Ma! The Keeper of the Bees
Written by Hulda Franklyn
Edited by Reg Quist
If there should be another sugar shortage, just keep bees! Our mother did during the first World War.
Our mother, a city girl, was an indomitable enthusiast. The great adventure of living on our farm was for her a singing joy . . .for she sang from morning till night. When she was really perplexed, she’d whistle a soft “under-her-breath” whistle.
Never once did I hear her even hint that she regretted leaving a good paying job in Los Angeles to marry a struggling pioneer.
By 1916, she had ventured far into the delights of farmyard enterprise, happy with the many victories she had won, while admitting to the varying degrees of success and failure.
But the day she branched out into beekeeping to augment our scant sugar supply, she found she had taken on the management of a well-organized society that much preferred to manage their own affairs.
It was hard to say how long she had turned the idea over in her mind, before she brought the subject up at dinner on an early June day, 1916.
“Why don’t we have a hive of bees?”
Our dad was all for it! He liked sweets. He didn’t know one thing about beekeeping, but pioneers usually crossed their bridges when they came to them, so that was no hindrance. No, the immediate problem was to get the bees and the hive.
Out came the Eaton’s catalogue! That pioneer’s helper had a whole page full of Langstroth hives, supers, frames and forms. Next, they went to see a German beekeeper who insisted on calling the queen bee “the kung” even when he did agree that she laid all the eggs. He promised them his first swarm for exactly seven dollars. He also assured them that his bees were “Italians” and that they were very friendly.
“All you will have to do is smoke your pipe and you will have no trouble.” Our dad was a light pipe smoker so he thought he could help in that way.
In about two weeks’ time Mother was ready for her new undertaking. The hive had arrived with all the paraphernalia that went with it. Dad had built a stand with a sloping doorstep so the honey-laden bees could land and walk right in. This they placed in a sheltered spot beside the garden. Mother had also sent for and received a bulletin on beekeeping from the Department of Agriculture, as well as a big book from some other source. ‘The Beekeeper’s Guide’.
Early in July, the big day arrived! Mr. Schreifels sent word that his bees had swarmed, and her hive was full.
Mother and dad brought them home after dark, with the horse and buggy. Early next morning, the little fellows went right to work, and we started our education about a society called “bees.” It seemed Mother never tired of sitting quietly beside the hive watching their movements.
I liked honey, but I didn’t like bees of any description.
Everything seemed to go along fine until about the first of August. Then one bright, sunny day when we had just finished our dinner, brother George’s voice, full of urgency, rang out through the kitchen door, “Ma, ma, your bees are swarming.”
We ran to the door. To the northwest, the sky was almost blotted out by a low hung cloud of buzzing, circling bees.
With an unbelieving gaze, mother took in the situation. “And this after I have followed so carefully all the instructions. Didn’t Papa smoke till he was dizzy while I cut out all the queen cells in those frames! Now what will we do. Send for Mr. Schreifels? No, he has no phone. Go and call Papa.”
Dad awakened from his “ten winks” after dinner, impulsively reaching for his pipe. So far, his role in the bee venture had been to furnish the smoke. As he refilled his pipe, mother got out her Beekeeper’s Guide and leafed over its pages till she came to the heading,” If Your Bees Swarm”.
“Listen Papa. It says here, ‘if your bees do swarm, get out an extra hive, brush a little honey over the frames’ – oh do hurry Papa. Where is that other hive?”
At the moment, sister Mary, unruffled as usual, appeared at the door. “They are settling down in the big poplar tree, about ten feet up. We must have missed one of those queen cells.”
By the time the family had assembled in the garden, the bees had all settled down in a big cluster on a rather small branch. We all looked up at them. How to get those bees into the hive?
“Best send Huldah for Rupert.” ventured our dad as he surveyed the situation.
“Now Papa, do you think those bees are going to sit there waiting for Rupert? It says here to gently cut off the branch, bring it to the hive and set it over the frames.”
“Fine Mama. But how are we going to get that branch? You won’t catch this chicken going up there after that army of bees! There must be some other way. Maybe they smoke them down or sprinkle them down. Hanged if I know. Perhaps Rupert knows.”
So, I hurriedly dispatched to get reinforcements. And by the time we returned, the center of attraction had decided to move to a more peaceful spot, and that wasn’t into the waiting hive. It was to a low, swampy draw, thickly overgrown with willow scrub, where despite all efforts to follow, they were soon lost, and peace and quiet once more reigned in our home.
Down by the garden all went on as usual at the beehive. Fully reorganized, they came and went at their tasks. And when fall came, the beekeeping business didn’t look too bad. In fact, mother was quite proud of the results. From the large, clear frames, we had plenty of honey for our own use, the bees were left enough to keep them till spring and mother, with no small amount of pride, gave cute little boxes of comb honey to all our relatives and friends.
Today, the final instructions might read: ‘gas your bees, extract all the honey and buy another start next spring’. But in those days, bees were wintered. Mother followed instructions very carefully and placed them in a quiet, dry corner of the basement. She went down, once in a while, and announced to all interested parties that her bees were alive and buzzing.
But toward the end of March, after one of her inspections she was not so optimistic. The buzzing was not so pronounced, and she had seen several dead bees behind the screen at the exit. Mother and Mary were really concerned. Had they used up their supply of honey or had they this or that? They devised ways of feeding them sugar syrup, gave them more ventilation and awaited warm, spring weather.
Then one day, our dad came home from town with the news that he had met a well-known bee man. This experienced gentleman had advised him to give the bees an airing on a warm, sunny day.
That nice day did not arrive until a Saturday when I was home from school. Dad and Mary had gone to town, but mother decided to air her bees unassisted. Now, had she left the screen in the opening and set the hive out in the sunshine everything might have gone well. But mother never did anything half-way. If those bees had to be aired, they necessarily had to get out. So out came the screen!
Unlike an old setting hen and her brood, a queen bee and her brood get mightily riled up over being carried about. The moment that screen was removed, they all piled out as fast as the small exit allowed. Mother beat a hasty retreat into the house and watched the airing process from the window.
For a time, they buzzed and circled about the hive, then as if moved by one thought, they headed straight for the nearest snowbank. There they sat, a numbed cluster.
Mother was really stumped, so stumped she didn’t even whistle under her breath. But she wasn’t quite beat. She put the screen back in the opening and brought the hive over to the kitchen step. Then carefully she went over the crusty snow, sweeping the numbed bees into the dustpan with the whiskbroom. Lifting the cover of the hive, she put them back into their home. After several trips to the snowbank, she had them all collected.
Then, as she had done for so many small chicks, ducks and pigs, she carried them in and put them in the oven door of the old Home Comfort. Soon their buzzing proclaimed they were in a fighting mood. Triumphantly, she carried them back to their corner in the basement and they stayed there till the last snowbank had gone.
The bees lived on for a couple of years. But mother wasn’t as keen as she was before the snowbank episode. She had made light of the experience, but she had received several nasty stings on her arms and legs that day.
At the end of the third summer, her bees had all kicked the proverbial bucket. None of her family cared too much. Mary, always her interested helper, had married and there was no longer a sugar shortage.