Chapter 2: Buzz and Mary...
A honeybee begins its life as an egg.
A creamy white ovoid unceremoniously dropped to the bottom of a wax cell by a busy queen bee.
The egg is ignored by the other bees for three days. Then the egg tips over on its side and a grub, a worm-like larva, hatches from the egg. Adult bees in the hive notice it immediately. They drop bits of pollen and honey - bee bread - into the larva's mouth. It eats.
The larva ingests so much and so often that she grows a thousand times bigger in five days. Just when the fat and plump immobile larva looks like it will burst apart while begging for still more food, an adult bee wanders by and covers the cell with a wax lid. In darkness, the larva becomes a pupa. It quits eating, molts from a grotesque white worm into a fuzzy baby bee.
Twenty-one days after the egg falls from the queen, the new adult bee chews off the wax lid from her cell and emerges. A young adult with wings, huge eyes and six spindly legs. Her entire body is soft and hairy. This insect has a stinger, but it, too, is soft and wooly, and is not yet a weapon.
Wong's was empty, except for the four cowboys sipping coffee at the table nearest the cash register. Harry Wong smiled and the cowboys waved me over to sit with them. They slid their chairs around to make space and Harry brought a chair for me from the table behind us.
"You wanna eat?" Harry hopefully handed me his one page menu.
"Oh yes. I'm starving!" I said.
"How 'bout fried rice beef and broccoli. Very good. Or maybe you like hamburgers, gravy and fries?"
I had never tasted Chinese food. I ordered a hamburger. And I had never eaten gravy on fries, so I asked for ketchup. I looked at the cowboys. Real cowboys. I wondered which one was Buzz. The men were all fifty or sixty years old, wore broad-rimmed hats. Real cowboy hats. White, tan, brown, black hats. They drank their coffee with their coats on. Two smoked cigarettes, a package of Players on the table. One of the men was very thin. He had crooked black teeth and he chewed tobacco. Beside him was a big man, his chair pushed far back, his belly bumped the table. His coat was open and a coffee stain drew an arrow between the white buttons of his blue shirt. The youngest man had short black hair and a dark complexion. He sat very still. Looked shy. I was surprised when he spoke first. "Mary says you should come down for supper tonight." I had just crossed the street from the Credit Union a minute earlier. How did he know Mary had invited me to supper?
My hamburger arrived. Harry Wong leaned forward with the food as he presented it to the table. He nodded. I sensed he was bowing. "You like this, I know," Harry said.
The big man waited until Harry Wong was back in the kitchen. "We'll miss him," he said. "He's trying to sell. Wants to move to Swift."
"Yea, you'll miss your poutine. Not him," Buzz said.
The cowboys quit talking. "You want in?" The skinny man with black teeth was dealing cards.
"No, no. Don't play cards. Don't really know how," I said.
"We've heard that before. You'd probably clean up." Cards were dealt, none were handed to me, I was still eating. And then I had to go. I wanted to check the honey shop, see if I could find frames of honey to use as feed for the rest of the hives I'd be inspecting.
"Don't forget about supper," Buzz said as I left Wong's...
***The Trottier ranch was five minutes south of Val Marie. Buzz had lived in the valley most of his life. He was an Indian, a native-Canadian. His ancestors had lived on the continent for thousands of years. His grandparents taught the English and French how to hunt and live on the prairies. They taught them games, sports. Buzz taught his own children to compete, to be tough, but fair. It was the way of the Indian. I knew nothing of this when I drove out to the ranch that day. Through the irrigated flats, up a butte, past red cows, black horses. I stopped in front of a modern ranch bungalow. White house with brown trim.
Mary opened the door. She was dressed in the same red slacks and white shirt she had been wearing at the Credit Union. I could smell a roast. Potatoes? Carrots? Onions? How had she found time to bake a roast? "Buzz'll be here in a minute. He's feeding the horses," she said.
I looked past the kitchen table. A guitar leaned against the wall between the kitchen and living room. A colourful mural was on the distant living room wall. I couldn't see it clearly, though it covered much of the wall. It was huge - some sort of drawing, or photo. It looked like a football player, someone in a blue sports uniform, racing across a field. Left of the mural, on the west wall, was an enormous window. Through it, far beyond leafless poplar trees, I could see the river.
Buzz came in. He still wore his jeans and leather boots, belt buckle and the tan cowboy hat. He was a cowboy. As the years went by, I would learn a little about ranching from him. I would brand his calves, load his cattle onto the trailers that hauled them to market. But I would never become a cowboy. Buzz was the cowboy.
Buzz hung his jacket on a post by the kitchen door. Over it, his hat.
"Found us?" he said.
He went to the fridge and got us both a Seven-Up.
"What's that?" he asked, pointing to the oven door.
