Weaving a vivid portrait of her own life and her bees’ lives, author Sue Hubbell lovingly describes the ins and outs of beekeeping on her small Missouri farm, where the end of one honey season is the start of the next. With three hundred hives, Hubbell stays busy year-round tending to the bees and harvesting their honey, a process that is as personally demanding as it is rewarding.
Exploring the progression of both the author and the hive through the seasons, this is “a book about bees to be sure, but it is also about other things: the important difference between loneliness and solitude; the seasonal rhythms inherent in rural living; the achievement of independence; the accommodating of oneself to nature” (The Philadelphia Inquirer). Beautifully written and full of exquisitely rendered details, it is a tribute to Hubbell’s wild hilltop in the Ozarks and of the joys of living a complex life in a simple place.
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About the Author
Sue Hubbell is the author of eight books, including A Country Year and New York Times Notable Book A Book of Bees. She has written for the New Yorker, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Smithsonian, and Time, and was a frequent contributor to the “Hers” column of the New York Times. Hubbell lives in Maine and Washington, DC.
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A Book of Bees
By Sue Hubbell, Sam Potthoff
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1988 Sue Hubbell
All rights reserved.
THE BEEKEEPER'S AUTUMN
The Beekeeper's Autumn
For a long, long time — for nearly forty years — I never had any bees. I can't think why. Everyone should have two or three hives of bees. Bees are easier to keep than a dog or a cat. They are more interesting than gerbils. They can be kept anywhere. A well-known New York City publisher keeps bees on the terrace of his Upper East Side penthouse, where they happily work the flowers in Central Park.
I have had bees now for fifteen years, and my life is the better for it. I operate a beekeeping and honey-producing farm in the Ozark Mountains of southern Missouri. I keep three hundred hives of bees, separated into groups of ten or twelve, in what are called outyards — land that I rent from other fanners at the cost of a gallon of honey a year, rent I pay to the farmers for the privilege of putting the bees there. The farmers and their families like the honey, but they like having the bees on their land even better. The clover in their pastures is more luxuriant because the bees are there to pollinate it, and the vegetables in their gardens and the fruit on their trees benefit from the bees, too. My best and most productive beeyards, however, are those near towns, because townspeople plant flowers and water both their flowers and clover-scattered lawns, providing the bees with a constant supply of fresh blossoms to secrete nectar which they turn into honey.
Every once in a while I read in the beekeeping magazines about someone who has had complaints about his bees. I am always astonished, because around here everyone has a fine friendly feeling toward them. My own beekeeping operation is a matter of minor local pride, and is the focus of interest and curiosity. People come out to my farm and ask if they may tour the "honey factory." I am asked to speak to local civic groups and high school biology classes. The bees themselves are regarded with a certain amount of affection and good humor.
The town in which I live is very small. All the other farmers raise pigs and cattle, and making a living from bees does give them something to talk about down at the café other than fescue foot and the price of pork bellies. Cows and pigs are large animals, and the farmers keep track of them by putting a numbered ear tag on each beast's ear. It tickles their fancies that someone can make a living with a bunch of wild bugs who can't be penned and marked, but who fly everywhere, unruly but helpful, pollinating plants and making honey. They enjoy telling jokes on me, I know.
Nelson is the town wit. Like any Ozark storyteller, he piles outrage on top of outrage without even the smallest trace of a smile. It was Nelson who, straightfaced, spread it around town that when a swarm of bees gathered on my mailbox and stayed there for several days, it was because I hadn't put enough postage stamps under their wings. Nelson said it was a well-known fact that with proper postage a bee could travel anywhere in the continental U.S. of A. "'Course if they was to go abroad, the rate is a mite higher. Maybe they was. Seems like a smart lady like Sue ought to know how much postage to put on a bee."
I was sitting in the café one day with Nelson and some of the other good old boys, when Nelson, deadpan, said, "Say, one of your bees was over a-bothering my peach tree this morning."
