When I was eleven, one of my favourite things to do was looking for snakes. In our part of the world venomous snakes were almost completely unknown and they were all small enough that even their bites did nothing more than startle me.
Searching was easy. I would go out to the field behind our house. At one time there must have been a building there but now all that was left were large sheets of corrugated tin – the kind typically used for a roof or a shed. Now they were just lying flat on the ground.
And so it went. I would walk through the grass, find a piece of tin, flip it over and see what was under there. Sometimes there would be a few crickets, sometimes there would be a snake hole but no snake. But other times luck would be with me and there’d be a snake coiled up underneath, warming itself from the sun-soaked metal. When this happened, I’d quickly and carefully catch it by grabbing it from behind its head. After that I had no particular plan. I did keep one for a day – long enough to bring it to school to show it at show and tell before I was told to put it outside. Today, though, I didn’t have a good plan and just stuck 1-2 small ones in the pockets of my jeans.
Finally I came to the last piece of tin for the day. I reached under the edge to lift it up and it was REALLY heavy. The grass must really have grown up around it. I put both hands underneath and lifted as hard as I could. Something was holding it down, though. Finally, something slowly began to give way and it finally flipped over.
I looked down and thought to myself “I have never seen so many ants!” They were crawling everywhere, on the tin I had just flipped over, on the ground, into and out of big holes in the ground. Then I heard a loud buzzing sound and realized. These weren’t ants at all. They were bees. I stood paralyzed for what felt like forever, staring at the tens of thousands of insects crawling everywhere. Finally, I seemed to gain control over my legs and I started running home. By this time the bees were all over my arms. I brushed them off over and over but they kept coming back and some of them started stinging. I dove under the rusty barbed wire fence that separated the field from our house’s property, ran up the steps and in to the house.
Even inside I was still terrified. I looked over all of my clothes trying to see if anyone followed me home. They hadn’t though they’d left behind seven stings to remind me why I shouldn’t bother them ever again.
My mom, hearing all the noise came in to the kitchen and asked me what happened. Now that the immediate danger was gone, I started to cry as I told her what happened. She reassured me, I calmed down and eventually went to the living room to watch TV.
Ten minutes later I hear screaming coming from the kitchen. My mom sounded as scared as I was. Did the bees come looking for me? Oh right. I had two snakes in my pocket! I went out there, caught them and put them outside. Even though they weren’t the bees coming back to get me, the damage was done. Forever after I would be terrified of bees. The fear soon moved from being about bees to bees and wasps and soon after that any unidentified flying insect. If it wasn’t clearly a mosquito or fly, I would switch to high alert. If I have lunch on a patio and a bee comes over, I am up and running around trying to avoid it until it leaves. If something flies in to my car, I pull over and either identify it or get it out because it will distract me for the rest of the time I am in the car.
Because of all that, when I thought up this project, today’s challenge was the first I thought of. I am in luck as one of my friends, Lesley, is a part of Swarm Sisters. At her house she has thirteen hives. When bees make a home where they’re not welcome, she re-homes them, finding them a safe and healthy place to live.
We pick up a car and drive a few hours east into the countryside. The day is the type of day I find myself dreaming of in the middle of winter: dazzling sun, a few picturesque clouds, warm enough that jeans and a t-shirt are comfortable with a slight breeze that keeps it from being uncomfortably warm.
We leave the highway, and soon after leave the pavement behind as well. We are welcomed to Lesley’s house, a passive solar house in the process of being built and that will be shared with friends. Outside is a big beautiful garden and fields. Beyond that is forest. When we lived in the yurt, this is the vision I had for where we might eventually end up. Though I am beyond happy to be where I am, I do wonder if there’s a version of me in a parallel universe living in a big straw bale house with a couple other families.
We go to a shed and grab suits to protect us from the bees. Lesley tells us that the bees we’re going to see are so calm that she generally only wears a veil to keep them away from her face. As I’m still pretty scared, I am happy to suit up some distance from the hives.
As we walk I ask Lesley how she ended up having bees. She tells me that when she was young someone gifted her a book about bees. As she got older, she devoured information about them until finally she took a class in beekeeping. It wasn’t long before she had hives of her own.
About ten feet away from the hives we see she has installed an electric fence. As she turns it off she tells us that this is to prevent the bears from getting to the hives. They are not only after honey as the Yogi Bear cartoons would make you think, they’re after the protein-rich larvae. They’ll push over the hives and then tear them apart, scooping everything they can in to their mouths. There are over a dozen bears in the area and other hives had been destroyed. Unfortunately a couple of bears were shot because after they had enough honey they decided to go inside a home to see what else they could eat.
