Chapter 1: Arrival...
Bright summer afternoon. Alfalfa and wild clover blooming. An excited young bee lands at the entrance of a hive. The bee's tummy is full of nectar, its small pollen baskets dusted with yellow powder. Confused, a novice, the young bee has landed at a wrong hive. It happens. Bees get lost. But the guard bees of this hive, overwhelmed by the sweet scent of fresh nectar becoming honey within the walls of their nest, ignore the mistake. Besides, the lost bee is bringing pollen and nectar. The new bee becomes a member of the hive. From now on, it will build new combs and store honey and pollen to profit the adopted colony. Life goes on for the bee and for the hive.
The same guard bees, on a windy day in late autumn, would not be so tolerant. With winter coming, they would drag old drones from the hive to their deaths. On a bad day, guards would reject a young lost bee as a thieving opportunist. They would grab the innocent insect, shred its wings and legs. And discard the mutilated body.
My truck rolled to a silent stop next to three wooden huts. I was a few feet - a metre? - inside Canada. Two thousand miles from home. Home was green - forests of oak, maple, hickory. This place was also green. Sort of. But where were the trees?
At my window stood a tall man in a blue uniform, short blond hair. Big smile. I scratched my face, felt the stubble of three day's growth, and wished I had bathed and shaved before arriving for inspection. Would the border guard know I had slept on the seat of the truck last night? Would he care?
"Untie this tarp." The man pointed at the back of my truck. He called over a second officer, a younger man with very short black hair. I should have had a hair cut. Canadians wear hair short. I got out of the truck, fumbled with the rope securing the tarp.
"Did you tell Officer MacKenzie that you have a job waiting for you in Canada? You have a work permit, a visa?" Officer MacDonald asked.
"I don't exactly have a job waiting for me. My friend had a business, I bought it from him..." How much should I say? The truth. Just the truth. What did they see? A hippie? A deadbeat? Could they tell I was nervous? Officer MacKenzie asked another question.
"I'll be here all summer," I said, both hands gripping the tarp, holding it up so they could see my jug of drinking water, extra radiator fluid, steel tool box.
"If you're coming into the country as a visitor, you can't be paid anything... Wait here."
"I won't be getting paid anything. I bought a honey farm." I'm not sure they heard me. The guards were walking back to the door of their customs' house. A small white building. In a sea of grass. No trees. I looked up. Bright clear sky. The officers, not far from me, still outside their office. I saw MacDonald looking at my Florida license tag, he wrote something on a clip board, kept talking to MacKenzie. I couldn't hear them. They were back in a moment, smiling.
"You're from Florida?" asked MacDonald.
"Not really. Pennsylvania. The family farm is in Pennsylvania. That's where I'm from."
"Your truck has a Florida tag."
"Yea, I live there in the winter. But I spend summers in Pennsylvania. And Wisconsin. Keeping bees." I was talking too much.
"Wisconsin?" said the second officer.
"OK," said MacDonald. We're not going to stop you from giving your friend a hand on his farm. But if you're buying a business, you'll need a visa to run it. Don't stay longer than six months. Remember, those speed limits are kilometres, not miles, per hour. Have a nice day."
The truck started the first time I turned the key. I slipped the clutch, it rolled forward. I was in Canada. Past the border guards. And after the rough dusty gravel trail out of Montana, I was glad to be on a paved road...
I had seen this road. Last year, I had worked for three weeks with Frank Andres. He had four hundred hives of bees in Val Marie. A little business that did well. We pulled off two thousand boxes of white honey from his beehives. We spun the honeycombs in his extracting machine. Filled almost a hundred barrels. We were sitting in his kitchen, on plastic chairs with metal tube frames, when Frank squeezed the keys to the tiny house into my hand.
"Why do you want to sell?"
"I've got plans," Frank said. And he did. He was an Amway distributor. He showed me sales receipts of the hundreds of dollars he made every month. Selling soap. "Ron," he said, "when I left my government job to keep bees, I thought it was the smartest thing I could ever do. But you know what, Ron? Selling Amway's even better. So - you want my bees?"
