Chapter 10: Beekeeping in Florida...
Some bees are scout bees. Path finders. They navigate miles and miles. Across rivers, through forests and fields. They patrol for fresh fields of blossoming flowers.
Scouting is expensive. It ties up a bee that might be tending to the queen, defending the hive, storing honey. It also tires the bee out, shortens her lifespan. And before the bee leaves on a scouting expedition, she tanks up on honey - the fuel she'll need for the long flight ahead. If every bee in the hive were a scout, the bees would all die young and would exhaust the hive's food supply.
The scout bee must also be smart enough to describe the new location to her sisters. Only a few keen bees get to be scouts. Perhaps they take a written exam. The brightest and the best with an enviable sense of direction and formidable memory. And bees don't usually get lost. Expanded to the human scale, their feats match a person carrying lunch in a small backpack, walking five hundred miles, remembering the route, returning home, telling friends how to find their own way.
George called me at the radio station and requested A Satisfied Mind. A song about a man who loses everything, but "is richer by far with a satisfied mind." It was old, from 1955, but my father had a Porter Wagoner album, so I knew the song. I found it on a lower shelf and queued it up.
While the song played, I chatted a while with George. He asked me about the bees. I had mentioned my bees on the air a few times. I said something subtle like, "87 beautiful degrees here in central Florida this evening. And tomorrow should be another great honey day for all the beekeepers listening," or, "Hey, have you tried oatmeal with honey? It's far out." I wasn't particularly clever as a D.J.
George asked me to come to his homestead. He gave me directions - off a clay road south of Clermont, through a pasture planted in timothy, to a brown cypress house with a tin roof and a wide front porch.
I parked in the grass. A frail gentleman with leathered skin and thin gray hair was poised near a small wooden barn. He was standing amid stacks of beehives, paint brush in hand. I sat in my truck a moment, got out and walked towards him. Angry bees swirled in the air between George and me. Nasty bees were robbing George's honey barn - the door was open wide.
I remembered Clive's comment about bad beekeeping - the American way - as I watched thousands of bees fly in and out of George's barn. Frenzied bees, wild and vicious. Occasionally, they paused to attempt to sting. We picked nasty bees out of our hair, off our shirts. These bees were visiting from neighboring colonies, hives belonging to other beekeepers and kept in the surrounding swamps. The bees had discovered an open back door to George's honey barn. The floor of his shed was sticky with dirty honey and burnt wax. The robber bees had come to clean the floor.
I introduced myself. George waved his white brush at the bees.
"How ya get them to stop?" asked George.
"Well, start by keeping the door shut," I replied.
"Can't," George said. "If I shut the door, can't hear the radio while I'm painting."
What radio? The drone of the robber bees was louder than George's country music.
George had been painting hive boxes. He'd piled tall stacks of rectangular boxes in his yard behind the old barn. Homemade equipment, cut from local cypress. He smeared oily white paint on everything. Some errant bees hit the boxes as they flew past to rob the shed, their little bodies became glued to the wet paint. "You've got to shut the door," I said.
"Only been open half an hour. Where you reckon they come from?"
Beekeepers kept thousands of hives of bees in the groves and swamps near George's farm. With few flowers blooming in late January, the messy shop with the spilt honey was an irresistible invitation to the bees of the neighborhood to steal what they couldn't honestly gather from plants. We closed the door, then set up a garden sprinkler on the end of a leaky green hose. The water soaked the siding and the closed door; saturated the sand in front of the shed. Party over, but it would take days for the wet bees to forget about this picnic spot.
"Want ice tea?" George asked. He had a glass gallon jug sitting on the steps of his house. Tea bags floated in the water, sunshine pushed the tea out of the bags, into the warm water. He came out of the house with two tall plastic glasses. There were a half dozen ice cubes in each glass. We poured warm tea from the glass jug. "Hold these," George said. He ambled back into the house, returned in a minute with a magazine, a sugar bowl, and one spoon. We poured several spoons full of sugar in with the brown tea. The ice melted quickly.
