Skip to main content
Original Issue

On the Trail of the Honeybee

Wild bees are an elusive quarry, and the reward for the hunter who plots the location of their tree is sweet

That trip into the woods really began for me the day I received a puzzling postcard: "Come up this weekend." it read, "the hunting is fine." That was all my friend Milt had seen fit to say—and it stumped me because I couldn't figure out what we would be hunting. Duck season had not yet opened. There had been a frost to scatter the doves and boost them on south. The leaves had colored but not yet fallen, making squirreling next to hopeless. Maybe he's found a crow roost, I thought. But I didn't doubt Milt.

Milt and I had grown up almost as brothers, fishing bullheads and running traplines—and had been sent home from the country school together for smelling too strongly of the skunks we caught. Milt never did say anything on his postcards to enlighten the public, and so whenever he summoned me I just picked up and went—if it were humanly possible.

Milt grinned when I drove up the following afternoon. Both my .22 and my 12-gauge double were lying in their cases across the back seat cushion. "We won't need the artillery," he said.

Without raising questions I left the guns in my car and climbed into the cab of the pickup he had already loaded with a canvas thrown over some stuff in the rear box. Milt's wife Molly waved greetings and goodby from the kitchen doorway as we rattled past, out of the yard. On the highway I poked my head out of the open window to feel the warm Indian Summer sun and looked over the rolling landscape of my boyhood, spotted with patches of corn and separated by creeks and wooded fencerows.

Milt's family had lived in that community for three generations. They not only own quite a spread of land, but with Milt along as a passport you can hunt far and near on any neighbor's premises. We drove about a mile and turned down a dusty lane toward one of those weatherbeaten and windowless farmhouses left abandoned with the coming of large-scale tractor farming. We drove past the fallen-down sheds and through a gate and along a fence line to a ravine with a waterhole surrounded by blooming smartweeds as heavy-scented as buckwheat. There Milt stopped the truck. From the glove compartment he took a little brown and crusted box with a sliding glass lid. "It's yours," he said, as he handed it to me. "I dug it out of the attic. I guess you remember how to use it."

I reached for the bee box as hesitantly as if I were attempting to grasp a miniature ghost. It felt real and solid in my fingers, and I looked at the comb of honey inside. "Sure I remember," I said, "but bee hunting went out years ago with the prairie chickens."

"That's light," said Milt, "but since the big-time commercial boys have started planting truckloads of hives about the country, the wild bees have come back. I've seen the flying swarms. There are a dozen bee trees scattered around this area, if you still know how to find them."

Clumsy bumblebees and many kinds of wasps hummed about the pink smartweed blossoms, attracted by their strong honey-like odor, and I approached quietly so as not to antagonize any of them. I opened my box a little way, eased it under the first honeybee I saw and tapped the blossom stem sharply. The bee dropped inside, and I quickly closed the lid. For a moment he buzzed up against the glass, startled and angry. But the sole purpose of a worker bee's existence is to gather honey for the colony. His sting is for defense, and very soon the scent of real honey in the box mastered him. He settled down to the comb, and I carried him back to the fence line, set down the box and opened it. Soon the bee had gorged himself. I watched him leave, spiraling straight upward until he had cleared all vegetation. I marked his course carefully as he took off on his "beeline" down the valley for home.

Milt shook his head. "No good," he said, "he's aiming straight for one of those commercial stands."

I went back to the pond, captured another bee and carried the box to a different spot along the fence, for I didn't want any returning commercial bees confusing us. This time when my worker left he headed across ridges and fields for the timbered creek on our right.

I glanced at Milt, and he nodded. "Looks O.K." I jerked out my watch and marked the position of both minute and seconds hands for timing the bee's return. Then I settled back comfortably into the shade of the fencerow bushes to wait. Above me hung some late wild plums, red-ripe and luscious. I picked and ate with one eye always on the honey box.

There is no precise way to determine the distance to a bee's home, but you can form an estimate. A bee travels nearly 12 miles an hour on course, depending on the wind, and he seldom strays more than three miles from home base in search of honey. When my worker came zinging back again, I rechecked my watch. "I'd guess about a mile; so it must be the creek all right," I said.

Milt's eyes twinkled as they met mine. "I guess you haven't forgotten a thing."

Again we waited. On the third return of our bee he brought a companion with him. Next, several came, and soon we had one flight line clearly established. We could cross-line them now. I closed the box with half a dozen bees busy loading up inside and moved along the fence for a couple hundred yards. There I set them down again.

