Read an Excerpt
The Honeybee Mystery
By GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Hodges Soileau
ALBERT WHITMAN & CompanyCopyright © 2000 Albert Whitman & Company
All rights reserved.
An Unpleasant Surprise
"I have to admit," Grandfather confessed as he drove along, "I've been thinking about it all week."
"We know you have," Jessie told him, watching the green farmland roll by her window. "We're almost as excited as you are."
"This is the best honey in the world," he said for about the hundredth time, looking at Benny and Violet in the little mirror. Henry was belted into the seat next to him. "The very best." Grandfather actually licked his lips. "Oh, I can't wait."
Visiting the small roadside stand at the front of Sherman Farm had become a yearly tradition for James Alden. He had noticed it coming home one evening and decided to check it out. It was only a few miles from his house.
Grandfather, who had always loved honey, decided to buy a jar of their homemade brand. He put it on toast that night and enjoyed it so much that he came back the next day and bought another jar. He made a promise never to miss the first harvest in early summer, when the season's honey was fresh.
He pulled alongside the stand and parked the car. All four doors opened, and James Alden and his four grandchildren filed out.
"Boy, it sure is hot today," Henry remarked. "Really hot." At fourteen, Henry was the oldest of the Alden children. He was a handsome dark-haired boy who kept a careful watch on his younger brother and sisters.
"It sure is," Jessie agreed. "When we get home, maybe we should mix a big pitcher of lemonade. It'll be good for all of you on a day like this." Jessie, at twelve, was the second oldest child. She was always thinking about everyone else.
"Lemonade, yum!" Benny exclaimed as they made their way toward the front of the white-painted stand. Six-year-old Benny was the youngest Alden, but he had the biggest appetite in the family. Benny loved good food — and in Benny's eyes, good food meant any food. "Lemonade and honey! What a day!"
Violet, the second youngest Alden at ten, reached the front of the stand before everyone else. She was a pretty girl with long dark hair and a calm, pleasant face. Her name suited her perfectly, for violet was her favorite color. But she was attracted to all things colorful. She loved to paint and draw and had a keen eye for beauty.
"Lemonade sounds like a great idea, Jessie," she said with a smile. "I think I'd like — oh, no!"
She stopped suddenly, and the rest of the Alden crew hurried up behind her. Then they saw what she saw, and their mouths dropped open.
The stand was shut tight, and at the front someone had thumbtacked a hastily made sign:
NO HONEY THIS YEAR SORRY
"No honey ...?" Jessie said. "Oh, no."
All the children turned to their grandfather, who was staring at the sign.
"I can't believe it. No honey?"
Violet came up alongside him and patted him on the back. "Sorry, Grandfather."
"We can get some at the store," Henry suggested weakly.
"Supermarket honey?" Grandfather asked. "No, Henry, that wouldn't be the same."
"Maybe we can make some for you!" Benny suggested.
"Not unless we turn into bees we can't," Henry said.
"Bees? Bees make the honey?"
"Yes," Henry told him. "I'll explain it later."
Grandfather let out a long, weary sigh. "Oh, well, that's the way it goes, I guess. Everyone ready to go back home?"
"Sure," Jessie said sadly, wishing there was something they could do.
The Aldens started toward the car. Then Grandfather turned back to look at the sign one more time. "I wonder why there isn't any honey this year," he said quietly. "I wonder what happened."
Much to everyone's surprise, he got an answer. "I'll tell you what happened!" a stranger's voice replied. "My bees stopped doing their job!"
From around the other side of the stand, a man in overalls appeared. His white hair was a mess, and his face was red and shiny with perspiration.
He snapped his fingers. "Just like that," he told the Aldens, "nothing! They up and quit on me!"
Grandfather smiled and put his hand out. "I'm James Alden. I take it you're Clay Sherman."
