This is Honey Joe, my cultural gem of a neighbor. He’s a nimble 93, and has been a beekeeper for 69 years. He’s had hives all over the metropolitan area, including the nature centers, but now he concentrates on those in his backyard, next to the golf course. He works with his bees without a suit. Or a veil. And no gloves.
He doesn’t use a smoker other than the burnished pipe in his surprisingly young, if tremulous hands. Before Joe lifts the cover off a hive he leans over, talking softly to himself and his bees, and blows three puffs of fragrant tobacco smoke across the opening. Calms them, he says. Quit the pipe once but smokers are too hard to keep lit. Gloves get in his way.
Just move slow, he says, stay behind the hive, the bees won’t be worried by you. So I go without gear too, and it feels less hindered, more natural, and safer, even.
His khaki pants are so imbued with the sweet scent of beeswax that the bees cling to his legs as if they were home. The insects stroll on his hands, his pipe, his hat, his nose. They don’t bother with me. Occasionally a bee does crawl up inside his pants leg, as it did this day. He sucks in his lean midsection, tugs on his belt, and calmly lets her out.
Today he tells me stories of pole vaulting the canals in the Netherlands as a boy searching for plover eggs in spring. It was an annual competition to find the very first egg, considered a culinary treasure, for a prize of gold guilders from the queen. He tells of doing his father’s milk deliveries by skow and gathering blue-green duck eggs along the way. A skow is a flat bottomed boat with a blunt bow used for ferrying cargo, the etymology of which is from the old Dutch word schouwe.
He’ll tell you he doesn’t hear so good yet his eyes are still blue and bright with no glasses. It’s said bee stings ward off arthritis: I wonder if this is true. It seems so for Joe. He crouches and stands up from the floor-level honey spigot in one smooth movement. My own knees are noisier.
Every chance I get I’ve always asked him; How are the bees, Joe? Some years; good, but hungry. Some years; not so good. Then there was the spring of 2013. No bees showed up to visit our apple trees’ blossoms. None. Not one. It brought home to me for the first time just how dire the situation is that our bees are in.
It was Joe’s hives that we rescued from the rising flood waters of Minnehaha Creek this last spring. He’d already had a rough winter, losing ten out of twelve hives.The latest Harvard research shows that neonic pesticide exposure combined with a hard winter can be catastrophic for bees. Indeed, it was.
Joe called me one night in June . Water’s getting a little high around the hives, could use some help, he says. Should I come now? I ask. No, I’m not up to it. Tomorrow’s fine, he says.
It rained all night. By morning his ten hives were in three feet of swirling creek water, some halfway up the first level of brood supers, in spite of being raised up on blocks. A super is one of the wooden drawer-like boxes which are stacked to house the colony as it grows. I had helped install his new queens in April and now their new brood was literally drowning.
My phone died in the torrential rain after a couple of panicked calls for help. Joe and I donned black garbage bags as rain suits and knee high boots, but the water was higher. Three stalwart friends appeared, one with her thirteen year old son, and for three hours we hauled hives and concrete blocks up the muddy hill to higher ground. The local news crew came, on their way to film neighborhood sandbagging, their cameras also under black garbage bags.
Super by super, we carefully reassembled the hives in order facing south on leveled concrete blocks in the vegetable garden. To mix the hives up would be deadly to their occupants. The bees were confused to have moved house so suddenly. Some buzzed for a week or longer at their old address looking for home, but the queens and workers survived.
He lost only one hive, one who’s queen was already weak. It’s orphaned workers he combined with a healthy hive by stacking their supers one atop the other with newspaper between. Over a period of days the two unrelated colonies became familiar with each other’s scent as they chewed through the paper, and acclimated to each other. Humans should be so civilized.
Joe had a successful honey harvest this fall. He gifted each of his volunteers with a big jar of golden honey as a thank you from himself and his bees.
Much of this harvest was clover honey. The clover was from neighborhood lawns, which the bees subsisted on during our long wet summer while their usual wildflower fields were underwater. The adjacent boulevard had became a river, the golf course and Joe’s backyard was a lake dotted by white egrets.
The golf course and wildflowers have not yet recovered, but Joe’s bees have. At least for now. Winter is coming, and they have a good store of honey. But then, they did last year, too.
It’s hard to be a bee these days, you know.
You can say hi personally to Joe and his bees if you walk or golf on the city course. Ask him how his bees are.
Ps. How are your bees? Any clover in your lawn for them? Or for Joe’s ?