"How'd you know she was mine, Nelson?" I asked, looking him straight in the eye. I was determined to put up a fight this time.
Nelson hadn't expected my question.
"Why, they're all yours, aren't they? I thought you owned every blessed bee around here, the way you're always talking 'em up at the Chamber of Commerce meetings."
"No, that isn't true. There are wild ones in trees all over, and then Henry has some, and so does Billy, right here in town. I'll tell you what you've got to do before you carry on so about my bees bothering your peach tree. What you've got to do, Nelson, is go over to that tree and check the ear tag on the bee. The first thing I do after a new bee is born is to put an ear tag on her ear. You check the tag and you tell me her number, and then I'll let you know if I'm going to accept responsibility for that bee."
Nelson threw back his head and laughed.
A report of our exchange went around the café. This was several years ago, but even now every once in a while someone will stop me in town and say, "Hey, Bee Lady, I saw Number three fifty-seven on a clover blossom in my lawn today."
"That so? How's she looking?"
"Jest fine. Better in fact than the last time I saw her, when I thought she looked a mite peaked."
"Good to hear she's improved."
The end of one honey season is the start of the next, and autumn is a good time to begin with bees. It is when many people buy a few hives from an established beekeeper and move them from his place to theirs, because at that time a beekeeper is often willing to sell some of his hives at a lower price than he would in springtime. He has already taken his honey crop, and there is always a certain amount of risk in carrying a hive through the winter, a risk that is transferred to the buyer.
Summer's end is also the beginning of a new cycle for bees. It is then that they prepare for the winter ahead, and their preparations, along with the help a beekeeper can give them, determine how good the next season will be.
In any part of the country where there are flower-killing frosts, bees need to store up honey for the cold months during which they will no longer be able to forage for fresh nectar. Here in the Ozarks, where winters are severe but interspersed with mild days when the bees can be active, they need about seventy-five or eighty pounds of stored honey to see them through.
In some places, bees make their winter stores principally from late-blooming goldenrod, but the Ozark bees generally scorn these flowers, preferring the Aster ericoides — the snow aster or Michaelmas daisy, a plant that grows widely throughout the United States. Asters, in general, are much beloved by bees; I have seen them working as happily on asters in New Hampshire or Michigan as at home in Missouri. Snow asters are tough but dainty-appearing plants with small flowers — white rays around golden centers. The foliage is delicate and feathery, reminiscent of heather, which is the meaning of its Latin species name, erica. Snow asters grow wherever they can gain a roothold, filling abandoned fields and edging back roads with their delicate white blossoms. They do not mind drought or light frosts, and continue to bloom bravely from August until the arrival of the first killing frost. Snow asters are so common that they are seldom noticed except by bees and beekeepers, to whom they are among the most cheerful of flowers.
I can tell when the bees have started working asters, because the nectar they gather from them is rank, and I can smell the hives a long way off. The odor so struck me the first autumn I was keeping bees that I thought perhaps there was American Foulbrood, a deadly bacterial disease, in my hives. I had never yet been around a hive with this disease, but I had read that it could be detected by its unpleasant odor. Now that I know better, the smell of aster honey does not seem bad; it is a strong, fine scent, a sign that the bees will winter well.
I like to go out and check all the hives once before winter, and do so when it is still warm enough to open them for inspection if I need to. First, though, I suit up in bee coveralls. These are made of loose-cut white cotton, with zippers in all the right places to keep bees out. They are extra long in the legs so that they can be tucked into a pair of high-top work boots, and have a zipper around the shoulders that mates with the zipper on the bottom of the bee veil, which, in turn, is fitted to the crown of a lightweight helmet with an elastic band. I wear bee coveralls whenever I work my bees, and they are a good investment for any beginning beekeeper. Those new to bees are usually nervous about being stung, and the best way to avoid being stung is to relax and move easily and confidently among them. There is nothing that gives a person more confidence in the presence of bees than to be zipped snugly inside a bee suit.