Before opening our first hive, Lesley lights a small fire inside a smoke pot – essentially a kettle with bellows on it to blow smoke in the direction you want. As she explains it, the smoke helps keep the bees docile in a couple of ways. The first way is a bit unfortunate. They get the impression that their home is on fire. And so they get inside, eat all they can in preparation for potentially lean times as they go find another home. As they eat they get a bit more calm just as we do after a big meal. The second reason is that the smell of the smoke overpowers the pheromones they use to communicate with each other. So if one of them gets upset and makes a smell to alert the others, it gets lost in the smell of burning pine needles.
We open the top of the hive, add some smoke to the hole in the top and then blow a bit more in the front “doors”. We give it a minute and then take the top off.
There are so many bees. I’m told a small hive may have 50,000 bees in it and larger ones many more. Each one of those racks can be removed and Lesley takes one out as she explains the life cycle from egg to larva to fully-grown bee. I’m amazed to learn how complicated their life is. Only the queen lays eggs and her whole life is spent doing that. Female workers do everything from cleaning cells (a new bee’s first job is to clean the cell it leaves), to making honey to feeding babies. Males are not particularly useful, only there to mate with the queen on occasion. Otherwise they’re not even capable of feeding and cleaning themselves and other females have to do that for them. But it’s not a great life of leisure for them either. Their life generally ends one of two ways. If they’re lucky enough to mate, their testicles explode after fertilizing the queen and they die immediately. On the other hand, if they don’t get to mate, their end is no better. Because the males are so useless and they are so easily replaced, they aren’t worth supporting through a flower-free winter where they’re living off honey stores. And so, as the weather gets colder, female bees escort the males to the door and throw them out in to the cold to die. Some try to come back inside but are escorted outside until soon there’s a pile of dead males outside the door.
As we hear this we are standing right next to a small hive and 12 others of varying sizes. There were nowhere near this many bees around when I was chased as a kid. They are flying all around us, crawling over the top of the open hive, going in and out the doors in the front. It helps to be inside a suit that keeps me mostly safe. More than that, hearing all of this information helps. Bees are just having their lives. If you aren’t noisy, destructive and don’t appear threatening, generally speaking you’re safe. Yes, Lesley tells us, hives have a personality inherited from the queen so some hives like the ones we are looking in are more docile than others. Other hives with grumpy queens may tolerate less before considering you a threat.
Lesley takes out a rack with cells in it. Inside she shows us a few eggs, some larvae and some capped cells where a larva is undergoing the transformation to adulthood. She hands me the rack and now I am holding something literally crawling with bees. A few crawl over my gloved hand and I can feel their warmth and weight. Where is the panic I would feel when a bee gets in the car with me? It’s not here and I’m glad.
We open another hive, one that is big enough that two levels of it are now “off limits” to the queen, blocked by a “queen excluder” – a grate that is so big her abdomen is too big to pass through it. The result is that these upper levels now have no eggs or babies. Instead there is honey.
The bees go gather nectar and bring it back to the hive, adding some enzyme from their stomachs before “pouring” it in to a cell. Once there, it sits in the warmth of the hive (a constant 31°C, we’re told) and gradually moisture evaporates. Once it is at the correct moisture level, the bees put a wax cap on the top, sealing it up for safekeeping. They’ll need that in the winter. Of course beekeepers do take some honey and this is based on estimating the size of the hive and how many pounds of honey they will need to last the winter until flowers start blooming and they can start making more food – and then they take what is “extra”
We take out one of the racks only partially filled with honey and it’s already heavy with honey. We each take a finger and push gently through the wax covering the honey-filled cells and get our fingers covered in it. I unzip my veil from my jacket enough to put my hand inside and taste. It is one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted.
When most of us get honey at the supermarket we get it from large producers. The honey is all mixed together and bottles filled. What you taste is a little bit of everything. But when you taste the honey from a single hive you get a taste of honey made from whatever flower nectar is currently in season. And so today’s honey will taste quite different from that of two months ago. Go somewhere else and the honey can taste completely different. I tell a friend of mine from Pune about this trip and she tells me about Karvi honey – made from a flower that grows in the Western Ghats that blooms only once every seven years. I’m very curious about this and wonder if any of my readers have been lucky enough to try this.
In the end this experience was nothing like I expected. I think I expected it to feel something like skydiving or bungee jumping. I would feel scared but be able to talk myself in to pushing through it with logic: “You’ll be safe, you’re in a bee suit! They’re more afraid of you than you are of them!” Instead it was fascinating. I could have spent the afternoon out there learning and spending time with these amazing little creatures.
As we drive home, Sage and I keep saying how fascinating it was and how much we learned. We’re both inspired to read and learn even more. Definitely a great reward for facing my fear.
We usually share Instagram stories as we do these adventures, today’s adventure is particularly fun and interesting. You can watch the whole thing here.