First-person accounts from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford
“The things that I had to do as chores when I was a kid, I now get paid to do. I was raised on a small farm in Indiana, where we had pigs and chickens and bees. My dad tells friends that I keep bees for a living, and then he laughs. I don’t know if it’s out of pride or disbelief.
“When I was a kid I watched him work the hives. One day he said he needed to ‘super’ the hive, which means putting another box on it so the bees have more space. I was like, ‘I’ll do that.’ That was my first experience opening a hive and seeing all these animals that are wild but also beautiful. It’s a rush, you know?
“The biggest mistake you can make is to assume the bees know what you’re doing: ‘Oh, they know I’m just here to take honey, and then I’ll leave them alone.’ Bees don’t want to hurt you, because when a bee stings, it dies. But they have no problem sacrificing themselves if they think you’re a threat to the colony.
“One time I’m working a hive that’s a little surly, and I didn’t smoke. Smoking a hive makes bees easier to work with. It’s an evolutionary trait. They assume a fire is coming, and before the fire gets closer they’ll eat, because they don’t know when they’ll eat again. They get such a full stomach that they can’t position themselves to sting. Also, they communicate through pheromones, and the smoke disrupts the pheromones.
“Anyway, because I didn’t smoke, a bee stung me. Then I get two more stings on the same hand. I was in a wedding the following day, and I had this Hulk hand.
Bees are like butterflies; they have a metamorphosis. A queen finds a cell to place her abdomen in and lay an egg. That develops into a larva, which looks like a C-shaped Spaghetti-O. That develops into a bee that eats through the capped cell. And then we’ll have a baby bee. You can tell; they’re more fuzzy. They’re cute.
“Bees are really clean. They don’t defecate in their hive. Even in the dead of winter, they go outside to do their business. If a bee dies inside the hive, they pick it up and fly it out.
“When bees are in a swarm, that’s their most docile. They’re so focused on gathering around the queen—festooning, it’s called—that they care about nothing else. Do not get out your Raid and spray the bees. They’ll leave on their own. Or they might make a home in your tree, which is fine.
“Eating local honey is the best thing you could do for allergies. Since moving to Chicago and eating local honey, my allergies are not as bad. It could also be that we don’t have the same number of hayfields in Chicago that we do in Terre Haute, but I like to think it’s the bees’ doing.