I take along a few extra beehive parts to replace broken ones I noticed when I last visited the hives, as well as some two-foot lengths of board to put under the hives if I need to replace rotting ones. Dampness harms bees, and a few boards placed there allows air to circulate and keeps them dry. I also put in the back of my pickup a tall metal five-gallon can with the top removed to hold the bee smoker I use to quiet the bees — and the tools I'll need to open the hives if I have to. I throw in a feed sack stuffed with baling twine to use as smoker fuel, some matches, my bee recordkeeping book, a pencil, my bee veil and helmet, long leather bee gauntlets, my lunch and a thermos of ice water. I am ready to go.
The first group of beeyards I am going to visit this autumn is thirty miles to the south, near one of the prettiest towns I know — though "town" is perhaps too grand a word to describe the grocery store, gas station and cluster of houses, each with a neatly kept vegetable garden, flowers and big trees. The place is squeezed in between two ranches, thousands of acres in extent.
The ranch to the east is so large that the two beeyards I have on it are five miles apart. It is a well-managed farm. Cattle and timber thrive there and the whole setup looks as though it were an illustration from an agricultural-school textbook. Yet for a variety of reasons the bees I have on this place are not particularly productive. I am selling off beehives as I gradually whittle down my operation to the one hundred hives I want to run, and these hives will be the ones I sell next.
Directly to the west, on the other ranch, not even five miles away, is one of my most productive beeyards; I have thirteen hives there this year, and it is where I am going first. I turn right past the grocery store, drive down a gravel road through the ranch and then stop to open a gate to the lane leading to my hives. I drive through, stop the pickup and close the gate. The first rule of country living is to leave gates the way one finds them: open when they are open, closed when they are closed.
The pasture has cows in it, and so I have my beeyard fenced against them. It is a minimal fence: wooden posts that I drove with some difficulty into the rocky ground, strung around with three strands of barbed wire. It takes less to keep cows out than in, and this fence is enough to protect the beehives from the cows, who like to rub against them. In the summer, when the bees are active, they will sting the cows and drive them off, but during the winter the bees become sluggish from cold and cannot defend themselves; the cows can knock over the beehives, or at the very least push off one of the covers. When that happens, the bees inside will chill and die.
The thirteen colonies of bees in this yard, like all my others, live inside two stacked hive bodies. People new to beekeeping tell me that one of the most confusing aspects of the craft is the vocabulary beekeepers use. "Hive bodies" are sometimes called "full-depth supers," which is even more puzzling. A hive body is the basic unit of the beehive, standard at 99/16 inches by 1913/16 inches long by 16¼ inches wide. It is made of clear pine, cut with dovetailed corners to make it sturdy. Indentations are cut out of each side to serve as handgrips. I always drill a hole the size of a quarter in the front of each hive body for ventilation.
These hive bodies are often called "ten-frame hive bodies," because it is customary to start new units with wooden frames that hold ten thin foundation sheets of pure beeswax, each one imprinted in a beeswax-processing factory with the matrix of the honeycomb cell that the bees would make if left on their own. On this foundation of wax, dimpled with the hexagonal honeycomb-cell pattern, the bees will build up deeper cells by adding to their foundation more wax secreted from their own bodies. Although the hexagonal cells approximate a circle, they fill the space without leaving gaps, maximizing the inside area relative to the supporting walls. This allows the bees the greatest possible volume for storing honey with the minimum of building.
These delicate wax foundation sheets are held in place by ten wooden frames suspended from the inside rabbeted front and back edges of the hive body, and may be removed easily if necessary. Before Lorenzo Langstroth, a nineteenth-century East Coast beekeeper, invented movable frames, beehives came in various forms and the bees were permitted to build permanent combs inside them. Unfortunately this meant that any work done by a beekeeper necessitated the destruction of the combs and the cruel, wholesale killing of the bees.