The man shook Grandfather's hand while using the other to pat his forehead with a folded handkerchief. "That's right. I am the unfortunate owner of this farm." He pointed in the direction of his fields. "And of those lazy bees."
"That's too bad," Grandfather said. "You must be very disappointed."
"You bet I am," Mr. Sherman replied.
"Our grandfather is disappointed, too," Benny piped up. "He loves your honey. He gets some fresh every year!"
"Oh, is that so?"
Grandfather nodded. "I do come here at least once a year around this time, yes."
"You like it that much?" Mr. Sherman asked.
"You have no idea," Jessie told him. "It's the only thing he's talked about all week."
The other children laughed. "He's honey happy!" Benny said with a grin.
James Alden smiled at his grandchildren's good-natured teasing. "I have to admit, Mr. Sherman, I've never had honey as good as yours. I think it would be safe to say it's my favorite honey in the world."
Mr. Sherman nodded and smiled. "Well, what can I say to that? I certainly can't disappoint one of my most loyal customers, now, can I?"
"What do you mean?" Henry asked.
Mr. Sherman turned away, motioning for the Aldens to follow. "Come on inside the house. I've got something I think you'll like."
"Is it honey for Grandfather?" Benny asked excitedly.
Mr. Sherman looked back at the boy with a gleam in his eye.
The Alden children lived happily with their grandfather in his home in Greenfield, Connecticut. But they hadn't always enjoyed such a happy life. Their parents died when they were younger, and they soon found themselves with nowhere to go. So they journeyed into some nearby woods, where they eventually came upon an abandoned boxcar. They made it their new home. It was very old, but they cleaned it and brightened it up with flowers. But they couldn't live there forever.
One day their grandfather came looking for them. But they didn't know him then, and they thought he didn't like them. So they hid, hoping he would eventually give up looking for them and leave.
But their grandfather was very determined, and once the children realized what a kind person he was, they happily agreed to live in Greenfield with him, along with their beloved dog, Watch. Grandfather even set up the boxcar in his backyard so they could play in it anytime they wished. It was a reminder of the hard life they once had, and the happy one they had now.
The kitchen in the Shermans' farmhouse was very similar to the Aldens' kitchen — large and airy, with lots of sunlight. Mr. Sherman invited the Aldens to sit around a wooden table in the center of the room. His wife, Dottie, joined them, too. She was a tall, silver-haired woman with bright eyes and a lively smile. The children liked her immediately. Jessie and Violet were particularly drawn to her. They would soon discover she did as much to help run the farm as her husband did.
"So, what exactly happened with the bees?" Jessie asked, using a straw to swirl a glass of lemonade Dottie had poured for her. The ice cubes jingled musically against the glass.
Clay Sherman threw his hands up in frustration. "I have absolutely no idea! Dottie and I have been doing this for going on thirty years now, and we've never seen anything like it!"
Grandfather took a bite from a piece of honey-coated toast. His gift from the Shermans for being such a faithful customer was, as Benny had guessed, a jar of last year's honey. It tasted just as good as ever.
"Do the bees seem to be acting any differently?" Grandfather asked.
Dottie shook her head. "No, not really."
"Everything had been going just fine," Clay said. "We did the same things we do every year. The wildflowers in the back field were growing normally; the weather has been okay. Sometimes bad weather can throw the bees off a bit, especially if there's a lot of rain. But there wasn't too much this year. In fact, I told Dottie that this looked to be one of the best honey seasons we've ever had."
Dottie nodded, remembering this.
"And then ...?" Henry asked.
"Then ..." Clay put his hands up again. "Who knows? I can't explain what's been happening out there. The bees aren't making any honey. They're just making this whitish liquid instead. It looks a little like milk with water added to it. It's almost like ... like honey that isn't getting sticky or thick."
"Have you talked to a bee expert?" Violet asked.
Clay nodded resignedly. "Yes, I've called a few people I know. Everyone's stumped. This seems to be a new problem. No one's ever heard of it before." The white-haired man rubbed the sides of his head, as if he had a bad headache.