It has always been a source of wonderment to me that a bee is not at all confused by being carried thus aside. One would think that upon rising from his box he would head off in the wrong direction. Yet he never does. He spirals again upward, takes his bearings and once more "homes" straight for his colony. I am always bewildered at this. But when why shouldn't I be? Even the greatest natural scientists have failed to explain fully the homing and migration abilities in either birds or insects. The hunter is content to know only that his bees have that ability, for the straight lines make it possible to determine his destination. The vertex of the angle formed by the two flight lines is certain to be the bee tree. Tramping haphazardly through the woods, you might pass such a tree a dozen times without noticing it except by accident. Bees are wisely secretive about their home, and if the cleanly waxed entrance to their honey cache is a tiny knothole in a limb high up, you have a problem finding it even if you know it is there.

We got back into our truck and drove on as far as we could. When we reached the creek, Milt and I separated by 20 yards or so and began carefully searching the area—walking slowly and silently, watching every opening in the tree-tops for the swift speck of a bee against the sky, pausing every few steps to listen for the drone of one incoming.

While we walked I got to wondering why I had not thought sooner of a renascence of wild bees. I had seen stands of dozens of hives planted about the country, usually near to clover fields. In my boyhood, when all oldtime farmers kept a few colonies for the family table, swarms strayed wild from them constantly and made bee trees common. Milt and I had hunted them to sell the honey. It was only after a new generation had started buying its sweets from supermarkets that the farm hives disappeared, and with them the wild swarms.

While we paused to listen a few moments later, I saw my first bee. It came from in front of me and passed over. "I think we've passed the tree." I called to Milt. I waited until another bee had gone over us, and the felt sure of it. We backtracked a little and took up positions on either side of the creek timber where a view of the sky was clear. Neither of us spoke again until Milt saw another bee. It passed him at a 45-degree angle to the creek. He marked its course, and we advanced accordingly. Then I saw a bee that braked in flight and nose-dived into the treetops. "Thar she blows!" I yelled. I waded under brush to the spot, and Milt joined me there. Even with a bee faintly whining in or away through branches every moment or so, it took quite a bit of close looking to spot them entering and leaving a crevice in the splintered end of a tree trunk from which the top had broken off high up. In this case there was nothing to do but fell the whole tree. Fortunately, it was a dead one. Otherwise we would have had to obtain permission of the landowner, who might not have reacted favorably to the loss of a healthy specimen.

We manned the crosscut in our shirtsleeves because of the warmth of the afternoon. And that was why we fled so abruptly when the tree crashed. Some people prefer to cut bee trees in the dead of winter on a day so cold that the insects can no longer fly and sting, but by that time the colony will usually have eaten up part of its honey. You have to take risks for the richest rewards.

While the bees buzzed in an angry cloud above their fallen home, Milt dumped the sack in which he had brought special clothing. "Want to do the dirty work?" he asked with a grin. He hadn't forgotten my nervousness around bees.

"Sure," I told him. My light hunting clothes were not heavy enough to protect me, but Milt had brought along the needed extras and soon had me encased in a pair of his coveralls. Then I had only to turn the cuffs down and stuff them tightly into my high-top shoes. Before donning gloves and bee cap, I taped my chin and nose against the chance of my veil drooping against them. Milt tied the wrists and collar veil, for my fingers were now clumsy.

"Remember that time we took Fat Cramer along and you stuck him in the rear with a sliver to make him think they could sting through two pairs of jeans?" I asked.

Milt roared. "I still swear he went into the air 10 feet, and he didn't stop running till he was 300 yards away."

He lighted a handful of cotton rags and stuffed them into the smoker. When it was smoldering well, I took it and went to quiet the swarm a bit while he dressed into his own outfit.

There were dozens of bees attacking me as soon as I approached the fallen tree. I could see those on the veil before my eyes plunging away in vain with their stingers. I knew I was safe, yet I cringed. I enlarged the entrance crevice and puffed a few jets of smoke into it, then looked, but there was no comb near enough to be visible. I tapped down along the trunk, listening with my ear close to it. The hollow extended several feet. With the crosscut we sawed halfway through, just at the upper end of the hollow and again at the lower, then half-sawed the trunk three times more in circular fashion at 18-inch intervals just barely to the hollow, removing the saw and blowing the cracks clean before the last strokes. We did not want a lot of sawdust mixed into our honey. I picked up the ax and wedges, and I could feel my excitement mounting as it always had when we were at last ready to break into a cavity. Until you do, there is always a question whether your work and trouble will net one pound of honey or 30. There is literal truth in that old country rhyme:

A swarm of bees in May is worth a ton of hay;
A swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon;
A swarm of bees in July is not worth a fly.

