Essay Bee Hunting

Bee hunting brings some odd experiences. As boys, my brother and I were bee hunting with Smith and found the bees in the base of a rock maple on the edge of the woods,[34] in a fissure not five feet from the ground. It was late September and we decided to take up the tree forthwith. It was not necessary to fell the tree, but merely to cut into the hollow to get the honey. We had, however, no nets or gloves, so we built a smudge to drive back and stupefy the bees while we were getting the honey. We made a good haul and drove back to camp three miles away that evening and had ourselves a Gargantuan meal of brook trout, flapjacks, and new honey. After supper we went out to listen to the bugling of the elk with which the preserve was stocked and, looking across the valley, we saw a bright light. Our smudge had set fire to the tree. We drove back and found the hollow interior a furnace. There was no water available, and the fire had burned high up in the hollow. We had no means to extinguish it, nor did we dare leave it for fear the tree would fall and the fire spread. The elk were bugling merrily, and in those days an old bull in the rutting season was quite capable of attacking a man. We finally climbed onto a large branch of the nearest maple and spent a restless night telling stories and waiting for the fire to burn itself out. Fortunately, by morning it had.

Sometimes the attempt to find a tree is unusually baffling. One time my son and I lined and cross lined a swarm until we narrowed the search to two or three trees. The likeliest was a beech, but though we occasionally got a glitter of wings in the air, we could not be sure that we had the tree. It was not until we had gone home and returned with a powerful pair of field glasses that we were able to distinguish the bees in the foliage forty-five feet in the air and near enough the hole to make us certain that we had our[35] bee tree. The actual hole itself we did not see until we felled the tree and took up the swarm. Another time I had run the line to the top of a mountain and then the line reversed itself. Between the two last stands there was nothing but bull spruce not big enough to hold a colony, and moreover I had never heard of bees in a spruce. Tree by tree I examined the terrain. I finally found the bees dropping down into the roots of a spruce where there was a hollow partly in the wood and partly in the ground where the colony had settled. It was a miserable little swarm, and I never bothered to take it up. The next summer it was gone, as I had expected in the case of a foolish swarm that had selected so unsuitable an habitation.

Does one ever find a bee tree by accident? Yes, but very, very rarely. I once was eating my luncheon beside a mountain brook and noticed a honey bee loading water at a wet spot. He flew off and soon came back. I got out my watch and timed him. He was gone two minutes. I rose and went in the direction of his departure and found the tree fifty yards away. This was without benefit of bee box or syrup, but did involve lining of a sort. On the other hand, I once found a tree on top of a mountain and, choosing a different way down, found another bee tree two hundred yards from the first. My guess is that the older colony had swarmed, and the new commune had decided to set up in the nearest suitable place to the old. Another tree I found accidentally due to an amusing mistake. My companion had had some experience in bee hunting, and when I started out to catch some bees I asked her to fill the comb for me so as to be ready when I returned with the bees.[36] She did so, however filling the comb from the anise bottle instead of the syrup bottle. There was nothing for it but to go all the way home for fresh comb and start over again. On the way back we discovered a large colony of bees in a huge pine which we had passed unnoticed as we had gone out the first time. These are the only trees I remember having discovered by accident, and I have looked longingly into thousands of likely trees. To find bees one must hunt them and not rely on chance.

Sometimes bees, for such sagacious insects, show remarkably little sense in the abode they select. I once found a colony in a small dead poplar (or popple I should prefer to call it) so weak and rotted that I could have pushed it over with my weight. Those bees I decided to save for pets. My wife, the farmer, and I drove that night to a place a few hundred yards from the tree. The hole was about five feet up. The family was all at home of course, and I plugged the hole with moss to keep them there. Then we attached a rope to the tree as far up as we could reach and sawed it off at the base, lowering it gently to the ground. Then we cut off the top above the hollow which sheltered the bees. The farmer and I easily carried it to the buckboard and brought it home in triumph. I had already prepared a place for it in a tub sunk in the ground and cement ready to puddle around it. Soon our bee tree was standing erect in the cow pasture near the house with a saucepan over the top to keep rain from seeping into the hollow. I unplugged the hole and went to bed. Next morning I went out to see how my guests did. They were six miles from where they had gone to bed the night before and were quite untroubled[37] by it. They had already organized perfectly. The temperature of the hive apparently had risen, and a ring of fanners was around the hole fanning air into the interior with their wings where it was caught up by other fanners and driven through the hive. The ventilation system was humming. The bees had already discovered the small brook a few yards away, and a bucket brigade was busily fetching water. The bulk of the workers had discovered my neighbor’s buckwheat patch and were busily gathering nectar. I kept them for several years and got much fun from watching them, nor did they ever show the slightest resentment toward me for shifting their home. Eventually they died in an unusually severe winter.

