You couldn’t ask for a much better day to go up onto Michael Thompson’s roof. It’s only ten o’clock on this August Sunday morning, and already the temperature is 75, maybe 80 degrees. Michael Thompson lives in the Sheffield area of Lincoln Park, on the third floor of a building that houses a furniture store at street level. On his back porch there’s a stepladder leaning against the wall of the house, and above it there’s an opening in the roof through which Thompson can fit himself. Dressed in white coveralls and carrying a simple metal hive tool, a pair of long canvas gloves, a hat with a veil attached to it, and a curious metal can equipped with a spout and bellows, he makes his way slowly up the ladder and through the opening to visit the 120,000 honeybees that live and work above his living room.
To his left as he emerges, at the westernmost edge of the building, is a line of large potted plants. Directly in front of him is a small plastic wading pool, the kind you may have had in your backyard when you were a kid, and in the pool and around it lie several large rocks, which help the bees orient themselves to the proper hive when they return from the field with a load of nectar or pollen. The hives themselves, two of them, would look like nothing more than white wooden boxes were it not for the bees flitting around the small lengthwise slits at their bottoms. On a colder, cloudier, or windier day the bees might all be inside the hives, but today they are working furiously—the blossoms are out, the air is warm, and tomorrow might not be so ideal. The bees make honey while the sun shines.
On the roof, Thompson kneels beside the wading pool and dons the veil, tying it tight around his neck so no venture-some bee will be able to fly or crawl inside. Next, he opens the metal can and places strips of white cotton inside. He lights the cloth with a match, closes the can’s cover, and pumps the bellows gently—he wants the cloth to smolder, but not to flame—until hefty gusts of smoke begin to issue from its spout. Finally, he pulls on the long gloves and ties the strings at their ends tightly around his forearms to close off another possible point of entry.
Thompson moves toward the west hive slowly and deliberately. Although many beekeepers claim that one can become accustomed, or even immune, to the venom that bees transmit in a sting, Thompson, who has been keeping bees since he was a child, does not relish the prospect, and by being careful he has managed to avoid it for two years now. The white coveralls he wears are yet another protective measure—for some reason, bees are less likely to attack a light-colored object than a dark one.
The white wooden box—the hive—is actually three boxes stacked one atop another; the bottom two are about ten inches deep, and the top one is shallower, about six inches. Inside each of the three boxes, hanging from the top like parallel curtains, are ten rectangular wooden frames. They are like crude pine picture frames, but within them, where the glass would be, the bees have constructed their comb, about 25 tiny hexagonal cells to the square inch, and in these cells they raise their young and store pollen and honey for food. These frames are the key to modern beekeeping; they hang from a lip at the top of each box but are unattached everywhere else, so the beekeeper can remove or shuffle them. Before this sort of beehive was invented, there was no practical way for the beekeeper to inspect his bees; all he could do was remove their honey at season’s end, and to accomplish this he would have to cut the comb from the hive, a sticky and sometimes dangerous business. Many, if not most, beekeepers would simply kill the bees first to avoid the complications.
Thompson is going into the hive today to check two things: the progress of the colony’s honey-producing effort, and the health of the queen bee. He begins by shooting a few bursts of smoke into the hive entrance, the small lengthwise slit at the bottom. Bees fear fire, and at the first hint of it they will prepare for an emergency, gorging on honey to sustain themselves in case they have to leave the hive and search for a new home. Bees are far less aggressive than usual after they have consumed a lot of honey, so ultimately the smoke has the effect of settling them down, making them less likely to react against the intruder.
The honey Thompson will eventually harvest is contained in the shallow top box, the “super” as beekeepers call it, and, after waiting a few seconds for the smoke to do its work, he begins to disassemble the hive to get at it. Because the bees have a habit of cementing almost every crevice and opening in the hive with a brown, sticky substance called “propolis,” Thompson must pry the hive cover off with his metal tool. He stands to the side of the hive, so as not to provoke the bees entering and exiting through the front, and works methodically; soon the cover comes off to reveal teeming layers of bees crawling over the top bars of the super frames. After a couple puffs of smoke, many of them retreat down into the depths of the box, but many stay on the top bars and continue to scurry as Thompson pries apart the frame—they, too, have been glued to each other with propolis. Freeing one frame, Thompson lifts it out and holds it up in the sunlight. At first it is almost completely covered with furry dark-brown and orange striped worker bees; they have been depositing nectar in the cells of the comb, working it over into honey, and capping the filled cells with beeswax. As the bees leave the comb—some of their own volition, others at a soft brush of Thompson’s gloved hand—they reveal that it is almost completely filled with ripe, capped honey ready to be harvested.
The colony is doing surprisingly well, considering that it started as a package of mail-order bees only a few months ago. The colony that inhabited this hive last year died over the winter, because, Thompson thinks, there were too many bees in it. In winter, bees cluster together to keep themselves and their developing brood warm. The cluster in the old colony, Thompson guesses, may have been so large that it inhibited movement in the hive, preventing the bees from reaching the honey stored in the upper portions. In any case, the bees were all dead when Thompson checked the hive late last winter, so he ordered a new package of bees from one of the many bee supply houses that provide them. These companies, most of them located in the south, where the warm weather comes earlier, ship thousands of two-, three-, and five-pound packages of bees by rail, parcel post, and U.P.S. each spring. The typical order, a two-pound package containing about 10,000 workers and one queen, arrives in a small wood frame box with screen sides, to allow for ventilation. A can of sugar syrup dispenses food through a wick to sustain the bees in transit, and a small cage, about the size of a matchbox, holds the queen and a few servant worker bees. Without this separate traveling compartment the queen might be killed by the workers, because she is not, strictly speaking, “their” queen, having been raised separately at the apiary. When the beekeeper receives his package, he installs the workers in his hive and places the queen cage among them. The workers must become accustomed to the queen before she can roam the hive safely. To this end, her cage is plugged with a small “cork” of sugar candy, which the worker bees will eat away within a day or so. By the time the plug is consumed, the bees are generally willing to accept the queen as theirs, and she can leave the cage and go about her business of populating the hive.
Generally, it is not reasonable to expect that a package colony will produce much surplus honey in its first season, but this summer has been a good one for bees in Chicago—Thompson has already harvested about 80 pounds from this hive, and he expects that he’ll be able to take another 50 to 75 pounds in October. It looks like the October honey will be fine. Thompson holds the frame up between the sun and his face to appreciate its golden color, and he pulls in a long sniff. It smells sweet and delicious, and its color is light, which means it will probably have the delicate taste that most Americans seem to prefer. There is a silence on the roof for a moment, a short time in which to appreciate the miracle that has been taking place quietly, almost invisibly, on the roof above the furniture store.
Quickly, though, the reverence gives way to pragmatism. The beekeeper tries to disturb his bees as infrequently as possible, and for no longer than is necessary each time. Thompson has learned what he can from the top box—the nectar is flowing well, the bees are producing rapidly, and soon he will have to add another super to the hive, to give the bees more room.
If the bees become crowded in their hive, they will “swarm,” or divide their colony—roughly half the bees will leave with the queen in search of a new home. The remaining bees will by then have started to rear a new queen, and they will settle back to work with her in their newly uncrowded hive. But the beekeeper tries to discourage swarming—it is bad public relations, for one thing, to loose 30,000 or 40,000 bees on the neighborhood. (Although swarming bees are harmless, because they, too, are stuffed with honey, non-beekeepers have no way of knowing that.) More important, the beekeeper wants to keep the population of his colony high: a well-populated colony produces more honey, naturally, than a sparsely populated one, and it is better able to survive the winter and enter next spring’s nectar-gathering season in sufficient numbers to insure a good crop in the future, too.
Putting the shallow super aside, Thompson next smokes the to of the upper deep box and removes a frame from it. He notices that his bees have constructed a “queen cup” on the lower part of the frame. They are fairly easy to spot because they are usually constructed near the bottom of the frame, perpendicular to the other cells. They are also larger than other cells and somewhat peanut-shaped. The presence of the queen cup is one of the first indications that the colony is preparing to swarm. later, the cup may be built up into a queen cell, and if the present queen lays an egg in it, the workers may raise themselves a new queen by feeding that egg exclusively on “royal jelly,” a highly nutritious food secreted by glands in the bees’ heads. (Worker and queen bees come from identical eggs; it is the amount of royal jelly fed to the larva that determines whether it will emerge as a queen or a worker.) If the colony raises a new queen in this manner, the present queen will probably swarm out of the hive with some 30 to 70 percent of the workers. But the appearance of the queen cup is by no means guarantee that the bees will swarm—it is merely the first step in a long preparation process, and Michael Thompson is not too worried by it. He is confident that he can stem the swarming instinct by adding another super to the hive, thus providing more room for the bees to work in. Besides, it is getting late in the season, and the majority of swarming takes place before the first of July. Colonies that swarm later might not have sufficient time to construct a new home and gather the 60 to 90 pounds of honey they will need to survive the Illinois winter. Just to make sure, however, Thompson scrapes the queen cup away with his hive tool and destroys it.
Continuing his inspection, Thompson pulls another frame from the deep box, or the “brood chamber.” This frame contains a few golden honey cells, but most of the hexagonal compartments are dark red in color—these are “brood cells,” where bee pupae are developing. Here Thompson is checking on the health of the queen, which he can judge by the quality of the “brood pattern.” A healthy and active queen, he knows, lays her eggs in a compact pattern, rarely skipping a cell and forming an elliptical pattern of brook that extends over most of the frame. If the brood pattern were irregular, with empty cells interspersed through it, Thompson would consider replacing the queen. But this hive’s brood pattern is tight and compact, and, without actually seeing the queen, Thompson satisfies himself that she is doing well.
While inspecting the upper brood chamber, Thompson notices a change in the bees’ disposition. They are raising a slightly louder buzz now, and there is more flying, both over the top of the hive and at its entrance. Within a matter of moments, the bees have become angry—visibly angry, even to a non-beekeeper. Thompson thinks that perhaps a wasp has entered the hive, and he decides that there has been enough inspection for the moment. Quickly, but methodically, he replaces the deep frame, places the super back on top of the brood chamber, closes the top, and retreats down the stepladder to his back porch and a glass of iced tea.
Thompson is a handsome 29-year-old with a soft, reasonable way of speaking and a head of thick black hair that is swept back a little more stylishly than you might expect for one who indulges in this rather arcane agricultural pursuit. He works as a horticulturist for Lange Florist and Greenhouses, installing tropical plant arrangements in homes and offices. He sees his beekeeping as a combination of various passions, for insects, for plants and flowers, and for birds.
He started with bees at the age of thirteen in Wichita, Kansas. “I asked my parents if I could have a hive of bees,” he explains, as if this were a perfectly normal request, “and they were kind enough to give me one.” His father and brother soon became interested in his new hobby, and within two years beekeeping had grown into a small family sideline; the Thompsons managed about 25 colonies, selling maybe 100 pounds of honey a year and giving the bulk of their harvest away to friends and relative. Thompson came to Chicago live in 1968 and three years ago decided to revive his beekeeping, placing two colonies in the vicinity of Lincoln and Webster. He moved them to the roof above his apartment in the fall of 1975.