In fact, those that swarm really late will not amass enough honey to live through the winter.

I set the wedge and swung the ax. At that new earthquake the outraged bees swarmed up in clouds from the grooves left by the saw. I struck again, and the wood began to split. With the section loosed at both ends from the trunk. I pried one corner up enough to see under it into the cleanly waxed interior. One glimpse was enough—long slabs of comb sealed full and dark in color. That black comb meant an old swarm. It spelled honey in quantity, some perhaps of several years standing—aged and flavored by the surrounding wood, so connoisseurs say, in the same way aging in a cask improves wine.

"It's a real strike!" I shouted to Milt, and opened that section of the hollow to his view.

After the whole cavity had been opened to daylight, the bees quieted. Whether they were dazed by the extent of their disaster or simply recognized defeat, and surrendered, I do not know, but they became less belligerent and fell to gorging themselves on their own sweets. Bees often act this way, and that is why the hunter must have covered containers. Otherwise, as fast as you brush a slab of comb clean of bees and place it in your pail, new bees will alight all over it.

Milt came in with pans and buckets for our loot. I loosened the sleeve cuffs from my gloves and also opened some of my clothing to let air to my face and body. Under all those layers I was streaming with sweat. It was a risky thing to do. The scent of honey attracts robber bees, striped wasps and bumblebees, any of which will sting upon provocation. And so I tried to work fast, to get finished before too many of those airborne bandits showed up. Eventually, in my haste I got a sting. I had half-expected I would, yet I jerked from reflex at the sudden dart of pain. Of course the stinger remained in my skin.

When you remove the stinger of a bee from your skin, you don't pinch it between thumb and finger and pull it out like a sliver. At least you don't if you know about honeybees. That stinger is a tiny hollow cone filled with venom. A little of that venom squirts under your hide when the stinger stabs home, but only a little. If you squeeze the stinger trying to get it out, you get a second and larger dose. So the thing to do is nudge it out from the bottom up with the back side of a fingernail. The next thing is to keep air away from the puncture. Boys know a mud plaster will do that. But honey works as well and stays on better. Smear on a layer at once and a sting or two amounts to little more than a hard brush with nettles—unless you are one of those few unlucky persons with a special allergy. (If you have no experience at all with bees, it is wise to remember that in a few recorded instances a single sting has sent the recipient into a shock that proved fatal. Any symptoms of shock, nausea or chilling accompanied by red splotches appearing on the skin indicate that you had best get speedily to a physician.)

There was honey enough in the tree that day to nearly fill our pan and pails. I put the nice solid slabs in one of them with the white comb of the bees' last months' harvest on top, knowing it would keep fine in cool storage. Into other pails went the broken, mashed and seeping comb for rendering. If rendered honey turns to sugar, that is, crystallizes on the shelf, you can always place the opened containers up to their necks in a pan of hot water until the crystals re-dissolve, and you will once again have clear strained honey for several months.

Back out of the creek with veils off and the breeze blowing freely through our loosened clothing, Milt and I sampled a few bites of the delicious sweet that was the reward of our hunt and sat down in the shade of a solitary tree for a pipe apiece. "Now what?" I asked, when we had carefully emptied our bowls and ground out the embers.

Milt laughed. "Don't you think we've got enough?"

"Well," I said, "we could just trail down another bee and have another tree located for next year."

"And spoil half the fun of next year's hunt?"

I looked at Milt and smiled in agreement. He was right. We would have been tempted to cut it. It was only that my enthusiasm had tried to run away with me.

I gazed up the creek and down the creek, to where it blurred into late afternoon haze in either direction and listened to a couple of squirrels chattering. I'd come back for a go at them as soon as the leaves fell, and shortly thereafter there would be the weekends on the river with Milt in his duck blind. I felt just healthily and comfortably fatigued enough to sit there for an hour, but Milt got to his feet. "Come on," he said. "I've got cows to milk back home—besides, Molly has promised hot biscuits for supper."