A Beeline for Spring

By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz
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Today is the Vernal Equinox, the celestial event that marks the point in time when day and night become equal in length and spring officially begins.  Of course, here in the Ozarks, spring has been well under way for several weeks now.  Even before the first daffodil bloomed, the signs were all around us, especially winged kind.  I always know spring has arrived when  the moths begin beating against the windows at night and when sleep-drunk wasp queens drift on the breeze and buzzing bees begin searching for the first flowers of the season.

In fact, I believe flying insects are the true bearers of spring, as evidenced by the swarms of wasp queens emerging from hibernation.  And while I love nature and living the wilderness, I have been terrified by stinging bees and wasps my entire life.  It began as a young child when I witnessed my father, who is dangerously allergic to wasp venom, suffer the effects of a sting to the neck.  It was this event that marked the beginning of my phobia with stinging things and from that point on, my fear only grew.

By the time I was eighteen, I would completely panic any time a bee or wasp came close to me.  One afternoon, as I waited at the window of a drive-through, I saw a wasp flying around in the back of my car and I absolutely panicked. As the attendant watched with amazement (and, I’m sure, with much amusement), I literally clawed my way out of the driver’s side window between the car and the drive-up window.  I can’t imagine doing that today, but what I felt then was pure, unadulterated fear.

When Dean and I bought our first homestead in the Arkansas Ozarks, way back in 1992, we began talking about starting some beehives.  But I continued to put off the subject, because I just couldn’t imagine having thousands of bees that close to me.  Dean tried to talk me down from my now-ingrained fear of stinging insects, knowing that if I would only learn more about wasps and bees that I would become fascinated by them and realize I had nothing to fear.

597969Shortly after that conversation, I came across a book by Sue Hubbell in the public library entitled, A Book of Bees. I checked it out, not sure what I was going to learn about bees that would take such an incredible fear out of me.  But I liked the blurb on the back cover.  Not only was the author a bee keeper, but a homesteader trying to make it in the depths of the Ozarks – just like me.  It turned out that the book wasn’t just about raising bees and homesteading, but a loving and heartfelt story about the bees themselves.  Through her eyes, I came to see bees as something more than just stinging insects and my curiosity and respect for them grew, while my fear lessened.

In the years to come, I would learn many things about bees and wasps that helped me to relate to their true nature – not with my fear-based perception of it. And it did, in fact, help.  I found it interesting that all of the bees in a hive are female except for the drones, or male bees, which are hatched only to breed with a new queen before being killed or banished from the hive.  I also learned that bees literally do “beeline” – that is, once a scout has found a source of food or water, they will return to the hive to relay the precise location to the other bees through a delicate and complex dance.

Depending on the amount of food available, hundreds of bees might be dispatched to gather it and every one of them will use the same exact path to get to the food source and back to the hive.  This is known as a beeline.  People often say that they are going to make a beeline for something, meaning they are going somewhere fast or with intent, but the real definition of the word is “a direct, straight course.”  In that sense, the word is appropriately used to describe exactly what bees do when they have determined a route to food or water.  And once the bees have determined this line, they don’t veer far from it until the food source plays out.

Beelines are so strong that they can be discerned with the naked eye by watching the bees as they race back and forth from the hive to the nectar source. In the old days, if a person needed to find a colony of wild bees to put in their bee gum (a hive made from the hollow trunk of a sweetgum tree), or wanted a taste of sweet wild honey, they would follow the wild bees to their hive via the beeline.  Should they lose sight of a bee along the way, they would simply stop where they were and wait for the next bee to pass and again, follow it as far as they could before losing it.  They would continue to follow the beeline this way until they located the hive.

Many years later, after Dean and I had moved to the Missouri Ozarks, did we again discuss getting bees.  I was much more comfortable with bees these days, but still had to focus on controlling my reactions whenever a bee or a wasp came too close.  I hoping that by having bee hives in our own yard, that I could at last put the whole dumb business to rest, once and for all.

Again, as if by providence, we were talking to a couple at a local function who told us a story about the “bee people” who had come and rid their chimney of some wild bees.  It just so  happened that the bee people were there in person and we found ourselves chatting to them about their bees.

Of course, Dean and I didn’t hesitate to offer a place for any extra hives that they might have and they agreed to give the property look.  They stopped by one afternoon and scoped out the lay of the land and decided they could place the four hives in a small clearing to the southwest of the house, which was only about 200 feet from the front door.

At first I felt a little unsure about the bees being so close to the house, but after they explained that having the hives too close to the road would invite vandalism and having them in the low meadow would leave them vulnerable to cold pockets. Who was I to argue with their long years of experience? They knew what they were doing and I trusted them.