This summer, Thompson will turn his entire harvest to “extracted” honey, the liquid type you find in supermarket jars. He at one time experimented with producing “comb honey,” which is considered quite a treat by honey fanciers and brings a good price, but, like most beekeepers, he found it too troublesome. Comb honey is sold in a section of comb, wax and all, and is eaten like candy or on pancakes and waffles. At one time it was just about the only type of honey available, but its popularity declined with the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906—before this, comb honey was preferred over liquid because there was widespread (and not unjustified) suspicion that liquid honey was being diluted or adulterated with other sweeteners; comb honey was correctly perceived by consumers as the real thing. A large increase in the demand for honey over the war years also helped the liquid product gain more predominance—is it far easier and more profitable to produce in large quantities.
Producing comb honey requires constant supervision, because the comb must be removed immediately after the bees fill it —otherwise it will become discolored as the bees walk over it in the course of their day-to-day chores. Although this has no effect on the flavor of the honey, consumers naturally prefer a clean, sparkling section of comb—Thompson thinks one of the appeals of comb honey is that it’s so beautiful to look at. Another difficulty is that the beekeeper must keep his colony dangerously overpopulated in order to get every cell in the comb filled with capped honey. Finally bees expend a great deal of energy in producing their wax combs. By some estimates, as much as twenty pounds of honey are required to provide the food energy that goes into one pound of beeswax. The beekeeper who sells comb honey loses the benefits of this expenditure every time he harvests, while the one who extracts liquid honey from the comb can simply replace the frame in the hive—the bees will use it year after year and presumably produce more honey than they would if they had to build comb anew each year (although this latter point is disputed by some).
Liquid honey is extracted from the comb by centrifugal force. The simplest extractor is a small cylindrical metal barrel equipped with a hand crank and a wire cage that holds four frames of comb. Using a hot knife, the beekeeper first “uncaps” the comb, cutting off the wax that the bees have sealed the cells with. Then he places the frames in the extractor and cranks—the centrifugal force spins the honey from the cells and sends it flying to the inner walls of the cylinder, from which it flows down to the bottom. Hand extraction is quite exhausting and a time-consuming business, and this summer Thompson was fortunate enough to find a beekeeper on Clybourn Avenue who had a motor driven extractor—with the other beekeepers’ help, he extracted his six supers of July honey—about 150 pounds—in a day. He then strained the liquid through cheesecloth a few times and bottled it.
Some of the honey used at the Bakery restaurant on Lincoln Avenue comes from Michael Thompson’s roof. So does the honey sold in jars at Le Papillion on Armitage. Most of Thompson’s honey, though, is sold to friends and casual acquaintances for $2 a pound. They honey from his July harvest is lighter in color and more delicate in flavor than most supermarket honey (which, by the way, retails for around $1 a pound). This is because honey packaged by large distributors is most often a blend of several different honeys, gathered by many different colonies from different flower sources through spring and summer. The distributor mixes the darkest, strongest flavored honey with the lightest and most delicate to achieve a blend that he can supply consistently throughout the year. Thompson believes that much of his July honey comes from wild clover flowers, which his bees find in the parkland near Lake Michigan. His October honey comes mostly from goldenrod, he believes, a wild weed found in vacant lots and near the Chicago River; this honey is usually darker and stronger in flavor.
Thompson’s honey is also a bit murkier, less transparent, than most supermarket honeys, because Thompson’s honey processing and filtering technique is less elaborate than those of the large honey producers. This means that Thompson’s honey has more wax (which can’t hurt you) and more pollen (which will definitely help you) than the store-shelf varieties. Another difference is that Thompson’s honey is more likely to crystallize in the jar, because, unlike most honey producers, he does not heat it before bottling. Almost any type of honey can crystallize; some types become hard, like rock candy and others, like Thompson’s, take on a dense, semi-liquid consistency. This latter type of crystallized honey is often sold commercially as “honey butter” or “creamed honey.” “In some countries,” Thompson notes, “People won’t eat anything but crystallized honey, but here people don’t seem to like it very much.” Nevertheless, he eschews the relatively simple heating process because he thinks it changes the honey’s flavor. (Crystallized honey can be liquefied at home quite easily by placing the container in hot̵but not boiling—water.)
Thompson has not found urban beekeeping very problematical, although that’s at least partly because city people pay so little attention to what their neighbors are doing. Bees, especially the Italian race of bees preferred by most beekeepers, mind their own business by and large, and they will rarely make their presence known by attacking or stinging other creatures unless they are provoked—and there is little opportunity for provocation up on Thompson’s roof. Still, people become nervous when they know there are bees nearby—one beekeeper in the farm country south and west of the city tells of a colleague whose neighbors complained to the local authorities of frequent attacks and stings; he moved the colony to a less populated area but replaced them with empty hives, and the complaints, of course, continued. Thompson has had to move his bees once because of such complaints; he was ordered to removed them from the place on Webster by city inspectors, who cited an ordinance prohibiting the keeping of “livestock” within city limits. Other than that, though, he has encountered no trouble; about the most pressing problem he has in this regard is that his bees ignore the wading pool of water that he has put on the roof for them, preferring to drink from the landlord’s swimming pool downstairs instead.
The general population’s fear of bees can work to the beekeeper’s advantage at times. Beekeepers tend to be known far and wide by local police, for they are the only ones who know what to do with a newly emerged swarm of bees that has chosen to rest on a fire hydrant or a shade tree while their scouts reconnoiter the area for a suitable permanent home. Thompson was called to the North Shore on such an occasion last summer—a swarm had gathered on a branch in the front yard of a comfortable home in Glencoe. The bees had chosen a particularly low-hanging branch, so it was no trouble for Thompson to shake them into the hive he had brought with him. Of course, he wore his exotic beekeeper’s garb, and the suburban homeowners, not knowing that swarming bees are about as dangerous as caterpillars, were duly impressed with the bravery and dispatch with which he handled the situation. They paid Thompson $25 to take the menacing bees away; today that colony sits over his living room and makes honey for him.
Surprising as it may be, Michael Thompson’s roof seems to be a pretty good place for making honey. In addition to the clover and goldenrod his bees find near the lake and river, there are many flower gardens and flowering trees (linden, for example, which is planted for shade) in Thompson’s Sheffield neighborhood. His bees never seem to lack for a good source of nectar. Of course, there are very few honeybees in the city, so Thompson’s bees don’t have much competition. This year, Thompson’s two colonies—the one he hived in the suburbs last year and the mail-order colony he started this spring (Price: about $20 plus postage)—will produce a total surplus of about 275 pounds of honey, not counting the 75 pounds Thompson will leave each colony for winter. The average yield for beekeepers in Illinois was about 42 pounds per colony in 1976, and the national average was 46.4 pounds.
More and more lately, Michael Thompson thinks about expanding his beekeeping activities; on drives through the country he catches himself scouting for places that might one day accommodate a modest-sized apiary. For the present, though, he’s sticking with his rooftop operation and trying to encourage others to do the same. He’s made himself available to curious amateurs and clubs through the Learning Exchange, and he’s planning to buy a glass-walled observation hive to bring to the beekeeping talks he occasionally gives. “I’d like to see more people in the city keeping bees on their roofs,” he says. “As long as there weren’t too many hives, I think it could be done pretty easily, without any big problems … People could get some really good honey, but there’s more to it than that. Beekeeping to me is a lot of different things; it causes lots of pollination of plants, which is always good, of course, and it also helps to keep the birds healthy. There are lots of birds in this city that eat bees, and there are birds that eat seeds, which of course are caused by pollination. All of that just makes … well, a healthy world.”
It would not be terribly difficult to argue that the honeybee is a rather stupid animal by nature. The earth is home to at least a million different insect species, probably a great many more, and of these the honeybee is easily number-one chump, the species most thoroughly controlled and exploited by humans. Although it is said that honeybees are not truly “domesticated”—bee breeding techniques are not very advanced compared to other branches of husbandry, so the bees kept by humans are practically identical to those found in the wild—it is also said that wild colonies of honeybees are relatively rare, at least in the temperate zones, and that beekeeping is perhaps more widespread than any other form of agriculture.
The enthusiastic exploitation of the honeybee is made possible, and desirable, by the animal’s manic insistence on productivity. The phrase “busy as a bee” is no lame simile, for given the right conditions honeybees will work almost incessantly, producing far more than they need and allowing humans to take the surplus. Bees gather nectar from flowers in the spring and summer and turn it into honey so they will have something to eat in the winter, when no nectar is available. The typical colony in North America needs from 50 to 100 pounds of stored honey to make it through the winter, but if possible it will produce and store much more than that—in some cases, three or four times more. The bees may imagine that they are playing it safe, preparing for the proverbial rainy day, but actually they are playing it dumb, working their little wings into a frazzle (literally) to put honey in some beekeeper’s jar and money in his pocket.
One of the things that makes beekeeping accessible even to rank amateurs is the knowledge that bees can be calmed by smoke—the ancient Egyptians know this, apparently, and the idea has been a staple of beekeeping at least since the mid-1879s, when the practical bellows smoker was perfected. Smoking is a rude deception on the part of the beekeeper: he convinces his bees that the comfortable little home they have worked so hard to build and maintain is in imminent danger of being reduced to cinders. The bees busy themselves ingesting huge amounts of honey that they will never really need while the beekeeper steals their honey or wax, kills their beloved queen, or performs whatever despicable task he has intended. A novice beekeeper—one who is more fascinated with the bees than interested in a health colony or a maximum honey yield—may invade a hive a dozen times or more in the lifetime of a single worker bee, yet the bees never catch on. The beekeeper opens the hive and yells ‘Fire!” repeatedly and repeatedly the dumb bees believe him.
The manner in which honeybees “defend” themselves may be taken as further evidence of their stupidity. On those rare occasions when a worker bee might find it necessary to attack a human or some other animal, she extends her three-part stinger out of her abdomen and thrusts it into the skin of her victim repeatedly, embedding the stinger deeper with each thrust and expelling her poison. Thinking now that she has vanquished her opponent, she attempts to disengage the battle and finds that the stinger is stuck—the barbs at its end, which prevented it from slipping out as she thrust it deeper and deeper, now make its removal impossible. The bee’s efforts to escape succeed only in ripping the sting assembly out of her body; although she leaves behind a small throbbing muscle that continues to pump venom into her victim after her departure, she will almost certainly die within a few hours. If she was part of an attacking army of bees, her victim may die, too; but if her attack was a solo mission, as most stings encountered by beekeepers are, she will have given her life to cause her victim only a minor injury. The initial jab is momentarily painful, and the swelling and itching may persist for a day or two, but it’s all forgotten soon enough—especially by an experienced beekeeper. So, in a great many cases, the most ferocious attack that a bee can must amounts to little more than a marginally effective kamikaze flight. Some may say that this self-destructive method of defense is a mark not of stupidity but of a selfless devotion to the welfare of the community at large. Others, however, will point out that selflessness and stupidity are often the same thing.
Of course, it would be easy to counter the foregoing assertions with testimony to the effect that bees are, in fact, quite intelligent as animals go, but to do so would require more of this silly anthropomorphic jocularity, and it is not considered good form to attribute values, motives, and powers of understanding to bees that they almost certainly do not possess. They’re just bugs.