"Yes, I want the bees. But I don't have any money." I was twenty-two.
"No problem. Just pay me a little every year. Nothing down."
Twenty-two. Any offer that included a house, a work-shop, and beehives - no money down - sounded pretty good.
I agreed to his easy terms. We signed some papers. Now, the following spring, I was back to see what it was that I had bought. I left some bees behind in Florida. My plan was to work Canadian bees in summer, American bees in winter...
To reach my new bee farm, I followed the road north from the border. I drove past smooth hills of prairie grass, broken occasionally into brown soil awaiting spring seeds. I reached a stop sign. Left, west, looked almost the same as east. Short pale grass with bits of fresh green stretching from the crowns of plants. No houses. Some fields captured behind fences. Far to the east, I could see rugged badlands. Seventy Mile Butte's bald and haggard face was dark against the cloudless blue sky. I drove east, towards the buttes, the badlands . Towards Val Marie.
I traveled high on a plateau, though it was not obvious until the road curved from east to north again and plunged into the Frenchman River Valley. The bottom land was wide, smooth, black. Folks called it the flats. Full of plowed and terraced earth, planted in broad fields of clover and alfalfa. Two roads met at the valley centre, with the town of Val Marie at the junction. From the plateau, before descending, I could see three white grain elevators, a red brick school, and the Bryan Trottier Arena. Big structures, surrounded by small wood frame houses.
Mid-morning. The April sun was strong. Before I reached the flats at the valley's bottom, half-way down the hill, I slowed the truck, turned off the road. The summer before, Frank had put thirty hives of bees behind a thick caragana hedge. I was almost there, my first beeyard. Everything else - Val Marie, my little house and shop, the Hutterites, the few farmers and ranchers I'd met the summer before - would have to wait. I wanted to see my bees.
I parked on a slick muddy trail near the apiary, after driving a few feet in. Not too far. I didn't want to get stuck. I could imagine the ranchers in Val Marie. "Yea, that American boy drove up from Florida, then tried to drive on wet gumbo in an old two wheel drive. Had to pull him out with the tractor, eh?" I stepped out of my truck, walked through sticky mud towards the beehives, my beehives.
I found my veil, smoker, and hive tool under the tarp that covered the back of my truck. I lit Florida pine needles that were still in the smoker pot , worked the bellows until clouds of cool white smoke drifted from the smoker's funnel. I tramped through the mud, up the hill to the hives that were wrapped in black cardboard. I blew smoke at the entrance of the first hive and pulled off the winter covering. I put the black cardboard box on the ground and placed two large rocks on it. The sun was warm, May was a day away, the bees no longer needed their winter protection.
With the black wrapper off, the beehive stood white against the yellow-brown grass, against the dark prairie soil. Along the banks of the river, half a mile away, pussy willow must have been blooming because dozens of bees were flying back to the hive, each carrying big tawny wads of pollen tangled in the hairs of their middle legs. The bees were confused. They were looking for a black hive, but now a white hive stood in its place. They started to fly towards another hive, still covered with its black winter wrapping. I quickly lifted and folded the cardboard from each hive, and as I did, more and more confused bees drifted about, lost at first, but no longer trying to enter the wrong hives. In an hour or two, the bees would forget that their homes had mysteriously changed colour. For the next six months, they would live in white beehives. Bees are confused for a short time when the environment changes; then adapt, quickly forgetting their old circumstances.
I went back to the first hive. I lifted the hive's cover, blew a tiny puff of smoke over the wax racks - the frames - that held honey, pollen, and brood. Thousands of bees, fuzzy brown and yellow, danced on the honeycombs. Life was good for this hive. It had a queen that had filled half a dozen big frames with brood. Fresh pollen and nectar surrounded the new eggs and larvae. The entire nest smelled sweet and clean. The bees hummed. They were not disturbed as I slowly shifted frames of honeycomb from side to side, inspecting their prosperity...
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