and curly blond cherub hair. We told mostly honest stories about the hard work we did with the bees.
The regular half-pint jars of honey sold alright, but their profit margin was low, so I didn’t care. I had an artisanal blend that sold out every time. I realized that we had an abundance of expensive black walnuts going to waste on the farm. So we collected them, crushed them up in the honey, and added some spices (proprietary blend). These were packaged in six oz jars that sold for two dollars and fifty cents. The overhead on the jars was maybe twenty cents. I was on the cutting edge of the hipster artisanal movement and didn’t even know it. Once, a couple came up and asked how many jars we had and bought twenty-four of them. I could have been the next capitalist honey mogul, but one thing got in my way.
The next summer I was thinking to expand to five hives and go totally hipster. While we were in the garage-sales room of the bee-guy, he was soft selling something and I told him I wasn’t sure I had the cash just to get him to let up.
As soon as we were a ways down the road Mt. Vesuvius erupted in the car. “Why did you lie to him?” my parents kept demanding. “You shouldn’t lie.” It was about a thirty minute car ride home. By the time we arrived I was pretty well scalded, scolded, and raw all over. I was still sobbing when I picked up the phone, “Please don’t make me do this.” But my parents made me call the bee man. I remember the conversation word for word, “Hello Mr. (sob) I lied earlier when I said I didn’t have the money for those things.” “Oh.” “I’m sorry.” “Well. that’s ok.” Then I hung up.
That was the end of my bee business. Call me a coward, but I was too embarrassed to ever speak to that man again. He had to come and inspect the hives every year in his role as county bee inspector, but I hid inside, and no one ever said anything more about it. I learned two things that day: don’t let them catch you in a lie, ever; and don’t expect mercy.