But as bugs go, probably no other species has commanded more attention from humans. People have been fascinated by bees and their behavior since the beginnings of history, and—probably because of their economic value—bees have been studied exhaustively from numerous different angles. The centuries of study reveal a level of social organization that is almost unique in the animal world and in some ways seems to surpass our own in efficiency and order.
Bees belong to the insect order Hymenoptera, one of 25 to 30 subdivisions of the class Insecta (depending on which taxonomist you choose to believe). This order also includes wasps, ants, and all the social species of of insects save one (the termites). Both the wasp and bee families include species that feed on nectar and have some sort of social organization, and some subsocial bees produce honey, but the term “honeybee” is reserved for members of the genus Apis, by far the most productive and organizationally advanced of the lot. There are four different species of the Apis, three of them native to Asia. The smallest and largest of the four types, Apis Florea and Apis Dorsata, build their comb in exposed areas, under a large branch or on a rock, for example. The third Asian bee, Apis indica, is similar to the common “domesticated” honeybee, and, although it’s not as productive, it is kept commercially in some parts of Asia. The most common honeybee, native to Europe, is Apis mellifera, which is apparently the most advanced of the four species and certainly the one kept by the vast majority of hobbyists and commercial beekeepers.
Within the species Apis mellifera there are further subdivisions, accommodating various differences in appearance and behavior that are thought to have arisen through geographic isolation. Thus we have Italian honeybees, the familiar orange-and-brown striped bees that are used by most North American beekeepers; they are thought to be gentler than other races and to swarm less often, and they are good honey producers. Cyprian bees, by comparison, are smaller and redder in color and not as productive; German bees are much darker and are slower to build their colonies to full strength in the summer; Caucasian bees use more propolis, making apiary management difficult; African bees are better honey producers, but they have a greater tendency to swarm and they are much more aggressive than other races, stinging with less provocation and pursuing their victims a greater distance from the hive. This last group includes the famed “killer bees” of Brazil—because of their honey producing ability and their tropical natural habitat, some African queens were imported to Brazil in 1956 in the hope of strengthening the local bee stock. In their native land, these bees migrate often to escape drought, and they began to migrate northward across South America at a clip of 100 or 200 miles a year. Most African bees do not form a winter cluster, so it is doubtful that they will be able to survive very far north of the Panama Canal. If they crossbreed with other races and pick up some winter-resisting characteristics along the way, they may come farther north, but presumably they will also become gentler in the hybridizing process. It is the African bee’s readiness to attack en masse that makes it dangerous—a single sting from a “killer bee” is not much more deadly than a single pinch of the skin from a friendly little Italian.
Despite their differences in appearance and behavior, all races of honeybee share essentially the same social organization within the colony, a social organization based on sex roles and division of labor. In a manner of speaking, there are three sexes—not two—in the honeybee colony; female (queen), quasi-female (workers), and male (drones). Each sex has its own job to perform, although use of the word “job” in the case of the males may be overly generous.
Every colony has one queen, and she is a fully-flowered female, able to receive and store male seed and lay fertile eggs. The vast majority of bees in any colony are workers, which are females only up to a point. Although they come from the same eggs as queens do, worker larvae are not fed royal jelly in such prodigious amounts as queen larvae, and so they come into the world without their full complement of feminine equipment. Workers have no spermathecas in which to store sperm, and normally they do not lay eggs. (Some workers will lay, however, if the queen is absent from the colony—these unfertilized eggs will develop into drones. Normally the queen lays drone eggs herself, passing them through one of her oviducts without fertilizing them with sperm. If a queen is infirm or coming to the end of her productive days, she may begin to lay too many drone eggs, and the beekeeper will take this as a sign she should be replaced.)
The tasks of gathering nectar and pollen, making honey, building the comb, guarding the hive, rearing the youngsters, and most of the other day-to-day chores of the colony are carried out by the workers, and the labor is divided among them roughly according to age. In summer, when hard labor limits the life of the typical worker to five or six weeks, she generally sticks close to the hive for the first three weeks or so, performing several kinds of homemaking work. One of the first things she will do is exchange food with other adult bees. The bees in a colony are constantly passing food to each other, as demonstrated conclusively in a test conducted in 1952 by H.L. Nixon and C.R. Ribbands. In this test, six worker bees were fed a sugar solution that contained a radioactive substance: 29 hours after the feeding was completed, traces of radioactivity were found in more than half the 24,600 bees in the colony. This constant transmission of food seems to distribute the supply evenly, with the result that when a colony dies of starvation, all the bees typically die together. The exchange may also be a means of communication. It is possible that the transmitted food contains some of the chemical substances—”pheromones”—that keep the bees informed about various aspects of the colony’s activity, particularly the health and disposition of the queen.
>When she is not feeding or being fed by other bees, the very young worker is likely to busy herself cleaning out the cells from which other young bees have recently emerged. (The queen will lay eggs in these cells again, but not until she is satisfied they are spotless—she will stick her head deep into a cell to inspect it before sticking her other end in to deposit the egg.) This cleaning work is all the worker is good for in her first few hours of life. Soon, though—within her first day, apparently—she can begin to feed developing larvae, and she may continue this for up to ten days, until the food glands in her head, which fabricate royal jelly and other, less nutritious food from pollen and honey, begin to wane. Every egg laid by the queen must be supplied with food until it hatches three days later; the larva that then emerges must also be fed for another five days, at which point its cell will be capped with wax. (In the privacy of her cell, the larva will spin a cocoon and moult five times, metamorphosing into the adult worker that will emerge twelve days later, 21 days from the time the egg was laid.) A 1924 study by B. Lineberg showed that after hatching, a larva was visited by a feeding worker bee about 1,300 times every day; another study by M. Lindauer (1953) calculated that the tending of a single brood cell, from the laying of the egg until the capping of the cell, involved more than ten hours of work by 2,785 different worker bees.
Roughly two weeks after her emergence as an adult, the worker bee’s wax glands will be in working order, and she can then build comb and cap cells. In the commercially kept colony, there is not much need for building comb—much of it is supplied readymade by the beekeeper—but brood and honey cells are constantly being emptied and filled again, and each time they are filled they must be capped with wax. Worker bees gorge themselves on honey and then hang around quietly for about 24 hours, while their wax glands, located on the underside of the abdomen, turn the foodstuff into thin flakes of wax. They then manipulate the flakes with their forelegs and their mouths and deposit it on the building site, molding it to the desired shape. Hundreds of bees have been observed to participate in the construction of a single cell.
Another activity for the young stay-at-home worker bee is “fanning,” by which the air is circulated through the hive. This is done primarily in the summer, both to keep the hive cool and to help ripen nectar into honey. The transformation of nectar into honey involves two main processes—one is a chemical change in which the sucrose in the nectar is broken down into two less complex sugars, levulose (or fructose) and dextrose (or glucose). This change is catalyzed by enzymes that the bees add to the nectar while swallowing and regurgitating it. The second change is a reduction in the nectar’s water content. Nectar, sugary solution secreted by plants (probably for the “purpose”—if you’re willing to attribute “purpose” to a plant—of attracting insects, like the honeybee, that will scatter its pollen and thus aid in the propagation of the species), may contain anywhere from 40 to 95 percent water. Changing it into honey, which is typically 18 to 20 percent water (packing the most food energy into the smallest possible volume), requires constant circulation of air in the hive. To achieve this circulation, “fanning” bees stand at the entrance of the hive and beat their wings furiously. It is said that on a hot night, after a day in which much nectar has been collected, one can actually feel the air rushing out of the hive as a result of these bees’ efforts.
Near the end of their third week in the hive, some worker bees may put in some time on guard duty. When the nectar is not flowing very well, “robber bees” from one colony will sometimes try to invade another and make off with some of its honey. The guard bees form a line of defense at the hive entrance to prevent this robbing, as well as to protect the hive from other kinds of intruders. The interaction between robbers and guards seems to hold great fascination for beekeepers, at least those beekeepers who write books—perhaps this is because they identify so strongly with the robber bees.
A wonderful description of robbing-guarding behavior is given by John F. Adams in his book Beekeeping: The Gentle Craft. After apologizing that “It is hard to talk about robbing without becoming at least partially anthropomorphic,” Adams writes: “Some of the things that occur in an apiary under the robbing fever probably will never be believed until a skeptic has seen for himself. Sometimes robbing will occur as a mob phenomenon; hordes of bees from one hive will break into another hive, which lacks either ability or will to resist, and without preliminaries or finesse simply removed everything that isn’t tied down. More usually, robbing will be restricted to a few more or less professional individual robbers. These bees actually look evil; through their numerous and skulking intrusions through narrow places into other hives, their body hair is worn away to an extraordinary degree, until they possess an appearance that is positively oligophrenic. In practicing their craft or vocation, they approach the hive to be robbed from the back and sides, searching for cracks they can enter into, avoiding the main line of bee traffic, and assuming a demeanor that can only be called furtive. It is said that only a bee has had the heady experience of ripping off refined honey from the cells of another hive he from that moment on gives over the honest pursuit of nectar and will never again labor in the fields of the Lord. I do not know this for incontrovertible fact, but all of my observations confirm it.
“It is absolutely incredible, unless you watch it yourself, to see the deviousness and ingenuity of a robber bee trying to breach the guard of a prospective mark. During the season when robbing becomes a problem, security is tightened on all of the hives, and the line of ventilating bees is replaced by a line of guards, who check every returning bee carefully before it is allowed to enter. During the heavy honey flows you will virtually never see a guard stop a returning bee; when the honey flow has slowed and stopped you will see virtually no bee admitted uninspected. If you observe a given hive for some time, you will quickly come to recognize the robbers, the slick, oily little insinuators If you didn’t loathe them so you would come to love them for their gall and ingenuity. One robber will attempt to fast-talk his way in through sheer crust. The guards will meet him, they will caress each other with their antennae, and the robber will be ferociously expelled. He will fly off a short distance and return by skulking along the side of the hive until he can plop down almost inside the first line of guards, and go through interrogation again. Finally the outside guard will pass him, only to be restrained by another guard just inside the door. He will be dragged away protesting indignantly (robbers never fight seriously, because they can only lose), to return and start the whole thing over again. Clearly in the time elapsed the robber could have made several successful trips to the field, and with far less effort. Robbers will actually resort to stratagems; pretending to carry away a dead bee seems to be a favorite ploy to work themselves inside the guard. One will frequently fall to work helping one of the legitimate inhabitants carry out a corpse, only to drop the load and made a dash for the inside when the ‘thinks’ the guards have lost interest in him. A robber will even collect a small bit of pollen to provide ersatz credentials to convince a skeptical guard that he belongs to that colony and is contributing to its upkeep. While it all looks very trivial and ill worth the while when viewed by an individual basis, if a robber or crew of robbers actually succeeds in infiltrating another hive, the way is made easier for subsequent incursions by larger numbers from their home hive, until eventually the total morale of the hive being robbed is broken and they no longer put up any resistance at all.”