Apropos of starting a line without catching a bee, it can be done but only by the rarest accident. I did it once. I had gone out to hunt after the autumnal frosts, hoping to find a late flower or two on which I could catch a bee. I went to a sheltered clearing and, leaving my spare box open with the empty comb exposed on a boulder, I wandered round the clearing searching for a bee. Finding none after fifteen or twenty minutes, I returned to gather up my kit and found a bee buzzing round the empty comb. He had found it by accident, having flown near enough to get a scent of the comb and anise. I succeeded in filling the dropper with syrup and squirting it onto the comb without frightening the bee. He found the syrup promptly, loaded, and left. I then filled the comb properly. I had hardly finished when the bee returned with three friends. In fifteen minutes I had a roaring line, and in three moves and about two hours I found the tree. This was a good example[38] of how well bees will run on a warm fall day after the flowers have gone by. It is also the only example I remember of my being fortunate enough to start a line in this way.

If you are wise, you will allow this decision to be made by your woodsmen. If possible, it should be felled so that the hole is on one side or on top. If possible, it should not be felled across boulders, as it is very desirable not to have the hole split. Sometimes a tree will be so leaning, however, that there is no choice in the matter, and one must do the best one can. While the woodsmen are chipping the trunk and beginning to saw, the hunter should gather moss, the fronds of ferns, or other stuff to plug the hole when the tree is brought down. As the saw bites deeper and the scarf widens, the top of the tree will begin to sway. Now is the time for the hunter to don his veil and gloves. Before putting on the veil, it is well to turn up the collar of one’s jacket. It is not even an act of supererogation to tie tightly some twine around one’s waist. I once had an ambitious bee crawl up under my jacket, down through the band of my trousers, up under my shirt and undershirt and sting me in the small of the back. For protection of the legs, nothing is better than a light pair of fisherman’s rubber boots. Failing them, tie the bottom of your trousers or dungarees tightly round the[45] tops of your shoes. Do not wear low shoes. My companion did that the time we took up the ninety-seven pound tree. It was in a swamp and, in addition to the discomfort of wet feet, he found that a couple of dozen bees, stupefied by the smudge, fell into the water, revived, and relieved their feelings by swimming across to his ankles and stinging them. The next day his legs looked as though he had elephantiasis, and never thereafter could I get him to help me take up a bee tree. He could not seem to comprehend that the fault was his for wearing low shoes.

The cut deepens. The tree sways wider. It begins to heave, and one hears the first pistol-like reports of the cracking trunk. Slowly at first then with rapid momentum the tree falls with a thunderous roar. The axemen have snatched the saw from the cut and jumped back. The hunter rushes in, his hands full of moss, finds the aperture and plugs it before the bees can escape. At least he tries to. Sometimes he misses a subsidiary aperture, and some bees escape to enliven the proceedings. Sometimes the bole splits at the hollow and nothing can be done about that. Usually the hole can be plugged, and one can take one’s time preparing to open the hollow.

The woodsmen now put on their nets and gloves, if indeed they have not done so just before felling the tree. All debate as to whether the hollow extends above or below the hole, often a matter of guesswork. Then the saw comes into play again. The lumbermen cut deep scarves above and below the area where the honey is supposed to be. When rotten wood (and at times honey!) shows on the blade, one can be sure the hollow is entered. Then a[46] wedge is placed at the base of one of the scarves and driven home with the sledge. Another, parallel to it, is driven in further down, and a third parallel at the lower scarf. As the wedges are driven home, the bole will split and a great section may be lifted off like a lid, exposing the honey and the bees. Of course, I am describing an ideal performance. Often the tree makes trouble, has to be sawed several times, and the opening enlarged with the axe. As the crack widens under the impact of the wedges, the bees pour out, and the fight is on. They will attack viciously, and one is aware of the ping of bees dashing themselves against the wire netting of the veil. If one has taken proper precautions, one is safe, though, to be honest, one usually gets stung once or twice in taking up the tree. Humans vary in susceptibility to bee stings. I am lucky in that they trouble me little, and usually the swellings are slight. On the other hand, my brother when once stung in the back of the hand, found his arm next morning thrice its normal size to the armpit. Those so constituted had better stop at home when a tree is taken up.

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