The impetus for Langstroth's invention of the movable frame was his discovery of what has come to be called the "bee space." Langstroth observed that bees always leave a gap of between a quarter to three-eighths of an inch between the combs they build on their own. This allows them to work on the combs and move about freely. They fill up spaces that are closer or wider than the "bee spaces" with interconnecting bridge comb. As long as the spaces between the frames of the hive are kept at approximately half an inch — a distance beekeepers quickly learn to judge by eye — the bees do not connect them with comb and the frames can be removed easily by the beekeeper with that handiest of beekeeping tools, a metal grasping device called a "frame grip."
Lorenzo Langstroth interests me. He was not only a careful observer of bees, a man clever enough to invent the modern beehive, but also the author of a gracefully written and instructive book on beekeeping, The Hive and the Honeybee, first published in 1853. He imported and developed the strain of bees most beekeepers still use, the Italian race of Apis mellifera, the sweet bee. That he could do all this in one lifetime and yet be, by his own admission, mentally unbalanced for one half of it, has always struck me as an extraordinary and admirable example of human strength.
Langstroth, who was born on Christmas Day in 1810, was brought up in a conventional family and went to Yale, where he cooperated (participated is too strong a word) with what may have been the first college food riot, the 1828 Bread and Butter Rebellion. ("The bread was not always sweet nor the butter fresh," he wrote in his Reminiscences.) He was later racked with guilt over his own minimal role in the ruckus: he had promised his mother to be good. He went on to study for the ministry, but upon attempting to preach his first sermon he was seized with hysterical voicelessness and was unable to deliver it. This was the start of what he called his "head troubles." He turned to beekeeping as a health-giving outdoor occupation, but when he was suffering from one of his spells of melancholia, he could not even bear to sit within sight of his hives, nor even look at the letter "B." He braved his way through his depressions by working chess problems until his mind cleared.
Langstroth was a prolific writer and journal keeper. His journals, which could be the key to an understanding of the man, may be seen at Cornell University, but present a formidable problem to the reader. Langstroth's handwriting was so bad that during his lifetime his wife, from whom he lived apart, was the only person able to read it, and it was she who put his manuscripts into readable form. In addition to their illegibility, the journals are full of private codes, mirror writing and obscene symbols. Putting them into readable English has intrigued a number of people, including me. When I proposed the project to a publisher who specialized in beekeeping and related subjects, the editor stipulated, "There are some areas in the Langstroth journals, such as the ones dealing with his periodic bouts of depression, that we would just as soon see eliminated from any publication." But it was this area that fascinated me: how a man so divided against himself could nevertheless contribute more useful knowledge and craft to the world in what was functionally only half a life than the rest of us, who are presumably in mental good health, do in the whole of our more ordinary lives. I dropped the proposal, and the Langstroth journals remain a scholarly challenge to someone with the patience, interest — and independent backing — to unlock them.
Once the bees have worked on the sheets of beeswax foundation in the ten frames and built full, fat combs in which they will raise young bees or store nectar and pollen, it is usual to remove one of the frames in order that the remaining nine can be handled by the beekeeper more easily while still making sure that the equally spaced distance between them does not violate the bees' fussy and meticulous assessment of the bee space. It is for this reason that the standard ten-frame hive body, when it is in working order, usually contains only nine frames, which makes newcomers to the craft doubt a beekeeper's ability to count.
Excerpted from A Book of Bees by Sue Hubbell, Sam Potthoff. Copyright © 1988 Sue Hubbell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
- Cover Page
- I The Beekeeper’s Autumn
- The Beekeeper’s Autumn
- II The Beekeeper’s Winter
- The Beekeeper’s Winter
- III The Beekeeper’s Spring
- The Beekeeper’s Spring
- IV The Beekeeper’s Summer
- The Beekeeper’s Summer
- About the Author
- Copyright Page