The young worker bee is most likely to perform several, if not all, of these stay-at-home chores in the first half of her life. But sometime in her second week, she will also begin to prepare for a completely different kind of work, that of the “field bee”: foraging outside the hive for nectar, pollen, propolis, and water, the vital raw materials without which all of the above would be pointless and impossible.
Some early observers of bee behavior misled themselves into believing that young bees performed the work of foraging. They noticed that the bees working in the hive had a full complement of hair on their bodies, while the flying field bees had almost none, and they assumed that the hair was growing—that the older bees had more. We know now that the reverse is true: the bee has its full complement of hair when it emerges from the comb as a new adult, and the difficult labor of foraging gradually wears the hair off her body. It also literally wears her wings out. After a maximum of about three weeks in the field (this six-week lifespan, remember, pertains in the height of nectar-gathering season—workers will live much longer at other times of the year), the worker will find that she can no longer fly very well; worse, her younger compatriots will find out too, and they will politely deposit her on the ground below the hive entrance to die. She is no longer of use to the colony.
The young worker prepares for her short stint of hard labor by taking short flights close to the hive in her second and third weeks of life, gradually increasing the distance as she gains experience. Here she is literally learning to fly as well as orienting herself to the landmarks around the hive, by which she will find her way home when her long-distance foraging flights begin. Often groups of young workers will embark on these orientation flights, or “play flights,” together. By the end of their third week of life, generally, these bees join the foraging force.
Foraging bees have been observed to travel as far as eight and a half miles from the hive to get nectar and pollen, although generally their range is more on the order of two or three miles, and, of course, they will always choose the closer of two sources if the quantity and quality of nectar are comparable. At any one time the foragers in a colony will usually work the same species of plant in the same broad area, until that plant’s nectar flow is exhausted or superseded by the blooming of another species. (This is what makes it possible for beekeepers to sell honey from different flowers—orange blossom, tupelo, clover, etc. The experienced beekeeper usually knows what kind of flowers his bees are working at at any given time of the year, and he can tell when they abandon it for some other species by noting the color change int he ripened honey. It is practically impossible, however, to obtain 100-percent pure flower-specific honey unless the bees are in an area where there is literally only one nectar source available, because bees are constantly transferring nectar and honey from one cell to another. Usually, when you buy “clover honey,” for example, you will get a blend of different honeys in which clover predominates.)
Part of this tendency to work one flower at a time is no doubt attributable to the famous “dance language” of bees, first noted by M.J.E. Spitzner in the 1780s and later fully described by Viennese-born biologist Karl von Frisch, who shared a Nobel Prize in 1973 for his work. Von Frisch described two basic types of dance, the “round dance,” which is used to tell of a food source within about 100 yards of the hive, and the “wag-tail dance,” which tells of a more distant source. The dances are performed by a scout bee or by a returning forager carrying a full load of food. Typically it is performed inside the hive, over the surface of the comb, for up to a half dozen other bees; the observers follow the dancer’s movements, touch her antennae, and receive samples of the food from her mouth as the dance progresses.
Apparently, the round dance conveys little information beyond the fact that there is a food source close to the hive; after observing it, bees in the hive will exit and search for the source in all directions. In their search, they may be helped by an oderiferous chemical (pheromone) left on the source flowers by bees that have visited them earlier.
The wag-tail dance, used for food sources farther from the hive, conveys much more specific and detailed information. In this dance the bee describes a half circle, then runs rapidly to the starting point, then dances another half circle in the opposite direction; the path of the completed dance, if it were to be traced, would look like a circle with one diameter drawn through it. It is while running up the diameter line that the bee wags her tail, and the direction she runs while wagging indicates he direction of the food source relative to the position of the sun. If she dances straight up the comb, for example, the food source is in the direction of the sun. The relative liveliness of the dance is an indication of the quantity of food to be found in that direction. And the speed with which the half circles are completed indicates the distance—a very fast dance indicates a source close to the hive, a slower one a source farther away. *(This dance is also used by swarming bees in search of a new home. After the swarm emerges from the original hive, scouts go out to find a suitable site, and when they locate one they return to the swarm and direct their compatriots to it with the wag-tail dance.)
The foods sought by foraging bees are, of course, nectar and pollen. They may collect nectar only, pollen only, or both on a single flight. To gather nectar, the bee alights within the flower or near its base and sucks the sugary liquid into her “honey stomach” through her proboscis (tongue, roughly). She may visit as many as a hundred flowers before returning to the hive with a full load, which is typically equal to about half her body weight but can often be 80 percent of it or more. Enzyme reactions with the nectar probably begin immediately in the stomach, and there may be a small amount of evaporation on the homeward flight as well. Most of the ripening will take place within the hive, however, over the space of several hours. Arriving at the hive with her load, the foraging bee is relieved of her burden by stay-at-homes that meet her at the entrance. She hangs around for a few minutes and sets out again.
If she is collecting pollen, the bee crawls over the flower’s sexual parts and licks and bites the anthers, the parts of the flower’s “male” equipment that produce and bear the pollen. Pollen thus collects around her mouth-parts, and more clings to the hairs of her body as she roots around in it. She combs the pollen off with her legs, generally while hovering over the flower, and eventually collects it all into two pellets that she carries in the “pollen baskets” on her rear legs. Returning to the hive, she enters and drops the pellets into a cell, leaving the rest of the job with a stay-at-home bee, which breaks up the pellets and packs the pollen into the cell with her head.
In the course of collecting their food, of course, pollen- and nectar-gathering insects perform an invaluable service to the natural community at large, that of cross-pollinating the many plant species they visit. They honeybee becomes increasingly important in this regard as its “wild” relatives are systematically destroyed by pesticides. Today, some beekeepers—about 10 percent of the nation’s total, by one estimate—rent their bees out for pollination, placing them for a fee in a fruit orchard, alfalfa field, or among other plants that require cross-pollination by insects (not all do, but many crops—would be virtually impossible to grow commercially without honeybees). Before pesticide use became so problematic, as late as the 1920s and ’30s, the situation was often reversed—farmers would charge beekeepers for the privilege of placing hives on their land.
With the work of nectar- and pollen-gathering, brood rearing, hive guarding, comb building, and more all being taken care of by the worker bees, there is precious little for the queen bee and the drones of a colony to do besides make babies, and the lion’s share of this work falls to the queen. Unlike her drone and worker offspring, the queen can live five years or more, and during her most fertile time she will probably lay 1,000 to 2,000 eggs each day in brood-rearing season. She also seems to subtly direct many of the colony’s activities through the secretion of various pheromones.
A colony get get along fine without any drones, and a worker’s life is certainly expendable, but when the queen is missing—squashed, say, by a clumsy beekeeper—the hive is thrown into a visible tizzy. Almost immediately the worker bees will start transforming ordinary worker cells into queen cells, and they will shift their dietary plans for the larvae in these cells, feeding them heavy doses of royal jelly to raise new queens. New queens may also be raised if the worker bees sense—probably through a diminishing of pheromones—that their present queen’s productivity is flagging. In this case, “supersedure” cells, similar to the queen cells built before swarming, are constructed, and the queen, oddly cooperating in her own overthrow, lays eggs in them.
In either case, the new queens (several are raised simultaneously) emerge sixteen days after the deposition of the eggs—the faster development time (it’s 21 days for workers) is though to be a result of the super-rich royal jelly fed to the larvae.The first new queen to emerge will almost immediately go scurrying through the hive in search of the others, trying to rip their cells open and destroy them before they emerge. If two or more come out simultaneously, they will fight until only one, presumably the fittest, remains. This seems to be the only instance in which queen bees will use their stingers.
Finally, a couple of days after the new queen is out and about, the pitiful drones have their one chance to do something useful; impregnate the queen. Up until this time, the life of the drone is one of sloth, indolence, and greed. Drones do none of the work of the hive: they do not forage or guard or lift a single wing except to beg food from their industrious sisters. On warm afternoons, if they feel up to it, they leave the hive and congregate with drones from other colonies in certain specific cruising areas, where they loll about waiting for a nice young virgin queen to happen by. When a new queen is ready, she will leave the hive and fly to one of these areas, and the drones will take off after her in hot pursuit, attracted by the pheromone commonly called “queen scent.” (Drones will take off after—and try to copulate with—anything doused with this scene, even a popsicle stick.) The queen flies high on her mating flights, something like 50 feet in the air, and the drones pursue her in a wedge formation, with the fastest, sleekest, handsomest, and presumably genetically fittest drone leading the way. He mounts the queen in flight and shoots his wad; when he’s finished, he tries to uncouple and in the process tears the sexual organs out of his body, whereupon he promptly dies. The queen, for her part, returns calmly to the hive, where bits of drone are removed from her body. She usually makes a few more of these flights to collect a sufficient amount of male seed (she stores it in her body and doles it out a bit at a time for years afterward). Soon after, though, she begins to lay eggs, and she remains blissfully independent of masculinity from this point until the end of her life.
Although only a tiny percentage of drones fulfill their biological destiny in this manner—and for those that do, of course, the moment of glory is painfully brief—the function drones perform is a necessary one so they are tolerated by their colonies though spring and summer, when most queen rearing takes place and food is in relatively ample supply. When the nectar begins to diminish in the fall, though, and it no longer appears that the drones will be needed, they may be summarily ousted from the hive, pushed out of the entranceway and refused readmission by the workers (drones have no stingers, so they can’t put up much of a fight). Shut off from their only source of food, they soon expire, littering the bee yard with their pathetic corpses.
(Bees are not alone in their low opinion of the drone’s usefulness—beekeepers, who most often buy their queens already impregnated, try to discourage the presence of drones in the hive, because they eat much and contribute nothing. Even the bee breeders who sell the impregnated queens are learning to do without drones for the most part, as artificial insemination techniques become more popular. Doubtless, there is a lesson to be learned here for the chauvinist drones of the human species.)
As a unit, the honeybee colony exists almost as an organism unto itself. With the exception of the queen, each of its individual bees can live about six months at best, but the colony itself can go on almost indefinitely, dividing, waning, and increasing over the years and through the seasons. In the fall, after honey has been stored for the winter, the queen slows down her egg laying and eventually stops almost completely; some of the brood may be expelled along with the drones to conserve food over the long cold spell. The colony’s population will gradually decline from its summertime peak of perhaps 60,000 bees in a winter low of 10,000. In the dead of winter, the bees will form a tight cluster around the brood chamber to keep its temperature at a constant 93 degrees, Fahrenheit, even when the temperature drops to 50 degrees below. They will not fly or leave the hive when the weather is cold; rather they will await a warm winter day to make their “cleansing flights,” during which they will expel bodily wastes. (They are fastidious in the hive and will almost never defecate inside; some say that if no suitable weather occurs, the bees will die from their own poisonous wastes rather than foul the hive.)
As the winter passes and the temperature begins to reach into the 50s, the bees will begin to fly again, and soon they will bring pollen into the hive, if there is any to be had. The influx of pollen will stimulate the queen to begin laying again in earnest, and the colony will start its spring “build-up,” reaching peak population, if all goes well, by the time of the strong summer nectar flows. In the early summer the bees will swarm if necessary; in the late summer they may replace their queen if she begins to fail. All through the warm weather, they will raise brood, guard the hive, gather nectar and pollen, and an, ripen, and store their honey, all in preparation for the return of winter.
