The Big One
Run of Hollow
Preface & Reader Response
When we robbed the bees there was honey on the floor, on our clothing, and on our bodies. Everything we touched was sticky with honey.
ROBBING THE BEES
by Jerry Murley
On a family farm in a rural community, family members, friends, and hired hands gather for seasonal group work that is essential to the running of the farm. The work requires team coordination and is highly stressful and wearing – and often inconveniently timed and dreaded by family members. To an observer, these events, when experienced over a number of years, begin to be something more than their apparent practical purpose: They come to signify major tribal rituals in which the normal course of life stands still and what seemed a simple activity is magnified in meaning. They become, for those with the patience and imagination to take the journey, tunnels through time to something basic and age old. They are channels to universal patterns that though seldom recognized in modern-day urban life are in reality never far from the surface of human experience and essential need – no matter how advanced man thinks he has become.
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When I think of beekeeping, I think of a process that is almost clinical in its precision. At least that is how I think of it in the abstract – probably because of photographs and films of the white overalls and neatly netted pith helmets and gloves. Well, when we robbed bees in the hollow over the past thirty years, the process was anything but precise, spotless, and orderly. There was always a question as to whether the equipment could be found and, if found, as to whether we could squeeze yet another year of service out of it.
Just think a moment about the physical properties of honey. When we robbed the bees there was honey on the floor, on our clothing, and on our bodies. Everything we touched was sticky with honey. We tried to confine operations to the kitchen, where we had covered the floor with newspaper. But of course we had to get the heavy, honey-laden supers to the kitchen, so we carried them through the den, where the carpet was covered with newspaper.
Now think of two dozen or more bees trapped in a house full of honey that they want and the honey robbers intend to take and keep. And that's not the half of it, because the leader of the show, the patriarch, gets a bit like a crazed bee himself once the process has begun. It was more and more tiring for him as he aged, and he depended on all of his reluctant draftees to do our parts in perfect rhythm and in the style to which he had endeavored to make us accustomed over years of coaching. It was tiring for all of us, especially when the weather was hot, and we began to feel a bit foolish walking around with newspaper stuck to our shoes and annoyed at the bees in our hair.
But let's start at the beginning, on a clear day in late summer or early fall, when Bob, and a visiting male who had volunteered or been coaxed into helping dismantle the beehive, suited up for the first step in removing the honey – a step taking them into the midst of the bees. Bob did wear a veiled helmet and gloves at first, when he was a youngster in his fifties and sixties, but as he got older he settled for jeans, a shirt, and a cap. I don't know if I helped with that part more than a few times, but when I did, I always put on the full gear – or what was left of it, since there were holes in the overalls and netting and the gloves were not so snug as to prevent a bee from slipping past to the helper's skin. I don't remember being stung but maybe once or twice. Bob was stung on his arms a couple of times every year. But for the most part the pine needles, decaying wood, or greased rags stuffed and set alight in the hand-held smoker "put the whammy" to the bees and kept them passive.
Bob employed his hive tool – a ten-inch curved pry bar – to ease the top super loose from the stack of supers that provided the hive's exterior housing. Bob might pry a frame out as well to see how much honey was in it. The nine to ten frames hung parallel to one another in the super and supplied a firm structure for a section of honeycomb that was removable without damaging the comb. Most of the time, he could tell from the weight how much honey was in each super. If there was insufficient honey, Bob gave the bees a good cussing for slacking off on the job. Bob put each super on a garden cart and then the helper pushed each load of three or four supers to the back door and carried them into the kitchen and stacked them on the floor. The supers oozed and dripped some honey from the moment they were lifted from the hive.