"And the worst part," he said with a long, weary sigh, "is the business we're going to lose." He looked at the children sadly.
"You mean from the honey you sell around here?" Henry asked. "Is it that much?"
Clay Sherman actually laughed, but not in a fanny way. His wife patted him on the back.
"No, Henry, not from buyers around here. As much as Dottie and I love customers like your family, we make most of our money from the honey we sell to the West Star Supermarket chain."
James Alden was surprised. "You mean the one that has stores all along the western coast of the country?"
Clay nodded. "That's the one. We sell most of our honey to them each year."
Grandfather went on, "They're one of the fastest-growing supermarket chains in America. If you do business with them now ..."
Dottie already knew what James Alden was thinking. "We can do even more later on, when they get really big."
"But there's a good chance we'll lose their business if we don't give them our honey this year," Clay said.
"When do you have to do that?" Henry asked.
Clay looked up at the calendar hanging over the stove. "We have to have a definite answer for them in about two weeks."
"Two weeks?" Jessie blurted. "How are you going to do that?"
"That's the problem," Dottie answered. "It doesn't seem like we will."
"Why two weeks?" Grandfather asked.
"That's about when Mr. Price, the buyer for West Star, usually comes here," Clay told him. "John Price is a good man. He heard how delicious our honey was. Then, when he got the job of buying products for West Star, he remembered us. Now he comes around each year with a new contract, and he always makes good on his promises." Clay held a finger up. "Kids, remember, the only kind of people you should ever do business with are the ones who keep their promises."
Dottie continued, "Mr. Price said he'd keep giving us our yearly contract, no matter how much honey West Star needed, as long as we could keep making it. He's always kept up his end of the bargain."
Clay's shoulders sank. "And until now, we've always kept up ours. I just don't know what we're going to do. If we can't fix this problem, John will have to buy from someone else."
"Would he really do that, after all these years?" Jessie asked.
"He'd have no choice," Dottie told her.
Grandfather Alden shook his head. "That's too bad, Clay."
"Tell me something," Henry said. "If you could figure out what was wrong with those bees and fix it, would you still be able to make enough honey for Mr. Price this year?"
Clay thought about it for a moment. "Well, it'd be tight, but we could probably manage it, yes. I mean, we've lost a lot of time already, but then we always plan for more time than we really need."
He threw his hands up again. "But what does it matter? I don't know what to do! Neither Dottie nor I know any more about this problem than we did when it started a few weeks ago. If you've got something in mind, we're all ears."
Henry, leaning against the sink, tapped his chin thoughtfully. "You know, I think maybe I do. How about letting us take a look around to see what we can find? We're sort of detectives, you know."
Clay's eyebrows rose. "You are?"
Benny smiled. "Yep. We've solved lots of mysteries!"
"There hasn't been one yet they couldn't figure out," Grandfather added seriously.
Clay looked at his wife. She shrugged her shoulders and nodded.
"Well, why not?" he said, getting up from the table. "If you can solve this little mystery, you can have all the honey you want. How about that?"
"Grandfather would love that," Violet said.
"Okay, then," Clay said as he led them out the door and into the sunny afternoon. "Let me take you out back and show you what's going on."CHAPTER 2
"Don't Sneeze, Henry!"
The Shermans kept their bees in a grove of oak trees behind one of the cornfields. On the other side of the grove was a gently sloping meadow filled with beautiful wildflowers.
"We never planned to go into the bee business," Clay told the Aldens, "but not long after we bought this farm, one of our neighbors came over and said, 'You know, the last owner always thought that field of wildflowers would be a perfect place to keep bees.' So Dottie and I decided to give it a try."
In and around the grove were about fifty artificial beehives. They looked like small, rectangular towers. Each tower was actually a stack of boxes, and each box contained a separate hive. Hundreds of little brown bees buzzed around them.