Or, the return of the beekeeper. He usually gets there first.
A rock painting, made probably sometime around 7000 BC in the maintains of eastern Spain, shows a man (probably) surrounded by flying bees (maybe—they are easily the size of the man’s head) as he reaches into a crevice in a cliff to snatch off some honey (represented by dotted lines). Most historians of bee culture are willing to believe that this is the first evidence that humans knew about bees, honey, and the connection between the two. It is suggested that beekeeping could have followed shortly after, as soon as the stickman realized that he could come back to the same spot for more honey if he left some of the comb and giant bees intact.
Whenever it started, bee culture was almost certainly known to the ancient Egyptians—their pictorial symbolism is rife with bees and honey combs, and they are thought to have been advanced enough in their beekeeping practices to keep beehives on barges, floating them up the Nile to follow the blooming of nectar flowers as the warm weather moved from south to north. (This practice survives today in the U.S. and elsewhere—many beekeepers winter their bees in the south and truck them northward in the spring.)
The ancient Greeks, for their part, certainly thought that beekeeping preceded them by a good many years—they included it in the myth of Zeus’s childhood. When young Zeus was being hidden in a cave to protect him from his father Cronos, who had a nasty habit of eating his children because it had been foretold that he would be supplanted by one of them, two Cretan nymphs saw to his sustenance, one supplying a goat for milk and the other bringing bees for honey.
As he is with many subjects, Aristotle is the first writer on bees whose work survives to the present, and, as with many of his writings, his comments on bees seem today to combine remarkable powers of observation and deduction with gaping failures of understanding. Aristotle understood that there are three types of bees in each colony—workers, drones, and “rulers”—and he further realized that when the ruler was absent, the colony produced only drones, no workers, for offspring. But he had absolutely no idea of how the labor of the hive was divided among these three types of bees, nor of the sexual relationships between them. He stated flatly that every colony has several rules, and, although he acknowledged that some people called the ruler bee the “mother,” he was never able to specify her function in the colony or even reach a conclusion about her sex. In short, Aristotle could not figure out where little bees came from.
Nor could the great Roman poet Virgil, even though he was a beekeeper himself and wrote a good deal on the subject. Virgil is guilty, in fact, of passing on one of history’s most hilarious items of bee lore, a method of manufacturing bees from a dead ox. This quaint article of misinformation was recorded by nearly every ancient writer on bees (Aristotle is an exception), and, according to H. Malcolm Fraser’s Beekeeping in Antiquity (1931), it reaches a zenith of detailed absurdity in the writings of a fellow names Florentinus, who outlines the procedure thusly:
“Let there be a building ten cubits high, and the same number of cubits in breadth, and of equal dimensions at all sides, and let there be one entrance, and four windows made in it, one window in each wall. Then bring into this building a bullock, two years and a half old, fleshy, and very fat. Set to work a number of young men and let them powerfully beat it, and by beating let them kill it with their bludgeons, pervading the bones along with the flesh. But let them take care that they do not make the beast bloody (for the bee is not produced from blood), not falling on it with so much violence with the first blows. And let all the apertures be stopped with clean white cloths dipped in pitch, s the eyes and the mouth, and such as re formed by nature for necessary evacuation. Then having scattered a good quantity of thyme, and having laid the bullock on it, let them immediately go out of the house, and let them cover the door and the windows with strong clay, that there may be no entrance or vent to the air nor to the wind.
“The third week it is proper to open the building on all sides, that the light and pure air be admitted, except the side where a strong wind blows in; for, if this be the case, it is proper to keep the windows shut on this side. But when the materials seem to be animated, having attracted a sufficient portion of air, it is again proper to secure the building with clay according to the former method.
“Having then opened it on the eleventh day after this period, you will find it full of bees crowned in clusters on each other, and the horns and the bones and the hair and nothing else of the bullock left. They say indeed that the kings are produced from the brain, but the other bees from the flesh. Kings are also produced from the spinal marrow. But those that are produced from the brain are superior to the others in size and beauty and in strength. But the first change and transformation of the flesh into living creatures, and as it were a conception and birth, you will thus know: for when the building is opened, you will see things small and white in appearance, and like one another and not perfect, nor yet such as may be properly called living animals, in greater number about the bullock, all indeed motionless. But gradually you may then see the form of the wings with their divisions, and the bees assuming their proper colour and seated around their king, and flying, but to a small distance and with tremulous wings on account of their want of practice and the debility of their members. They also settle on the windows with murmuring noise, impelling and forcing one another, from the desire of approaching the light. But it is better to open and to shut the windows every other day, as it has been intimated, for it is proper, lest they change the nature of the bees, from longer confinement; for when the dwelling receives no air, the bees perish as from suffocation. Let the apiary be near the house, and when the bees fly out, when the windows are opened, make a suffumigation of thyme or cenorum: for by the smell you will draw them into the apiary, being attracted by the fragrance of the flowers. For when you make a fumigation of these things, you will easily bring them in, for bees like fragrance and flowers, which, as they fabricate honey, they ought to do.”
Fraser goes on to say that this bit of nonsense somehow survived in the mind of humanity until 1842, when a W.C. Cotton reported that a gentleman named Carew had successfully duplicated the bee-producing experiment in Cornwall, England. For most of the world outside England, however, the questions of bee generation were laid to rest in the late 1500s, when Luis Mendez de Torres announced that the “ruler bee” was an egg-laying female. (Up until this time, despite Aristotle’s comment on the “mother,” “ruler” bees were called—and feminists are going to love this—”king bees.”) Soon after Torres’s announcement, it was further discovered that worker are females and that drones are males, and finally, in the 1770s, the beekeepers of the world were able to put the male drones together with the female queens and come up with an accurate picture of the facts of life.
Before these discoveries, beekeeping went on pretty much as it probably did in the time of the ancient Egyptians. A beekeeper would procure his bees in spring, by capturing swarms. He would stare at them throughout the summer, probably trying to figure out if they had any sex life, and then when the nectar stopped flowing he would kill all or most of them and take the honey. Understanding of the bee’s sex roles helped the craft to progress some, but there still remained one huge obstacle to efficient beekeeping: no matter what sort of container was used for the hive, the bees would insist on attaching their comb to it at every possible juncture. The combs could be removed from the hive only but cutting them out , which meant that the beekeeper could not check on the health of his colony or harvest his honey without making a mess.
All sorts of receptacles were used as hives by beekeepers before 1850—wicker baskets, clay pipes and pots, tree trunks, boxes, and even a construct of wooden frames strung together something like a loose-leaf binder, with each “page” being a frame of comb. by the seventeenth century—and quite possibly long before—Greek beekeepers were using something remarkably similar to the modern movable-frame hive: a woven basket with bars of wood laid across the open top. The bees would hang their comb from these bars without attaching it to the side walls, probably because the walls were sloped, and the Greek beekeepers did indeed move the comb “frames”—specifically to produce new colonies, by moving half of the bars from an existing colony into a new basket. Somehow, news of this practice, although it reached England in 1682, did not cause the beekeeping revolution it might have, possibly because beekeepers simply refused to beehive that bees would build comb without attaching it to hive walls, or possibly because they did not understand how they could reliably induce them to do so.
This it was left to Lorenzo Laine Langstoth, a Philadelphia-born churchman, to bring beekeeping into the modern age. Langstroth had become interested in bees while working as a pastor in Andover, Massachusetts, and by 1848, when he moved back to Philadelphia at the age of 37, he was an avid amateur beekeeper, reading widely (as widely as possible at the time) on the subject and experimenting with a number of different hives. The most popular hive at the time, and probably the most practical, was the “bar hive,” a wooden box with slats or bars suspended from the top; the bees would hang their combs from these bars, much like in the slatted Greek basket hives, but they persisted in attaching the combs to everything in sight.
The first step in Langstroth’s discovery process involved the outer top cover of the bar hive, which fit over the suspended slats. As mentioned earlier, honeybees are almost fanatical in their insistence on cementing every hole, crack, and crevice they can find with propolis (or “bee glue,” as it’s more vulgarly known, a waxy, resinous stuff that bees collect from flower buds and trees). Langstroth was frustrated by the necessity of ungluing the hive cover every time he wanted to have a look inside, which was not infrequently, because he was a curious observer. He tried to solve this problem by widening the space between the slats and the cover, making deeper grooves in the box for the slats to fit into. As far as we know, it was only accidental that Langstroth deepened the grooves by about three-eights of an inch, but as it turned out that was just the right amount of space to leave—even after several months, the bees would not seal the space between the cover and the tops of the bars.
Langstroth had made a discovery that would change beekeeping from an avocation into an industry, but he didn’t realize it immediately. Only in the fall of 1851, after he had been using the new deeper grooves for many months, did he see the connection between his discovery and the classic problem of beekeeping. The three-eights-inch space was “respected”—not sealed up—by the bees because it was just about as much space as a bee needed to walk through. Spaces too small to be moved through were sealed with propolis, and larger spaces were used for comb. On October 30, 1851—when it was too late in the season to try it out—the revelation came to Langstroth; this same principle of “bee space,” applied to the sides and the bottom of the hive, could be used to prevent bees from attaching their comb. If the slats were made into rectangular frames with wooden bars on all four sides, and if the outer edges of each frame were place three-eights of an inch from the hive walls, the top and bottom, and each other, the bees would not build comb across that space, and the frames could thus be lifted out of the hive readily. ” … in a moment,” Langstroth wrote later, “the suspended movable frames, kept at suitable distances from each other and the case containing them, came into being. Seeing by intuition, as it were, the end from the beginning, I could scarcely refrain from shouting out my ‘Eureka!’ in the open streets.”
All of modern beekeeping is based on Langstroth’s relatively simple inspiration. Within ten years of his discovery, the movable frame hive was in use across the U.S., and by 1869 it was being introduced in Europe. Today it is rare to see “domesticated” bees in anything but this type of hive, except in primitive societies and those places where old-style hives are kept as curiosities.
Numerous subtle advances in beekeeping were made in the wake of Langstroth’s discovery. First came the development of wax “foundation,” a foundation that can be impressed uniformly with worker-sized hexagons, which may discourage the building of drone cells (which are larger) and thus keep the drone population of the colony down.
Another improvement was the application of the Langstroth idea to honey gathering. Langstroth used his movable frames only in the brood-chamber portion of the hive; to gather honey, he stuck with the old glass jar method, placing a glass receptacle above the brood chamber and removing it after the bees had built comb in it and filled it with honey. But id didn’t take beekeepers long to realize that they could put Langstroth’s movable frames above the brood chamber instead, and thus the movable frame super was born. The centrifugal honey extractor came along in 1865, and the bellows smoker in the mid-1870s, and with these developments the modern beekeeper’s repertoire was essentially complete. Today, in North America alone, beekeepers tend an estimated 5,000,000 colonies and produce about 300,000,000 pounds of honey every year using the basic techniques and devices developed within 30 years of L.L. Langstroth’s discovery.*
Wallanches Honey Farm is on the road that connects Plano, Illinois, with U.S. Highway 30, about fifteen miles west of Aurora and five miles south of the train elevator that dominates the tiny town of Big Rock. If you negotiate the curving and erratically marked rural roads properly, you’ll spot the “Pure Honey for Sale” sign at the side of the road easily enough; but even if you take a wrong turn somewhere, John Wallanches says, it’s not too difficult to find the place: all y ou have to do is stop someone and ask where the “honey and buffalo farm” is. Chances are good that someone you stop will know. here on the northern fringe of the corn belt, where most farmers give every inch of available land over to the production of cash crops, applying chemicals in whatever variety and quantity they think necessary to draw out every last ounce of market able material, the 225-acre Wallanches farm is a bit different.
