Chapter 7: First Frost...
Bees know when their season has ended. In tropical climates, after the avocado and citrus blooms have withered, the bees turn listless, unruly. Suddenly unemployed. Their energy and attention are directed towards defending the crop they have gathered. With fewer flowers, sweltering heat and heavy rainfall, pollen is scarce. The queen quits laying eggs. Any new bees would be hungry bees. The hive population shrinks and the remaining bees survive by eating the stored surplus.
In Canada's far north, bees similarly adapt to changing fortunes. Days grow short as autumn approaches. The air is cool; the bees fly only a few hours each afternoon. Pollen becomes scarce. The bees jealously guard their surplus honey. Then one morning, the flowers are covered with ice. The first frost of the year blackens the clover blossoms - the honey season has ended. The bees survive months of snow and frigid winds, eating hoarded surplus honey. Sleepy, docile bees settle in for inevitable winter.
The next morning, after I'd had a short outing with the canoe, Earl told me I should meet someone. Murray Hannigan wanted me to stop by and see him before I headed back to Val Marie. I liked Murray, probably because we were so much alike. He was my age, had as many brothers as I, and was born into a beekeeping family. He lived in Shellbrook, a town I traveled through after I left Big River, on the route back to Saskatoon.
There were three flatbed beekeeper trucks in the yard when I pulled into the Hannigans'. A visiting beekeeper, Gerry, had arrived from a town northeast of Prince Albert, an hour away. He had finished extracting his crop and was traveling around northern Saskatchewan, trading stories with beekeepers. Murray invited me in. I hung my jacket on a peg by the door, next to a long line of heavy, padded winter coats. I threw my runners on top of the pile of boots. It was September and winter coats were waiting by the door. We had coffee and bread and I asked about the coats. "Goodness, no," Murray said. "Our winter coats are a lot heavier than those!" The weather had been mild in Val Marie, but in Murray's part of Saskatchewan, it could be pretty chilly even in the summer. And I had no concept of what a cold Saskatchewan winter might be like.
"You're a beekeeper?" Gerry asked me.
"I guess so," I said. I had met a lot of successful beekeepers during the past few months. Could I claim membership in their group?
"Well," Gerry said, "Did you have any problems with bears this year?"
"There aren't any bears where I live."
"Oh? I thought you were from Saskatchewan," Gerry said. He looked at me, my cup of coffee. "You're from Saskatchewan, no?"
"Southern Saskatchewan. The prairies. No bears."
"Well, we have bears here!" Gerry said. "You have bear trouble, Murray?"
Murray looked up from his coffee and smiled. "Not usually. We use electric fences. We started using the solar charged ones this year, work really well. You also have to keep the beeyard clean - no wax or combs left lying about. We keep most of our yards fenced and close to farm houses. If the farmer has dogs, it's even better. Dogs scare the bears away."
"Well, I keep my bees near the bush," Gerry said. "Lots of bear problems."
"What do you do?" I asked.
"Kill 'em. We kill 'em. I know, lots of people think black bears are just smelly Winnie the Poohs. We kill 'em, especially if they get near our bees. A big bear can rip up ten hives in a night... scatter 'em to hell and back."
"It doesn't seem fair to shoot a bear for eating its supper," I said, "while not being allowed to kill the idiots who drive over top our beehives with four wheel drives."
"Yea, I hear ya'," said Gerry, arms straight out to his sides. "Should shoot those bastards, too. I had one yard near P.A. smashed to hell by someone in a truck, eh? At least you're allowed to track and shoot the bears. And I always give the teeth and claws to the Indians." He sat back in his chair, hands in lap. "But I'd probably get in trouble skinning cowboys."
"I heard you got a really big bear this year," Murray said.
"Well, yea, we did. I had a yard up near Christopher Lake. Big bear was ripping hives apart, carrying the boxes off into the woods. I sat up all night and finally he showed up. I shot him, three, four times. Must have weighed five hundred pounds. So I drove home. Missus catches me at the door. Farmer called, the one that owned the land where my bees were, madder than hell. Said I couldn't leave no dead bear laying in his field.
"So I went back with my boy, Tom, and we try to load the bear on the half ton. Can't do it. Can't budge it. Tom says, 'Let's drag her.' Tom's a smart boy. Hope he goes to university. Anyway, we pull a tarp out and roll the bear onto the tarp, tie ropes around it and hitch up to the bumper. Start dragging it. In half an hour, we're almost home, but we notice the bear's gone. So is the tarp. We were just dragging ropes now.
"So we turn around, head back. We come around a corner, there's our bear, sitting up in the middle of the road. But blue lights are flashing, a police car has come by already and the cop is standing there with a flashlight. So, we drive by real slow and have the window down. 'Havin' a problem, Officer?' I says to him. He asks if it's my dead bear. Of course I says, 'No. But the tarp's mine.' So he lets me take the tarp. Real nice guy, that cop."
"You didn't get in trouble?"
"No, but after a while I felt bad about leaving the cop with five hundred pounds of bear meat."
"I think you should use solar fences," Murray said.
"Well, I got a better way, now. Lots cheaper and easier than solar fences, too. Almost always works," said Gerry.
"Better than fences?"