"What's this thing over here?" Benny asked, pointing to a low, square table upon which sat a large basket that was shaped kind of like an igloo.
"Oh, that's called a skep," Clay told them. "It's an old-style beehive. Apiarists — that's the fancy word for beekeepers — used to house their bees in those things a long time ago, before these modern hives were invented."
"Do the bees still use it?" Violet asked.
"I don't think so," Clay said. "I see them going in there sometimes, but once they build a hive in one of these boxes, that's where they stay. I just keep that one around as sort of an antique."
Jessie nodded. "That's neat."
"When you work with the bees, do you have to touch them?" Benny asked.
Dottie said, "We sure do. We have to move the hives around once in a while and remove the honeycomb frames to get the honey out."
"But you wear gloves, right?"
"No, gloves are too hard to work with. They get sticky and dirty, and you can't really feel anything with them on." She wiggled her fingers. "We need to be able to feel the bees in case they get caught under our hands."
"But don't they sting you?" Benny asked, alarmed.
Clay smiled. "Every now and then you get a sting, but that's rare. The main rule is to move slowly. Quick movements frighten the bees, and when they sting it's almost always because they're scared."
"Bees are much more peaceful and gentle than most people think," Dottie told the Aldens. "They don't want to sting anyone. They only do that when they feel they have to. If you treat them with respect, they'll treat you with respect."
"I haven't been stung in ages," Clay added.
Then he said, "So, do you want to see how all this works?"
"We sure do," Jessie replied.
He put on the protective headgear that he'd brought along. It really wasn't much more than a hat with a net hanging down to protect his face and neck.
He looked at the Alden children and smiled. "Like something from outer space, huh?"
"Yeah, creepy!" Benny said.
"This is just for safety. Getting stung on the hand is one thing. Getting stung on the face is worse."
He went over to see one of the hives and gently removed the lid from the top box. The buzzing sound became a bit louder. As Clay set the lid against the side of the hive, hundreds of bees turned their attention to him. They crawled on his arms and legs and around the netting on his hat.
"The first time I did this, I was so scared I was shaking."
Jessie brushed some imaginary bees off her body. "Ooo, I don't think I'd like that feeling at all!"
"Oh, I don't know," Violet said. "There's something special about it, being so close to animals like that."
"I have to admit," Dottie said, particularly to Jessie, "I didn't like the idea at first, either. But I got used to it. As long as the bees aren't mad at you, you get the feeling they're kind of ... well, affectionate."
"I wonder if they know who you are," Henry said.
Clay said, "I sometimes wonder that, too. If so, I'm sure they're plenty used to Dottie and me by now."
He reached into the hive box, even more slowly this time, and took out what looked like a picture frame. But instead of a picture, it held a honeycomb that was alive with hundreds of bees.
"This is called a comb," he said. "I keep ten of these in each hive, and each one contains about six thousand cells. Each cell has six sides."
"Do the bees live in those cells?" Benny asked.
"Yes and no," Dottie replied. "They live in the hive, and they certainly go into the cells a lot. But mostly they use the cells to store honey and wax, and the queen lays eggs that hatch into more worker bees."
"Worker bees?" Jessie said. "What are they?"
"Every hive has the queen, the drones, and the workers," Clay told her. "The queen lays the eggs and is the leader of the group. The drones do their part, too, but it's the workers that do most of the actual work, as you can guess by their name."
"What kind of work?" Violet asked.
"They fly out and collect nectar," Dottie told her. "They build the combs, make the honey and wax, feed the queen, and care for her eggs."
"Sounds like a lot," Benny said.
Dottie nodded. "It sure is."
Henry, who was thinking about the mystery at hand, asked, "So how exactly does the honey-making process work?"
Excerpted from The Honeybee Mystery by GERTRUDE CHANDLER WARNER, Hodges Soileau. Copyright © 2000 Albert Whitman & Company. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
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