Mary didn't answer, but put the roast in the middle of the round table in the kitchen. As we ate, they asked me about Florida and Pennsylvania. Usually, I was a bit shy. When I was a kid at school, the shyness was painful - my face glowed bright red whenever I had to speak in the classroom. But these people made me comfortable. I chattered through the entire beef roast, told them about my bees, my father's farm in Pennsylvania. I told them how the eastern states were different from Saskatchewan. The big cities. The damp climate. We finished eating and I was still talking. Not very polite. "Mary works at the bank," I said, "You do any other work besides the ranch?"
Buzz rubbed his eyes.
"I worked for the highways," he said. Buzz stacked dirty plates in the center of the table. "Built some houses. Spent a lot of time getting my boys going at hockey. Used to do some picking and singing. Kathy, our youngest daughter, she and I made a record down in Nashville. But mostly, I take care of the cows..."
***My bees were behind small white wooden PFRA buildings. Although I had not been driving for long, I felt the need to stretch and shake myself when I stepped out of the truck. I had not slept well the night before, my house cold and mouldy smelling. And I had no bed. I had rested five hours, curled up on a blanket on the bare bedroom floor. But the water was still working and I'd been able to start the day with a hot shower, followed by cold cereal and instant coffee.
I must have been yawning for a long time. I still had not lit my smoker nor put on my white coveralls. The PFRA manager's blue half-ton approached.
"Frank?" the man asked before I looked up.
"No, I'm Ron."
"Oh, yea... I heard you'd be the beekeeper this year." Tracy Borneman offered his hand. He had an interested, curious expression. "Can I watch you for a while?"
I didn't want an audience. I preferred that people wait until I was ready to show off. I had no idea what the bees would look like. The unexpected was exciting to me, but it was not something I wanted to share. What if all the bees were dead? What if I opened a hive and snakes or mice or something really strange came crawling out? Would the whole town know about it within an hour?
"Sure," I said, "Put this on." I handed him a bee veil.
"How does it work?"
I guessed Tracy had never helped anyone with bees before. "Put the helmet on. Pull the veil down tight, the strings go around your waist." I pushed the pith helmet firmly into his short hair. He stretched the strings, the veil fit snuggly on his shoulders. His face was protected from the bees.
"Keep your hands in your pockets, the bees won't bother you that way," I said. With hands in pockets, the bees do not have exposed skin to attack, should they become angry. But more important, the spectator stays quiet. In the past, I had friends watch me working bees and the folks would become nervous. Before long, their hands would be batting the bees that were casually examining them. Soon the flaying arms would attract more bees and the bees would go from curious investigation to aggressive irritation. Hands in pockets. Safer for everyone.
I lifted the black cardboard winter cover off the first hive, exposing the white beehive boxes. I used my flat pry-bar - the hive tool - to dislodge the hive cover. A pungent sweet-sour odour wafted up into our faces. Masses of wet, mouldy, dead bees were visible between the frames. Not a single live bee crawled forth.
"Something's wrong with this hive," Tracy said, helpfully.
"Yea," I said, "The bees are dead."
"Why? This normal?"
"I hope it's not normal," I said. I could see why the bees had died.
Without honey, bees die. The entire wintered colony - twenty thousand bees - starves. It is a democratic end to a social structure that shares food until all of it is gone. There are no remote enclaves of tough, superior bees fighting other bees for scarce food and watching their weaker sisters starve. The honeybee can only survive as a society, individuals perish. As their stores dwindle, each bee gets less and less to eat, until all the honey is gone. Then, within a few hours, all the bees die together.
I opened the next hive. It was also dead.
"Uh-oh!" said my new friend.
"Well, there are still twenty more hives to open," I said.
A few more dead hives; others were alive. By now, Tracy needed to head off to the irrigation ditches. "Stop by for lunch," he said pointing up the hill towards his white government house. "About twelve."
The bees at the PFRA site had not wintered well. They were in a location that held damp air. The dead hives all had mouldy bees, while the day before, the few dead hives at the Kornfeld beeyard had crisp, dry bee carcasses. No smelly mould. The live hives at this beeyard were in fair shape, but did not have the large populations I expected to see. A few hives, maybe five of the twenty, had old queens, perhaps three or four years old. Old queens are a problem. Queens mate only during their first few days. They fly out of the hive, find half a dozen bee boyfriends, then return to the colony and lay eggs. When the sperm they collected on the mating flights runs out, the queen is old and no longer produces fertile offspring. The entire hive suffers with a smaller population of bees. Unless the bees begin raising a new queen, the hive dies.
When I finished cleaning the beeyard and loading the dirty boxes of the dead colonies on the flatbed truck, I tied down the cardboard wintering cases. I counted hives. Eleven out of twenty-two were alive. All the colonies that were left had bees flying, bringing in big wads of brown pollen from nearby flowers. It was May, the alfalfa and clovers would not bloom until July. I could be optimistic, there was time to expect the remaining colonies to build up huge populations of bees and make a big honey crop...
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