Last Saturday we woke to an overcast sky but promises of sun later in the day and decided to run our errands in the morning so we would be ready to go to the bee yard as soon as the clouds broke. Our first stop was at the farmers market to see what summer vegetables might still be available. Having braced myself for signs of fall—pumpkins and butternut squash and apples and pears—I was more excited than is reasonable to find green beans again (I thought we had eaten the last of those weeks ago) and even a few cantaloupes. But as we cruised past the stands, we noticed fewer tomatoes than before, and the one farmer who still had corn on the cob said this was the last week for corn.
“I guess Fall’s coming, after all,” I said.
“You can’t deny the chill in the air of a morning,” he replied. “But I just hate winter! My livestock is so hard to care for. Last year was hard! Cold and muddy.”
I meant to ask him what kind of livestock, but I had gone deep inside myself by then, trying to remember last winter and thinking about what it would be like to get up in the cold and the dark to care for animals who were dependent on me for their lives. I was thinking also of the term “livestock,” which I hadn’t heard in awhile, and how people used to count their wealth in cattle (still do, probably, in other parts of the world) and how much better that seems than holding paper stock in ventures far removed from the daily lives of the stock holders.
I glanced at the sky for about the hundredth time that morning and wondered if the clouds really would clear in time for us to harvest honey. We were running out of weekends when we could count on good weather.
“They’re moving,” my husband said.
We continued strolling through the market, looking at every stand, spreading our purchases out as much as possible among several different farmers. I was looking forward to a few more meals of summer vegetables as we bought a cantaloupe, a pound of green beans, four tomatoes, a half dozen ears of corn, a few green peppers, an eggplant. We sampled pawpaws at one booth and brats at another. It made me smile to see a little boy in a stroller taking a big bite out of a fresh tomato; one of the farmers, Phil, was eating a cucumber the way you would eat an ear of corn. I remembered wonderful days in the garden with my grandfather, eating our way through the seasons, pulling pea pods off the vines and popping them in our mouths, nibbling lettuce and spinach in early spring, enjoying ripe red tomatoes and crunchy cucumbers right in the middle of the vegetable patch on hot summer days. How can anyone say they don’t like vegetables?
After we left the market, we headed to the hardware store to buy a new grease gun so Jim could lubricate the honey extractor. After that, we stopped by the Dollar Tree and Staples to pick up some composition books and pens to send to my son who is stationed in Afghanistan and who wanted school supplies for the children in his village. The brand of the notebook, Mead, made me think again of honey again. By then the clouds were starting to thin somewhat, but it was still overcast. I wanted to get the notebooks in the mail right away, so we stopped at the post office, where I filled out mailing labels and customs forms, and we divided the supplies into two medium-size boxes. Then we stood in a long line waiting for one of the two postal clerks at the counter. Jim commented on the irony of notebooks made in India being shipped to the United States to be sold for $1.00 each and then shipped back across the world to Afghanistan. What a system!
By the time we left the post office, we could see patches of blue among the clouds. Finally, it was time to head to the beeyard to harvest honey. This is perhaps the tenth year I have harvested honey with Jim, but all those years have now blurred together into one golden afternoon. I do remember that last year and the year before were light harvests, but we counted ourselves fortunate not to have lost any hives to colony collapse or to mites or to foulbrood or to any of the other problems that plague beekeepers. We currently have three hives; of those, two did well enough during this wet summer that we could take off some honey for us and leave enough for them to make it through the winter.
A puff of smoke helps calm the bees
This is the first year I have worn gloves to work with the bees. Jim ordered them for me after I had a reaction to a couple of stings earlier in the summer. Two of our hives are easy to work with, but the third one, with its smaller darker bees, is more defensive and more easily alarmed. We should have requeened it in the spring, but since last summer’s harvest was so light, we decided to leave them alone, but they had grown wilder over the past few months. We always save that hive for last and then try to do what we need to do quickly and then get out. That day, we had finished working with the other two hives, and Jim was giving some smoke to the difficult hive while I was recording notes about what we had found in the first two hives. I hadn’t yet focused my attention on the third hive when Jim said, “Watch out. They’re not happy” and before I could say, “What?” three bees stung me on the hand one right after the other, although I had not put my hands anywhere near their hive.
“Get in the truck. I’ll finish up here,” Jim said.
As I walked slowly toward the truck, several bees followed me, buzzing loudly around my head, peering at me through the veil. A couple bumped angrily against me but did not sting. By that time I was noticing that the stings on my hand were not swelling as much as usual, which pleased me. I thought maybe I was finally building up a resistance or maybe I had just gotten the stingers out more quickly than usual. Jim finished with the bees, but by then there were so many buzzing around and following him that he suggested I drive the truck to the end of the field while he walked away from the bees. By the time we got to the road, the bees had stopped following him, but I was beginning to feel lightheaded.
I told Jim I felt funny, and I heard him say to me, “Why don’t you get out of the truck and lie down on the driveway?”
I found out later, after our friends who own the land where we keep our bees had called 911, and the first responders and then the ambulance had arrived, and after everyone had determined that I was going to be okay but should make an appointment with my doctor very soon, that what Jim had really said was, “I think I should drive.”
The main thing I remember from that day is lying on my back on the gravel road, watching the thin white clouds drift by, trying not to pass out, thinking what a shame it would be to die on such a beautiful afternoon and leave my husband and my friends and family behind, and how I must have some blood pressure, despite what the reading on the cuff said, or I wouldn’t be lying there peacefully watching the clouds drift by and wondering what was going to happen. I had never had a reaction to bee stings before and wasn’t exactly afraid, but I realized for the first time how easily things could go wrong at any time without notice and how far away we were from help.
I still don’t know what caused the dizziness that day, but after reading up on anaphalactic shock and realizing that people can suddenly develop allergies even after years of not having problems, now I carry an epi-pen when we go to the bee yard, just in case. And we decided it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to wear gloves while harvesting this year, even though they are hot and uncomfortable and awkward to work in.
I wish my great grandfather Chris McGuire were still living. I’d like to see how he went about beekeeping in the mountains of Kentucky. What has changed and what is still the same as when he was keeping bees in the early part of the last century? How many hives did he have? Did he paint his bee boxes with leftover paint in various bright colors? Did he worry about colony collapse? Did he have a honey house?
I’m always surprised how smoothly most harvests go compared with some of the other things we do in the beeyard. On good days, when the sun is shining, it really does work the way Jim first explained it to me. Basically, what we do is soak the canvas lining of a fumigation board with a smelly liquid called Bee-Go. Then we take the lid off the beehive and put the fume board in its place. The heat from the sun shining on the metal top creates fumes that force the bees to move out of the top box and down into the next one to escape the smell. When most of the bees are out of the box, the two of us together carry the super filled with honey to the truck. If there are still a few bees inside, we leave the lid off for a few minutes so they can escape but not so long that the other bees find the honey in the back of the truck. Then we repeat the process, placing the fumigation board back on the hive and driving the bees further down each time. We were blessed this time with a perfectly clear sky and warm sun shining down on the hives.
By the end of the summer, the bee hives are stacked high with supers.