It’s a sunny afternoon in early October, and lunch is waiting in the kitchen as the tractor bearing 39-year-old John Wallanches emerges from a distant cornfield and lumbers out onto the road. John’s father, Bill, 77 years old (“He was born in 1900 so it’s always easy to remember his age”), steps onto the blacktop to watch his son’s slow approach. As John pulls in close to the barn, near the place where the “Pure Honey” sign calls to passing motorists, Bill steps up to greet him and to pick a few brown, dried corn stalks from the tractor’s front grille, and for a brief moment several parts of the Wallancheses’ different little farming operation comes together within the scope of a single sweep of the eye.
The trailer behind the tractor is piled high with freshly picked corn. It has the characteristic look of corn-belt corn—the flat, dried-out kernels, the uneven (by supermarket sweet corn standards) rows, the dark tinge in the cob—but it is different: it has been grown without chemical fertilizers. John Wallanches applied only manure and limestone to the 35-acre field that this corn came from, the first to supply nutrients, the second to “sweeten”—reduce the acidity of—the swampy soil. Manure and limestone are all that is necessary, because on the Wallanches farm corn is rotated with sweet clover, which fixes nitrogen into the soil naturally, eliminating the need for nitrogen-rich commercial fertilizers. A small amount of this corn will stay on the Wallanches farm to be used for corn bread and corn meal mush, a cereal the Wallancheses eat almost every morning with cream and honey. The rest will be sold to a local elevator. Although John Wallanches feels that this corn is superior nutritionally to the corn his neighbors grow, he will not ask a higher price for it at the elevator—he knows he would just be laughed at.
South of the barn, in a large fenced field that borders the road, a herd of buffalo graze quietly. The buffalo haven’t brought in much cash so far—the herd is not yet big enough. Occasionally John and Bill will butcher one of the buffalo to lay in a large supply of meat, and now and then they will sell one—when one bull challenges another for domination of the herd, for example—but for the most part the buffalo herd is an investment for the future, John says. Many farmers in this area would no doubt ignore the future and use this land for corn or beans, or at least to graze more easily marketable beef cattle; but the Wallancheses seem to look beyond this year’s harvest more than most do. They also seem simply to like the idea of having buffalo around.
Behind the barn, a small, one-story garage-like building stands between the buffalo pasture to the south and the cornfields to the north. This is the honey house, where the Wallancheses have just finished extracting the harvest from their 500 honeybee colonies. Inside the small building, 200 or 300 large, bright metal cans—”sixties,” they are called, because they hold five gallons, or 60 pounds, of honey—are stacked almost to the ceiling. Some of the honey in the cans came from the blossoms of the sweet clover plants that the Wallancheses use to fix nitrogen into their cornfields. Two large motorized extractors, each about three and a half feet in diameter and together capable of spinning 95 frames of honey comb simultaneously, stand opposite the stacks of sixties, across a small aisle. Next to the extractors, connected to them by thick metal piping, is the settling tank; here honey collects after extraction and sits for several hours, while wax and other impurities rise to the top. On the other side of the extractor is the “uncapper,” a motorized steam-heated knife that removed the wax caps from the honey comb before it is placed in the extractor. In a sink beneath the uncapper, honey still oozes from a mass of sweet-smelling wax. This is where the Wallancheses collect the honey that they keep for themselves, for the honey that drains here during the uncapping contains the highest amount of pollen.
Outside the honey house, scores of bees flit about in the warm afternoon air, cleaning the residual honey off metal tools, dozens of variously colored super boxes, and literally hundreds of frames that are stacked in front of the building. Many beekeepers advice against “cleaning” equipment in this manner, reasoning that it encourages robbing behavior in the bees. But John seems quite content to let the bees to this work—with the buffalo and the corn and the honey and the chickens and the vegetable garden, there is little time to do a job that might be left to somebody, or something else. Today, for example, John will have to leave the corn harvesting job half done, because after lunch he has work to do for the state. John is the state bee inspector for regions five and six, a thirteen-county area covering roughly the western two-thirds of north-central Illinois. The bee inspector job has been in the Wallanches family for a long time; John took it in 1975, and before that his father Bill had it for 50 years.
John and Bill cross the road and walk through the trees that hide their family’s house from the outside world. To their left as they enter the enclosed porch, a small table holds various containers of honey—half-pound, one-pound, and two-pound jars of extracted honey; containers of raw (unheated) liquid honey; little plastic bears full of honey with snip-and-squeeze spouts; small, square boxes of comb honey; bottles containing cut comb honey swimming in extracted liquid honey. Beside the sign a the roadside and the bell button outside the door, this table is the only evidence of the Wallancheses’ honey selling operation. It looks quite inconsequential, but John Wallanches hopes to sell all of this year’s harvest direct to consumers from this little table. If sales go slower than he expects over the winter, he’ll sell what’s left to a packer in Chicago.
Stephanie, John’s mother and Bill’s wife, is putting John’s lunch on the table when the men walk into the kitchen. There is homemade tomato soup that tastes, remarkably, like tomatoes; a small lettuce salad with some of Stephanie’s homemade, honey-sweetened dressing; baked, open-faced hamburger-like sandwiches consisting of chopped meat (buffalo?) and cheese on Stephanie’s own bread; and a fresh peach pie, also sweetened with honey instead of sugar. John, peeling down to his undershirt to reveal a huge, taut chest that doesn’t seem to shelter an ounce of fat, sits down to eat and talk over the afternoon’s work with Bill, who, having already eaten, apparently, parks himself in a corner of the room.
Today John explains, he has to check hives belonging to two different beekeepers in three different locations. Both beekeepers are preparing to move the colonies for the winter, and to do so they need certificates of inspection stating that their colonies are free from disease. Honeybees in North America are susceptible to several different diseases, but all save one can generally be weathered by a strong colony, given time and perhaps a little medication. The exception is “American foulbrood,” so called because it attacks only the brood in the colony and raises a quite unpleasant stench in the hive. American foulbrood is particularly dreaded by commercial beekeepers because it can spread rapidly through an apiary—both through honey robbing and through the beekeeper’s shuffling of frames and supers from one colony to another. Federal law demands that all colonies infected with it be destroyed. Watching for American foulbrood is the state bee inspector’s principal responsibility, and to this John Wallanches likes to add as as much advice-giving and information-dispensing as he can manage.
John asks his father if he’d like to come along on the inspection rounds today, and Bill, his voice brightening considerably, answers, “Well, I’ll help you smoke ’em.” “Okay, then,” John says, “but you’ll have to go get changed. You can’t go around looking like that.” Bill looks down quizzically at his tattered work clothes. “They’re not gonna be there when we get there. Nobody’s gonna have to look at me.” “Well, we’re gonna see Dick Mills for sure,” John answers. “Yes, and you never know who else you might run into,” Stephanie interjects. Several minutes later, however, Bill is still parked in the corner. John, swallowing the last of his milk and rising from the table to go change himself, says “Go on now, get changed. We have to get going. The sun will be going down before you know it.” Finally, with slight shrug of the shoulders, Bill gets up and disappears into the rear of the house, and in a few minutes father and son reappear in the kitchen dressed in clean, freshly pressed khaki shirts, pants and caps —the uniform, one takes it, of the state bee inspector, or at least of these state bee inspectors.
They leave Stephanie in the kitchen, walk out to the garage, and climb into John’s white Falcon, the “bee inspecting car,” John calls it, by way of apologizing for the numerous objects that clutter its interior, including dead honeybees and live flies. John places on apple in his mouth and another on the dashboard and then makes a note of the odometer reading so he will be able to put in for his expenses. For each day he devotes to inspecting he makes $25, plus his mileage, which can be considerable. “A lot of people are interested in becoming inspectors,” he says, “but they don’t stay interested very long when they hear what the pay is. I guess $25 isn’t much anymore.”
The first stop is a gas station. John asks for three dollars worth and then he and Bill realize that both have neglected to bring their billfolds. While the gas jockey pumps, bill produces a box of change from under the dashboard and rummages through it to come up with the cash. John hands it to the attendant and explains about the forgotten wallets. “Hope you don’t mind all this change,” he says. “Guess you haven’t got any choice.”
John is already dispensing with the second apple by the time the car leaves the small commercial intersection and turns onto one of the anonymous rural roads that crisscross this portion of Illinois. Not far from their own farm, the Wallanches men pass a field where a farmer is cutting hay with a tractor. “Will ya’ look at that?” Bill says with disgust in his voice. “That must be the fifth time he’s cut that hay. Why can’t he leave a little forage on that field?” “Money hungry,” John answers. “That’s what farming is like around here. They won’t let a little organic matter stay on the soil or plow a little of it back in. No, they’ve got to get every last bit of cash out of these fields.”
“You know,” John continues, “the farmer around here, sometimes they’ll pull a fence out in order to plant an extra row of beans or something. And there on that land, where they haven’t been growing something year after the year, the beans they plant where the fenced used to be will come up five, six inches higher than the beans on the rest of the field. You’d think they’d learn something from that—you’d think that would show them what they’re doing to the soil by planting it year after year with all those chemicals. But no, they never learn. They just go on the same way. Some of this ground is starting to look like sand and gravel.” And the crazy thing about it, Bill adds, is that this supercharged sort of agriculture is not so much more profitable than his own, natural way. “Fertilizers and things cost so much now,” he says, “that you can do just as well planting 50 acres without fertilizer as you can planting 100 acres with fertilizer.”
The trips from one beekeeper’s apiary to another’s can be long and tedious out here, and one gets the impression that the Wallanches men, when they make them together, pass a lot of the time wondering about the state of modern agriculture. “Pretty soon,” John says, “there won’t be anything left on this earth except human being.”
The first inspection stop today is near Marseilles (in this part of the state, you are more often “near” a town than “in” one), a small cluster of five or six hives standing near a hayfield next to a fenced-in pen of hogs. The beekeeper does not live here, or even near here—most commercial beekeepers have their colonies in many different locations, often placing them on a farmer’s land in exchange for a few dollars or a winter’s supply of honey. Good locations, Bill says, are the most important part of any successful beekeeping operation.