"Well," Gerry said, "Almost always works. Bears don't like human smells, scares them away. So now I always pee in pop bottles, leave one laying half over in each end of the beeyard. Sometimes I use beer bottles. Depends on my mood, eh?"
***I was back in Val Marie. David Kleinsasser invited me to his house for supper. I drove out to the Hutterite colony and parked by David's door. He wasn't home. Annie wasn't home. But Rachel, in the house next door, saw me, called me over. Rachel was Joe Kleinsasser's wife. Joe was David's brother. Joe managed the hog barn, a big, multi-million dollar business. I sat at Joe and Rachel's table and had a glass of wine. Rachel set out noodle soup, thick white buns, warm pork. I protested, I had been invited to supper next door. These people were too nice, too friendly. I ate and David walked in. "When you finish eating here, you come to my house to eat," he said. My mouth was full of bread, so I nodded. I was young, I could eat two suppers. I sat there among those wonderful people, my mouth full of food. I didn't want to upset anyone, to make a social blunder. I wanted to be liked. So I was compliant. Agreeable. What the heck, it meant an extra free meal.
When I finished eating his food, Joe Kleinsasser and two of his sons followed me to his brother's apartment. They sat on a long bench at one side of the kitchen, black hats held in their hands, dark clothing merging together in the distance. David, Annie, and I sat at the table. Annie set out noodle soup, buns, warm pork. The people on the bench watched me eat again.
"You were up north?" David asked. "Big Beaver?"
"Big River, it's north of Prince Albert."
"I know P.A." David said. "We go up every fall and buy fish from the native people. A thousand pounds of white fish for the colony. What did you do in the north, buy fish?"
"I took my brother to the airport, then traded fifteen barrels of honey for beehive equipment. I was only gone two days."
"That's a long way, a thousand miles - round trip. That's all you did?"
"Yea. I drove up, made the trade, drove back."
A little voice from the distant bench called out: "Vini, vidi, vici!" Everyone laughed. I was stunned. I was sitting in a simple kitchen at a religious colony five hours from a city, gazing at an eight year old child who did not learn to speak English until he started school. And the little kid in the black pants and black coat knew about Julius Caesar and the efficiencies of his conquests. "I'm not Caesar," I said. "I slept overnight in the north."
Annie looked up from her coffee. "You slept in a bed?" Her voice was stern. I did not understand the purpose of her question.
"At the Emdes', yea, I slept in a bed," I said.
"But you sleep on the floor in Val Marie."
How did she know? For months I had been sleeping on blankets on the wooden floor.
"Bring it," Annie said to someone in another room. A shy, dark-haired teenaged girl brought a small mattress out. It was a foam pad, about four inches thick, seven feet long, three feet wide. Annie had sewn some checkered red and green cotton over it. "Take it," she said. "Don't sleep on the floor anymore..."
***One night, the windows in my tiny house shook, a north wind rattled the panes. They whitened. Snow, wet and heavy, replaced leaves torn from the trees during the night. The prairie looked fresh and clean, clad in white. The next morning, I began wrapping wintering material around my hives, brushing snow off the hive covers, replacing it with fuzzy pink fiberglass. I stretched kolomax - heavy, black, water resistant paper - over the boxes and insulation, then looped bailer twine around everything. It took three days to wrap my hives. They wouldn't be touched again for six months.
I had no reason to spend the winter in Val Marie. Other bees I owned, in the States, had finished their season in Wisconsin. I needed to cart them to Florida. I drained water from the pipe that led up to the honey shop. I emptied the water pump in the basement, dumped antifreeze into the toilet and sinks, as Frank had done a year earlier. Then I went to Wong's for lunch.
Harry Wong was selling his restaurant and moving to Swift Current. He smiled at me and took my order. Then he came out of the kitchen with something in his hands. He handed me his abacus. He hadn't used it in years, he told me, it had sat idly above the stove in his café kitchen. His grandfather's abacus had a thin layer of grey rust, the beads longed to be dragged across their wires, to count and add. "You like numbers," Harry said. "You keep this now."
***The American agents who worked the border apparently weren't paid enough money. They had to make up the difference on their own. I learned about this my first year in Canada. When I left for Florida, I had four hundred pounds of honey in the back of my truck. Fifty neatly packaged clean white pails. Gifts for family, friends, and people in Florida who let me put bees in their orange groves.
The American officer looked in my camper. "I heard about you," he said. "The Hutterites say your bees make the best honey."
I started to thank him for the compliment. He interrupted me.
"We wanted to buy some honey from you this summer, but never made it up to Val Marie. Can I get some now?"
I was going to say no. All the honey pails had previously assigned homes. But he was wearing a gun.
"I don't have any cash on me," he continued. "I'll pay you next spring, when you come back. You are coming back, right?"
I gave him an eight pound pail of honey.
"What else ya' haulin'?" he asked.
Did he want some of my clothes? "Clothes."
"OK. How many pounds of honey are you haulin'?"
"I had four hundred pounds. Now I have eight pounds less."
"The duty on four hundred pounds of honey is eight dollars."
I knew that the tax was one cent a pound, four, not eight, dollars. I told him. I had become bold because it looked like he wasn't going to take any of my clothes.
"Is it?" he said. "OK. Maybe you're right." I gave him four dollars. He stuffed the cash into his shirt pocket. I wondered if he'd still be working there the next spring. He wasn't...
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