"Sun tea. Good, huh?" George drank quickly and refilled his glass. "Gotta show ya some stuff I done read about bees." George handed me his magazine. It was a popular magazine, a news magazine, with an article about beekeepers' problems.
"You think this stuff is true?" George asked me.
"Really? Why would tigers eat beekeepers?"
I hadn't seen that part of his magazine story yet. I'd been reading the part about rising costs and third world imports. "Here it is. Twenty-nine honey gatherers eaten by tigers in India...1973. Well, George, these aren't really beekeepers. These are people who go out into the jungle and pull combs of honey out of trees and off the sides of cliffs. They go into some pretty bad places. It's probably true. At least we don't get eaten by tigers, do we?"
We sat in the shade and watched the water spray against the barn door. Robber bees were still coming, but not as many as before.
"What about the cows?" George asked.
"You have problems with your cows?"
"No, in the magazine. It says cows were killed by bees. Read it."
"1898. Three hundred cows plunged to their death in Nebraska. Stampeded when chased by swarms of wild bees ... I don't know George, just because it's in a magazine, that doesn't mean it's true... Why you reading this, anyway?"
"You think I'm a bad beekeeper?"
"How long you been keeping bees?" I asked George.
"Been messin' with bees coming on forty years now."
"You never had any other job?"
Only a few bees were flying around the honey barn now. George said he was tired. I left.
George thought he was a bad beekeeper. As I struggled with old trucks, poorly built equipment, and weak hives, I knew I was. And so were many of my contemporaries. But after thousands of years of recorded beekeeping history, I recognized we didn't invent bad beekeeping in our generation.
The earliest evidence of a bad beekeeping experience may be attributed to a cave dweller. She lived along the Spanish-French frontier twenty thousand years before that border was created. The archeology community was buzzing with excitement in the early 1980s. Wall paintings of a cave dweller gathering honey had been discovered. The dark ochre rock sketching shows a beekeeper on a tree branch over-extending her reach for a handful of honeycomb. The oldest mural in the world. The theme was a honey harvest.
Jumping ahead several millennia, I once found myself using an aluminum ladder propped against an electric transmission pole, fetching my own swarm. I was swinging a wide-blade stainless steel knife. We really haven't learned much in two hundred centuries.
Technology has improved. We now have more efficient ways to make mistakes. But as I tried to stretch beyond the reach of my grasp, I ended up on the hard ground. I don't know if the cave girl fell off her ladder. Maybe she was eaten by a tiger. But she once lived, once gathered honey from a wild bees' nest. We know this because cave girl's beekeeping was recorded in art. Thousands of years after the honey harvest, long after her food was consumed, long after she was buried by her family in the Pyrenees, her story survives...
***By the end of February, my hives had large bee populations. The warm winter had brought a heavy pollen flow from swamp trees and weeds. Some of my hives were in citrus groves, a few were in swampy apiaries where the bees found pollen during the winter. The swamp bees had to be moved to apiaries in groves before citrus bloom.
Apiaries occupy other peoples' property. Beekeepers couldn't possibly afford all the little plots of land, spread over hundreds of square miles, where beehives are placed. The beekeeper depends on the kindness of strangers, usually farmers, for spots to set out bees. Sometimes the farmers are wealthy land barons who get a farm tax reduction if bees make agricultural use of their speculation lands. But usually, the land owners are poor, hard-working farmers. They tell the beekeeper where to place the bees - somewhere out of sight, but close to crops that might benefit from pollination.
Some bee spots are near gorgeous lakes and babbling brooks, snow-capped mountains in sight; other spots are wedged between dead cars and discarded Pampers. Sometimes a farmer allows bees in the grove or hay meadow because the bees will give a bigger and better crop of fruit or will help the clovers re-seed themselves. People sometimes called me to say that they have a nice place for my bees; but I'd find it wouldn't quite work - too exposed to wind; too close to a highway; too wet; too soggy; too something. Then they'd ask what sort of location would work best for me. "I'd like a good, all-weather road, a gently sloping south exposure, close to the fields, away from human traffic, maybe a nice view." One farmer told me there was only one place like that on his five-thousand acre ranch - and he'd already built his house there.