With the hogs looking on curiously, the two men clamber out of the car and open the trunk to get their tools out. They use a smoker and veils, but no gloves. The inspection itself is quick and rather routine. The honey supers have already been taken off these hives to make them as light as possible before moving. With Bill wielding the smoker, John tends to the hives one by one, opening each and pulling out a few frames from the top brood chamber. A few frames tell him all he needs to know. In the first hive, the brood pattern looks good and there is no disease evident. In the second, however, John sees no brood at all. The bees are not clustered, as they might be at this point on an autumn afternoon, and they are raising a peculiar, disconcerting buzz. The symptoms are familiar to John, and closing the hive, he writes his diagnosis on the top cover with a broad orange crayon: “no queen.” Moving through the rest of the colonies, he finds one whose brood pattern is irregular, and on the top of this one he writes “weak queen.” Within a few minutes, the job is over; the tools—including the still-smoldering smoker— are in the trunk, and the white Falcon is turning onto the highway that will take the Wallanches men east toward their next destination, Lemont. “Here we are on U.S. 52,” John announces, “the road to nowhere. It goes all the way across the state of Illinois, and these days it’s a good road to ride on, because nobody who’s going anywhere takes it.”
The ride to Lemont is a long one, and the conversation in the car turns to the Wallancheses’ own beekeeping operation. Bill struggles a bit to remember exactly when he started keeping bees; he thinks he was eleven years old—that would make it 1911—and living in Steger, Illinois. He either can’t or won’t say how much about how he became interested, only that he came upon a swarm one day and asked a man in uniform—a National Guard uniform, he thinks it was—to help him put the bees in a box. bees have been in Bill’s family—and part of its livelihood—ever since:
Today, about 40 of the Wallancheses’ 500 colonies are right outside their house near Plano, in a fenced-in yard where chickens and roosters also roam freely. The rest are spread out over some twenty locations in six different counties. Honey harvests are not very reliable in Illinois; they depend to a large extent on wild flowers and weeds like aster, goldenrod, and wild clover, because so much of the state’s agricultural land is devoted to corn, which yields no nectar, and soybeans, which yields significant amounts only sometimes. Spreading their bees far and wide, John feels, gives the Wallancheses a fighting chance to harvest a good crop somewhere every year.
As with most of their pursuits, the Wallancheses seem to go about their beekeeping with a healthy amount of respect for the natural order of things. They leave their bees in a generous store of honey every fall, typically 90 pounds or so; others might try to increase their “surplus” by leaving 60 or 70 pounds and then feeding their bees sugar water in the late winter and early spring. The Wallancheses also eschew the “queen excluder,” a device promoted mostly, it seems, by the manufacturers of beekeeping supplies; it is supposed to make the harvesting of pure honey easier by keeping the queen bee out of the honey supers. The queen excluder is a wire or plastic grid that can be placed over the brood chamber and under the honey supers. The spaces in the grid are too small for the queen to pass through, but the smaller worker bees can fit through them. Thus honey can be deposited and stored in the super, but no eggs can be laid, which means that the beekeeper doesn’t have to worry about getting larvae mixed in with his honey at extraction time. John Wallanches feels the excluder encourages swarming an inhibits the movement of bees in the hive, perhaps slowing down their honey production, and on this point many beekeepers seem to agree. Having to pass through the small openings in the excluder might also exacerbate the natural deterioration of the worker bees’ wings.
Another problem with the queen excluder is that it could possibly interfere with ventilation in the hive, and John Wallanches is very big on ventilation. Unlike most beekeepers, he leave his hives partially open at the top in summer; this might make it easier for intruders to enter the hives, but Wallanches leaves that problem to the bees, and he thinks the payoff in honey quality is more than adequate compensation for whatever risk there is. Ventilation promotes the evaporation of water from honey. To qualify as “U.S. Grade A, ” honey can contain no more than 18.6 percent moisture, and most good honey contains about 17 percent. Wallanches boasts that the honey he brought tho this year’s state air checked in at about 16 percent water and he attributes that to his ventilation technique. At the fair, four different commercial beekeepers competed for blue ribbons in 21 categories, and the Wallanches won twelve of them.
Having extracted their 1977 honey crop, the Wallancheses are almost done with the hive management chores for the year. They need make only one more tour of their apiary sites to prepare them for winter. They will check first, of course, to make sure that each hive has a supply of honey that will see it through the cold weather. Next, to prevent water from collecting in the hives, they will make sure that all are tilted slightly forward, so that excess water will run out the front entrance, and they will place burlap over each hive, under the outer cover, to soak up any moisture entering from the top. Any warps or holes in the hives through which mice or other animals might enter will be repaired, and a small hole will be drilled in the front of each hive, near the top, to provide a second exit—this will allow the bees to take their cleansing flights on the fist warm day available, even if the bottom entrance is blocked with snow. Finally, if the lay of the apiary has changed somehow over the summer, the Wallancheses will move hives or construct small windbreaks to prevent snowdrifts from burying the colonies completely. (In addition to these measures, some beekeepers also wrap their hives in some sort of insulating material—black tar paper, for example—to help keep them warm. Other beekeepers, particularly in far northern areas, dispense with winter management chores entirely, killing their colonies off every fall—which allows them to take a greater honey “surplus”—and ordering new package bees every spring.)
The most crucial and difficult time for the Wallancheses and other beekeepers will be the spring built-up period, during which the colonies should ideally prosper and multiply in preparation for the summer nectar flow. In mid-March, or whenever the temperature begins to reach the low 50s, the Wallanches will visit their apiary sites to check on the health of the colonies. For the most part they can do this without actually opening the hives, because on a warm day in late winter healthy colonies will show a lot of activity around the hive entrance. Those colonies that aren’t flying are probably dead or diseased, and they have to be moved out of the yard and replaced. The time for replacement is near the end of April, and the method for the large-scale commercial beekeeper is different from that of the hobbyist. The hobbyist most likely will order package bees to start new colonies, as Michael Thompson did last spring. The commercial beekeeper, however, will want to avoid that expense (it is not uncommon to lose 4 or 5 percent of one’s colonies over the winter, so for the owner of 500 the expense is not trivial) and he has the wherewithal to avoid it, namely hundreds of relatively strong colonies to draw on. To start a new colony, John Wallanches will simply find a strong one and divide it into two, taking some of the bees and several frames of brood from the strong colony and placing them in a new hive with a new queen. He does this on a warm afternoon, when most of the colony’s older bees are in the field. They will return to the old familiar homestead and their old familiar queen. the new queen and the new hive go to the young bees, which are much more likely to accept the changes without incident.
Many beekeepers requeen their colonies systematically, every year or every other year, in the spring or fall, to insure perpetually healthy colonies. Here the beekeeper is not separating the aggressive field bees from the docile hive bees, and so the problem of queen acceptance can be touchy. The bees, being perfectly satisfied with their old queen, are likely to rebel at the replacement of her scent with that of another queen, and if they do they will simply kill the new one. Because the old queen must be killed by the beekeeper before the new one can be introduced, the rebellion leaves the colony queenless—and unproductive—for whatever time it takes the beekeeper to procure a new air-mail-order bride. Each beekeeper, it seems, has his own pet method for avoiding this problem. Some introduce a new queen as part of a small “nucleus colony” (or “nuke”), which is united with the larger colony to be requeened. The nucleus colony, housed in a shallow super or another type of small box, is placed directly over the large colony, and a sheet of newspaper, sometimes sprayed with sugar water, is placed between them. The bees will eat through the newspaper gradually over the course of a few days, the two colonies mingling with each other in small numbers at first. by the time the sheet has been eaten away totally, the colonies are generally well-integrated, and the original bees are willing to accept the new queen as their own.
John Wallanches does not make a habit of requeening. He has not yet found a method that is sufficiently reliable to make it worth the expense, so generally, when he spots a weak queen, he merely kills her and transfers the bees in her colony to another, hoping to make up for the lost colony by dividing a strong one later in the season. He does, however, find it necessary to requeen occasionally, and this past spring he tried a method that seemed to work well. Removing the failing queen and killing her, he simply smeared her remains on the sides of the new mail-order queen cage and placed the age in the hive. By the time the candy plug was eaten away, the old bees, encouraged by the lingering scent of their former ruler, accepted the new queen without any uproar.
“You can tell we’re in Will County now,” John announces over the rattle of the Falcon’s idling engine. “Just look at all this traffic.” He is waiting behind eight or ten cars at a traffic light, on a street that is lined with trees and pleasant looking frame houses. Up ahead, at the intersection, there is what a city person might call a small commercial oasis in the rural countryside: a 7-11 type store, a coin laundry, a gas station, maybe a few other businesses. “God, this is a terrible place,” Bill says. “Seems like every little town around here has to have it s little shopping center,” John replies. The Wallancheses used to live not far from here, on a small 40-acre farm in Downers Grove, but they left in 1960 because the area was getting “too congested.” “I guess there are factories on that land now.” John says it without bitterness, but he gives the impression that he ventures this close to the city as little as possible. He doesn’t normally handle the inspection chores for Will County, but the regular man is indisposed, and he has agreed to make a special trip for a beekeeper who needs a fast inspection before moving a couple of hives to another county in Illinois.
Fortunately, this urban-sprawl ordeal lasts only a few minutes more: a “Pure Honey” sign appears at the roadside and John Wallanches turns the car up an inclined gravel driveway that leads to Dick Mills’s place. Mills is a beekeeper—that much is obvious from the huge stacks of hive bodies and supers next to the house—but he is not the one who has requested the inspection; he is merely keeping one of the other beekeeper’s colonies on his land. He is a wiry, mustachioed character with a friendly country manner and an indeterminate drawl, and he steps up to the car to greet the Wallanches men as the park. He is glad to see them, happy to show them the large new honey house is is building and the long flatbed trailer he has obtained for the purpose of moving beehives. They walk toward a field behind the new honey house and pass several miniature beehives—nukes—where Dick is raising queens.
Queen rearing is an exacting art, and most beekeepers prefer to leave it to the specialists at the southern package bee companies. Of course, it is not the specialist who rears the queens, it is the bees themselves, and the rick is to introduce them to do so. Most queen raisers start with artificial queen cells made either with beeswax or plastic. Into these cells, one-day-old worker bee larvae are grafted. Because all larvae receive royal jelly in their fist couple of days, these larvae can become queens if worker bees are induced to continue the royal jelly feeding, and apparently the placement of the larvae in the characteristically shaped queen cell does the trick. The grafted cells are generally placed fist in a queenless swarm colony for a day or so, where the royal jelly feeding continues lavishly. Then they are moved to a permanent colony, where they remain until a day before the virgin queens hatch. (If they were allowed to hatch together, they would fight each other.) Each of the queen cells is then placed in a small, queenless nucleus colony, where the fully developed queen emerges and, a few days later, mates. When it is clear that she has mated successfully and is laying eggs, she can be placed in a queen cage with a few servant bees and sold. (Artificial insemination of the queen#&8212;which requires a fancy and complex piece of equipment and is every bit as difficult as you imagine—is beginning to gain some popularity because of the genetic control it provides. When a virgin queen goes off on her mating flights, it is impossible to control—or even to know—what drones she mates with.)
The hive inspection at Dick Mills’s place is quick and non-eventful, and after some shop talk about the price of beeswax, the Wallancheses are off again for the last inspection of the day, a solitary hive near the Mills place that belongs to the same beekeeper.