So it was that on an early spring day, just like today, Pam and Milt Wright pulled into our yard in their enormous pickup truck, bearing what I saw as four rather small boxes of bees.  I was under the impression that beehives were big towering things, but quickly learned that those were hives that already had several supers added to them. Pam reassured me that as the source of nectar increased and the bees built up their stores of honey, these hives would sport supers, too.

Milt could tell that I was still a little unsure of the bees and in his gentle giant way, explained that if they put the hives in that small clearing, that the trees on all three sides would encourage the bees to fly upwards towards the treetops, instead of straight out as they set about collecting pollen. He said it would help keep them from making beelines through the yard.  He also said, “You don’t want to get in the way of a beeline.” and left it at that.

Just as I was starting to feel really good about the whole thing, Pam mentioned that one of the hives they would set up contained a wild swarm of bees removed from a chimney.  Yet another coincidence, I’m sure.  As she donned her protective veil, she casually turned to me and explained how the wild bees were an owly bunch that went after them whenever they worked that hive and that we should go inside until they were finished setting up.  I didn’t exactly run into the house, but let’s just say I didn’t stick around to hear her tell Dean that the worker bees in this hive had killed two queens already. She said, “We’ll just have to see…

Two years passed without incident and the bees lived happily on the edge of our yard, pollinating our vegetables, flowers and fruit trees.  I especially enjoyed walking near the hives on warm summer afternoons just so I could listen to the loud, busy hum of happy bees.  As I had hoped, I become used to their curious nature and am no longer afraid of them, not even the wild ones.  But every time Pam and Milt came to work those hives, the wild ones would act aggressively towards them.  They finally tired of battling the wild hive and eventually decided to take it back to their farm for re-queening in hopes of creating a gentler colony to work with.

It’s been almost eight years since Pam and Milt brought us our first hives.  Since then we have moved several times – always to a new homestead in the Ozarks.  We still keep in touch with Pam, but Milt has passed on to the great bee yard in the sky, taking with him our memories and gratitude for our years with the bees.

Jill Henderson is an artist, author and the editor of Show Me Oz
© 2011 Jill Henderson – Reprints allowed with Permission

Parts of this article were excerpted from
A Journey of Seasons:
A Year in the Ozarks High Country

A Journey of Seasons is a beautifully recounted story of life on a rural Missouri homestead. Based on the changing landscape of the seasons and filled with nature notes, botanical musings, back-woods wisdom and just a pinch of hillbilly humor, noted author, naturalist and organic gardener, Jill Henderson, spins a story of delight and enchantment. This is one journey you don’t want to miss!

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4 responses to “A Beeline for Spring

  1. Jill, what a wonderful account of your journey with bees from fear to respect. It’s also such a sweet tribute to Milt. “you’ve come a long way baby”.

    • Thanks, Jerre! Milt was such a gentle giant and always looked at things from the sunny side. Both he and Pam helped me through the initial beehive phase with confidence and wit. The honey didn’t hurt things, either!! It’s been many years now that I have been at peace with the stinging things. I’m still watchful of wasps, but no longer terrified! I especially appreciate the role they play in controlling insect pests such as caterpillars. xoxo

  2. Hmmm, I was interested to learn about the wild bees having a potential to be more aggressive.

    Last fall I found a hive under a tumble of logs I was clearing and they made sure I knew I was not welcome! Worst part was having them get tangled in my hair. They remembered me when I walked along the path near them too :(

    Anyway, I thought that perhaps one year I would entice them to try out a natural log-style hive I saw at the Sustainability Fair. Haven’t pursued that this year but you’ve given me an extra caution to think on … . Meanwhile, I love having the wild bees around for their pollinating activities.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Sara. I remember you telling me about those bees and was glad you weren’t stung more severely than you were. If that had been me before I overcame my fear, I don’t know how I would have reacted to having bees in my hair. Once, when Pam and Milt came to work the hives, I had several upset bees get in my hair. I don’t know how I did it, but I just stood there pointing at my head and Milt calmly reached over and plucked them out with his bare hands. Neither of us were stung.

      I can’t speak to whether wild bees are naturally more agressive than domesticated bees, however, I did learn that most aviasts use specially bred queens for their hives. It could be that domestics are a more gentle species, but it could also be that wild bees are just instinctively more defensive because they have to be. The hive of wild bees on our property had been re-queened before they brought them to us and they were still aggressive.

      I have thought of finding a hollow log and cutting it to size and capping both ends to make a natural hive, but I wouldn’t dare work them without a protective aviary suit, veil and smoker. If you decide to hive those bees, check out my friend James Zitting’s natural bar hives. You will find his website at the bottom of a previous article posted here entitled Winterize Your Bees the Natural Way.

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