A beekeeper takes any reasonable place he can find. It works best for the beekeeper to scout the place first - to drive into the farmstead and tell the owner where he'd like to put his bees. Beekeepers probably have a better idea of all the trails and backroads in the nearby countryside than even the folks growing and smuggling marijuana do. The beekeeper knows which trail leads to which oak hammock and somehow talks a rancher into allowing fifty hives of bees to be parked there for a few months. But sometimes, there is little choice. The farmer makes the decision. The beekeeper takes what he can get.
Not only must the commercial beekeeper find and use a hundred or so locations spread over dozens of miles, he usually remembers how many hives are in each spot, what attention those hives need. A really good beekeeper rarely forgets a bee location, never gets lost.
I know only a few beekeepers who have a poor sense of direction and occasionally get lost. I am one of them. I envy the beekeeper who can be blindfolded, spun in circles, dropped out of a moving truck, land on both feet, and then point out north; recognize some distant landmark, flag down a passing police cruiser and end up at home in front of the TV before I could find my way back driving the fast moving truck. I have had trouble finding west while facing the setting sun. Put me on a straight road, I may be safe. But if the road has the tiniest little curve in it, you may never see me again.
I had to move several apiaries out of the swamps, into the orange groves. Each time, I was awake an hour before sunrise, before the bees began flying for the day. I'd park my truck next to the bees in the swamp. Lift the hives, one at a time, onto the flatbed. Forty colonies. Two tons of bees, boxes, honey and combs. I'd throw ropes over the loose load, fire up the truck and drive through the early morning fog to the grove locations, thirty miles away.
My Platlakaha apiary of bees was tied tightly to my flatbed truck. I was rolling north on Highway 33, about half a mile out of Mascotte. I passed Keith's truck, loaded with bees, heading south. Keith was moving his bees south while I was moving my bees north. Apparently he thought the direction I was heading was not as good as the direction I was leaving. And I guess I thought the same thing about his choices. I should have followed Keith.
I was trying to find a new location for my bees. The person who gave me the new apiary site was the manager of several large orange groves; too busy to meet me in the field. No one lived in the area. I would be on my own. My instructions led me north of Mascotte on Highway 33, then west on a red clay trail. Then I went left, left, south again, and maybe east. But I wasn't sure. After east, I was supposed to find a tall, moss-covered live oak tree by a wire fence. "Go past it, through the orange grove by a canal." Driving along the canal, I was to see a new orange grove. "Look for navels, about two years old," I was told. The guy giving me directions didn't know I couldn't tell two-year navels from third year grapefruit. I was to see a big clearing near the drainage canal. There I could unload my forty hives of bees. If I could find the clearing.
It was early morning, maybe six-thirty, and I needed to find the spot and set the hives off before it became light and warm and the bees would become active and fly away from my moving truck. I almost succeeded. I think I ended up where I was supposed to be. But in the foggy sunrise, as I crossed the sand and drove closer to the clearing near the drainage canal, I could see the shape of beehives in the spot I was going to use. Someone's hives were already sitting there.
This meant one of three things. Perhaps some other beekeeper - a rude, mindless, arrogant outlaw, had done a 'drop' - put bees in a nice apiary spot without anyone's permission; or, the grove manager who gave me permission to put my bees in the spot didn't know that the grove owner had already given someone else permission to do the same thing. But it was also possible I was in the wrong grove - completely and hopelessly lost, wandering aimlessly among alligators and mosquitoes with my impatient flock of bees.
But then, a fourth explanation emerged. As I drove closer to the hives, I was surprised to discover that the errant hives, hugging my new beeyard space, belonged to me. How could my own bees be here already? I had used an unfamiliar, back entrance to this unrecognized location. I was given permission by a manager to use a place that the owner had already asked me to stock with hives. I had beaten myself to my own beeyard, meeting hives I had set out only a few mornings earlier...
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