The territory is unfamiliar to John, and, as often happens, he has only his farmer’s sense of reckoning and a few directions written on a small scrap of paper to guide him to the hive location. Pass the bend in the road, go a quarter mile or so north of the school building, stop where there’s a small gravel turning place east of the road near an old right-of-way, walk back through the trees … . The car is creeping along at five or six miles an hour and John and Bill are scanning the landscape for a familiar white box, or even for a place that might be right for one, but ten minutes after the end in the road and several passes later, they can still find no evidence of the hive. Finally, Dick Mills’s pickup truck, headlights flashing, crests a hill in the Falcon’s rearview mirror. Dick, thinking that John and Bill might have trouble finding the hive, has driven out to show them where it is.
The afternoon is waning now and the air is becoming chilly—most of the bees in this colony, no doubt, are back from the field by now, which makes it a less than ideal time for an inspection. “How many hives are there?” Bill asks his son as he reaches into the trunk of his car for the smoker. “Just one,” John answers, and despite the lateness of the hour, bill decides that the veil won’t be necessary this time. When they reach the hive, however, he applies the smoke in huge, liberal gusts. It hangs low under the tree branches that shelter the hive, bathing the men and the bees in a thick cloud of white fog, and for the first time today the act of inspecting beehives takes on a slightly eerie cast. The man in the otherworldly headgear works even more quickly than usual, and within five minutes the three emerge from the smoke and, looking quite normal once again, walk back to their cars with ordinary talk about traffic accidents and the weather.
One stop remains now on the Wallancheses’ itinerary. John’s duties have brought them close to the home of a beekeeper friend who has a new piece of equipment that Bill would like to see. John points the white Falcon south toward Lockport, and as the afternoon’s shadows lengthen it window through the low, shady streets of a comfortable looking subdevelopment where Allen Cassady, “Hoppy” to nearly everyone, makes his home. Hoppy is a huge refrigerator of a man with a broad, square chest, a broad, square face, and a head of short, light hair that seems to square off at the edges. He is dressed completely in white as he emerges from the house, and his skin, as he is quick to point out, is livid red in patches with bee venom. He and his son have just come in from the field with a pickup truck full of fresh honey supers. They honey is so fresh, in fact, that several dozen bees buzz through the air over the bed of the truck. John Wallanches has worked closely with Hoppy, helping him to overcome some disease problems he had with his bees a while back, and when he notices the buzz he assumes a chiding mentor’s attitude toward his friend. “Hoppy,” he says, “generally the thing to do is take the honey home and leave the bees in the hive.”
Hoppy relies: “Aaahhh … .” This single word, combined with the nervous energy that inhabits Hoppy’s entire huge body, communicates a complete sentence about how he doesn’t have time to worry about these things so late in the day so late in the season. brushing a bee gently from his shoulder, he climbs onto the truck’s bed and answers the taunt further by pulling a perfectly filled frame of capped honey out of a super for everyone to admire.
Bees tend to stick rather tenaciously to their honey, and, aside from the physical labor involved in moving the supers—each weighs about 70 or 80 pounds—the most difficult part of bringing honey in from the field is persuading the bees to leave the honey comb. The simplest solution to the problem is the “bee escape,” a small portal that allows bees to pass in one direction but not the other. In the course of their normal travels, most of the bees in a super will descent to the lower part of the hive within 24 hours or so, and with the bee escape in place between the super and the brood chamber, none will be able to return. This method, however, is impractical to the large-scape beekeeper, because it requires two trips to the apiary—one to place the bee escapes in the hives, and another, at least a day later, to remove the supers. As an alternative, some beekeepers use a “bee blower,” a gasoline-driven engine that produces a soft current of air, with which the bees can literally be blown out of the super. Curiously, bees don’t seem to mind this method much; at least they accept it much more willingly than simple brushing from the combs, which used to be the only method available.
Hoppy Cassady and the Wallanches men use a third method for removing bees from the comb, the “chemical board” or “fume pad,” which employs a strong-smelling chemical to drive the bees into the lower portions of the hive. The repellent, wiped or sprayed on the board, or sprinkled on a pad, is placed over the super to be removed. Within about ten minutes, most of the bees retreat into the brood chamber, and the beekeeper can make off with the supposedly bee-free super. Various chemicals have been used since this technique was developed in the 1930s, and some of them have been banned by the FDA since then. Hoppy claims that the one he uses is made form sour milk, but the Wallancheses don’t believe him. Benzaldehyde and propionic anhydrice are typically used today (and the latter is in fact derived from acid found in milk).
Hoppy is a tinkerer, a builder of gadgets. On weekdays he is a welder at Argonne National Lab, improvising whatever exotic contradictions are required by the researchers who work there. On evenings and weekends he is a beekeeper, one whose passion for the craft seems to consist of about 50 percent fascination with bees and 50 percent interest in the equipment he can design and build in connection with his beekeeping. A fine new honeyhouse has just been contructed in his backyard, and one of the machines in it is the reason for the Wallancheses’ visit today. Hoppy, of course, is only too happy to demonstrate.
The first thing Bill Wallanches notices on entering the new honey house is that it’s heated—a luxury the Wallanches do without. In addition to making the honey house a more comfortable working place on chilly autumn nights, the heat helps to soften the honey and make the extracting go a little easier. Another feature of the honey house, one that Hoppy is sure to point out, is an electric bee zapper that hangs from the ceiling in a haze of blue light. Although Hoppy’s apiaries are miles away, it is a fairly easy matter, as John has observed, for his bees to hitch rides on his pickup; if they make it into the honey house, they are attracted tot he device and friend instantly when they fly into it. “It’s quick and painless,” Hoppy says. “Humane.”
The object of attention today is Hoppy’s new uncapping machine, which he bought from a beekeeping supply house and then modified to suit his needs. For amateur beekeepers, uncapping honey is a messy and tedious process—usually they have only an electric or steam-heated knife, and they must draw it across the combs by hand to remove the wax caps form the cells. For the Wallancheses, the process is a bit easier—they own a motorized knife that jiggles rapidly back and forth while the frame of honeycomb is held by hand up against it. For Hoppy uncapping is a breeze—his machine has two steam-heated vibrating knives, between which the frames of honeycomb are passed automatically; both sides of the comb are uncapped simultaneously. All Hoppy has to do is feed the frames into the machine one by one. After one minute, eleven glistening frames of uncapped honey hangs on the rails over the front of the machine, ready to be place in the extractor.
There is a beekeeping neophyte in the honey house today, and to accommodate him Hoppy is speaking rather expansively about his equipment and beekeeping in general, dropping colorful comments and bits of bee lore into his demonstration as the opportunity presents itself. “That queen, she has 1,300 ovipositors, and she determines herself whether she’s going to lay a worker or a drone.” … “You think this looks like easy work, well you just try lifting one of these supers. Now, you try and imagine doing that all day long, and you’ll have an idea of how easy it is.” … “No one’s ever been able to film the mating of that queen with the drone. Years ago someone offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could get it on film, but nobody has ever been able to collect.” The best comment is saved for last, after Hoppy has explained how the honey is separated from the comb in the centrifuge and how it flows from there into his stainless steel settling tank. He takes a white plastic sixty (“I’ll never use those metal cans again”) from a carton near the front of the room, and squats down before the settling tank to p lace the container under its spigot. He opens the valve, and a stream of beautifully viscious golden honey, a stream that looks like it must be at least two inches think, enters the plastic sixty without making a plop or a gurgle. Hoppy is wordless for a minute or so, until the sixty is nearly half full. Then, with the golden stream still flowing, he rises and turns and says, his voice low with reverence, “Each little worker bee in her lifetime collects enough nectar to make about a twelfth of a teaspoon of honey.” There is silence and appreciation all around.
The sun is sinking low outside the honey house now, and Bill Wallanches, having ween what he came to see, is eager to begin the trip home to Plano. He has a hard time getting John to come along—he and Hoppy are lingering on the driveway, Hoppy explaining how he has interested some of the scientists at Argonne in studying the mystery of American foulbrood disease. “I told ’em, John, I said, ‘You know, people have been trying to figure it out for years,’ but they said ‘Nobody at Argonne ever tried to figure it out before’ … .” Finally, after about fifteen minutes, Bill announces “Well, Hoppy, we have to get going now” for the fourth time, and he and his son climb into the white Falcon for the last time today. “Come back … ” Hoppy calls as they leave. “Come back in about a year and I’ll show you a real honey house.”
The roads back to Plano are interrupted, here and there, with traffic lights and small clusters of commercial enterprise, but these distractions are never far from evidence of the farm life, and most of the trip is through dark, quiet countryside where the marks of technology and consumerism seem few and surprisingly far apart to a city person. The car passes Romeoville High School. There are lights and a few stores across the street from the low-slung brick buildings, but beyond it an open field stretches out expansively to a horizon of trees that are beginning to show their fall colors.
“You wouldn’t get me to live in a place like this for all the money in the world,” John Wallanches says. “This is what we all the rat race.”
In the house where I grew up, honey came in glass jars, which in turn came from supermarket bags, and the jars came off the cupboard shelf only when someone was sick, or on those rare occasions when my mother decided she wanted to drink tea instead of her usual coffee. Later in my life, honey was the sweetener used in Greek pastries and the stuff set on tables in lieu of sugar at health food restaurants where the proprietors knew better than I what I should be eating. I have learned a lot about honey since then, and today three jars of it occupy a place of honor on my kitchen counter. There is the half-pound jar from John Wallanches, the one-pound jar from Michael Thompson, and the two-pound jar from Hoppy Cassady (which, in all honesty, was intended for my “wife or girlfriend”). The jars sit on the counter in a stairstep arrangement, each one taller than the last, like children in a family portrait. I have eaten those honeys on toast, used them in salad dressings, sweetened my coffee with them, and I am beginning to learn that each has its own character.
Probably because I am a city boy, I imagine I like Michael Thompson’s honey best of the three. I find an irresistible charm in the fact that his Chicago-rooftop apiary manages to produce more honey per colony than the others, and it may be that I want his honey to be the best as well as the most. Sometimes on a warm weekend afternoon, I can open the jar and pull out a single drop of honey on a toothpick, as I learned to do at a beekeepers’ association meeting, and let it rest on my tongue while I imagine a tiny honeybee leaving the rooftop above the furniture store and setting out for the lake or river in search of a flower that will give up a drop of nectar. I can see her in my mind’s eye as she finds the flower and sucks up its liquid, and I follow her as she departs it, flying a little unsteadily under her load back to the hive. She flies through the air that is fouled with carbon monoxide, across city streets teaming with automobiles, around corners and over buildings that humans need roadmaps to negotiate, and finally she homes in on the little white box, gives up her drop of liquid, and sets out again for another. At times like those, I feel certain that honey is one of the finest foods on God’s graying earth.
* Two sources not cited elsewhere were particularly helpful in the preparation of the second and third parts of this article: Bees and Beekeeping by Robert A. Morse (1975, Cornell University Press); and The Hive and the Honeybee (1975, Dadant & sons). Particularly useful in the latter were chapters on the history of beekeeping by Eva Crane and bee behavior by N.E. Gary, Dadant & Sons, a beekeeping supply house located in Hamilton, Illinois, is also the publisher of the monthly American Bee Journal.