Inside of the house, everyone manned their customary positions without needing to review the standard assignments and "the drill," as the lieutenant colonel referred to it. Once, when it was really hot, Bob stripped down to shorts, socks, and shoes for his next job, but usually he wore jeans and a T-shirt and went straight to the kitchen sink. There was a rectangular six-inch-deep plastic tub on the right side of the sink. I used the hive tool to pry a frame out of the top super. Joyce took the frame to the left side of the kitchen sink and held it until Bob was ready for it. She was the chief buffer between Bob and the rest of the crew as he periodically barked commands and suggested disapproval of our graceless or inefficient performance. When Bob was ready for a new frame full of honey, Joyce handed one to him and he used a hot electric knife to cut the comb caps, and a very thin layer of comb, off of each side of the frame. Any honey released by the hot blade of the knife, and the pieces of wax cap and comb that he removed, dropped into the plastic pan to his right. Joyce then brought the de-capped frame to me.
Between prying frames loose from the supers, my primary station was the metal honey extractor. I put one frame on each of four sides of the wire cage mounted inside of the 26-inch-high metal cylinder, taking care to balance the weight on all four sides. The extractor, which had a diameter of 18 inches, rested precariously on a wooden footstool borrowed from the den. The extractor had a motor attached at the top which, if and when the switch worked, was used to spin the wire holder and sling the honey from the frames. After a good spin, I turned each of the four frames 180 degrees and gave them another spin to ensure that all the honey was extracted. The honey was thrown from the comb in the frame onto the inside wall of the cylinder, where it ran down and drained out of a spigot at the bottom into clean pots and pans placed on the floor by Bobbie.
Bobbie removed the full pots and pans of honey to a safer surface in the kitchen, wiped down their tops and sides, and put a cloth covering over them until the honey could be put into clean quart Mason jars later. Over the next hours, the debris in the honey, such as bee and comb fragments, rose to the top of the honey and was skimmed off by Bobbie prior to jarring. We all spent much effort wiping our hands and kitchen surfaces and tools with warm, wet rags in a futile attempt to contain the spread of honey over every surface in the kitchen.
This generally hot process with little air conditioning and a fan blowing from across the room continued for about two or three hours. Once in full production, with the end in sight, we did relax a bit and enjoy morsels of levity regarding minor mishaps and the routine, eye-winking verbal stings issued from the honey-robbing high command to his good-do-bee honey gatherers at their stations around the kitchen. By the end of that time, however, everyone was exhausted and barely beyond irritability. Then commenced the cleanup by removing the supers and empty frames to the backyard and disposing of honey-splotched newspaper. Surfaces were wiped again and again, and the kitchen linoleum was mopped. Meanwhile, I took the extractor outside, removed the motor, and washed the metal cylinder and wire cage down with a water hose.
Then the task of getting the honey into jars began. Bobbie took the pieces of comb and honey from Bob's plastic pan and squeezed and strained the honey from them. Within a week, Joyce and I were given a few quarts of honey from Bobbie with Bob's blessings. The golden sweetener remained on our kitchen table year round in a small squeezable dispenser. When I drank hot English tea with milk, I always sweetened it with farm honey. But by far the most popular use of our farm honey was on biscuits and cornbread.
I cannot claim that members of my immediate family looked forward to this annual task of robbing the bees. As with many group farm chores that ended with an edible product, bee robbing was a process that was most enjoyable and most fondly remembered right after it was over. But I know with certainty that we missed it when Bob became unable to maintain his hives himself. For years, he allowed another local beekeeper to rob his bees for a share of the produce. Bob's hives had suffered infestations of mites, moths, fungus, and foulbrood over the years. In order to save his hives, Bob once had to burn some of the supers and frames that he had made in shop class when he was in high school. Either the new blight on bees circulating through the country at the time, or the periodic extremes of drought, heavy rain, high heat, and low winter temperatures, finally finished his hives off by the end of the winter of 2010. With them a body of knowledge and a memorable, seasonal family ritual faded from practice – at least for a while. But the beekeeping tradition is even now being revived and taken up by Bob's descendants in the hollow. Two starter hives (package bees), each with 3,000 bees and a queen, have been ordered. They will be welcome newcomers to this hollow of ours, and they will find nectar aplenty.