My husband, Chub, was reared in a small town in Illinois where many families had beehives in the side or front yard. A sunny autumn day was a good time to harvest enough honey for the family table all winter.
After Chub returned from three years in the Coast Guard, we bought a corner of Dad’s farm; friends and relatives helped Chub build a small rock house on what we called Brushy Acres, east of Columbia. It was an ideal place for a few colonies of honeybees.
Chub, working at Boone Electric Co-Op, studied catalogs and books about beekeeping. He hoped to get started with a couple of colonies, but there was much to learn, hives to assemble and tools and supplies to buy before he was ready for the bees. What a fascinating hobby Chub chose!
Because I wanted to understand beekeeping and help him, I enrolled in a beekeeping class at the University of Missouri. I was immediately fascinated to learn of all those little honeybees do for mankind - in addition to making honey.
No one owns a honeybee! Adolescent female bees do the work. They are housekeepers, and they pamper the queen by grooming her hair and feeding her. They collect pollen and nectar, ignoring property rights, fences and landowners’ approval or anger!
Farmers often didn’t know it, but those little stingers in their clover fields, gardens, melon patches, hayfields or orchards work like hired help! Bees, going about their own business, bother no one; they unknowingly deliver a great service, one that neither humans nor machines could deliver or imitate. This service is pollination.
Decades ago, landowners even filed lawsuits against beekeepers, saying the bees damaged their flower gardens, stung their children and ruined their orchard crops.
Now farmers pay well to rent big trailers stacked with buzzing hives. These rented bees must arrive before the honey flow begins in blossoms; the bees must unlearn their familiar travel maps, forget the old grounds and discover the new. They find themselves where plants in strange locations are beginning to bloom. The trucks unhitch and go back to load other trailers with other millions of bees. They’ll ride many miles to farms where orchards, melon patches, hayfields, flower gardens, etc., will be ready for pollination within a few days. Farmers pay well to have beekeepers send huge trucks loaded with countless hives - closed up for the trip - as the bees are taken hither and yon to work when pollination time is near.
I first thought that the bees would accumulate lots of salable honey and that operators would be making money coming and going. Think again! Frustration, noise and vibrations of moving many miles away must disturb the necessary, complicated lifestyle of honeybees. Of course, the hives touch each other, and there is neither the storage space nor proper apiary management that’s necessary for honey production.
Bees that have to adjust to noisy, crowded, strange environments are always orienting themselves in strange new fields, gardens and orchards.
My limited beekeeping experience was with a few colonies that were sheltered by trees on the seldom-changing territory of hundreds of neighbors’ acres and a wide variety of plants that stayed put from year to year. They were mostly young females, grooming and even feeding their egg-laying queen. They tolerated a few big lazy drones, necessary if a queen had to be replaced; the excess drones were then killed by housebees, and their bodies were rolled off the front landing board of the hive.
More about bees and honey on another Monday.