Editor’s Note: We’ve gone on a search-and-rescue mission to find amazing stories and essays published in earlier print editions of Rootstock. Today’s throwback, “The Great Hive Heist,” was written by Sarah Holm for the Spring 2009 edition of Rootstock.
It all started innocently when one day my mom said, “Sarah, you know what would be a good idea – we should keep bees!” I had a sneaking suspicion that she meant I should keep bees, but I decided to play along. “Yeah, that would be cool!” I said, “We could have our own honey and use the bees for pollination.” But where would we keep them? I thought, and who wants thousands of stinging insects in their backyard?
A few months later my mom announced, “You and Laura are going to an all-day beekeeping class this Saturday.” Oh boy, I thought dubiously, I can’t believe this is actually happening to me.
Laura and I went to the class and while Laura played her iPod under the table, I was swept away on a tidal wave of bee euphoria. I joined a beekeeping club, read piles of bee books from the library, and found a farmer nearby who loaned me some old hives. The class was led by a small group of old farmers. I was surprised to see these tough, worn out, old guys teaching the class. I distinctly remember one member, the ninety-five year old patriarch of the group. With one swollen and knotted hand caressing the hive box next to him, the other wandering in and out of his overalls pocket, he began to talk.
“Well,” he drawled, “the first thing is you gotta feed em. Cuz if you don’t the durn bees will die on you. You gotta make sure the durn things have enough honey, or else they’ll die. They’ll starve, you know, in the wintertime. The durn bees have got to have 25, 50 lbs of honey in their hive, or, come spring, you’ll go out there an’ the durn bees, the durn things, they’ll all have died on you.” He was my favorite speaker.
A month had gone by and my bee craze had ebbed gradually away when I received an invitation to a bee club meeting. There was to be a drawing for hive and queen bees. When I read that, I felt a thrill: For the first time I felt I was truly in danger of becoming a beekeeper. My sister Erika went with me to the meeting, which surprised and heartened me. Erika has always been terrified of bees. Her only goal every summer is not to get stung.
We went to the meeting and entered our names for the drawing. Fate must have decreed it. I won a queen bee. $15 value. I put in an order for a colony of bees to go with her and went home to begin the long arduous task of cleaning and setting up the old hives I had.
At 7:00 am one Saturday morning in April I drove to town to pick up my box of honeybees. It was a beautiful sunny day but a horrible sense of doom in the pit of my stomach made everything seem dark.
When I took my bees’ home and let them out into their new hive, I felt much better. Although they buzzed horribly loudly, in a way that made all my instincts yell, “Run!” None of them even tried to sting me. I was very proud of them. My bees were beautiful. They were small and fuzzy, with delicate stripes of brown and yellow. Over the summer, I watched them and fed them, showed them to everyone who came to our farm, and yes, named them. All the worker bees (all females) are named Bess, the drones (the males) answer to Bob, and the queen is Beatrice.
One day we came home from a weekend trip to find a message on our phone from a neighbor lady. “Ask Sarah”, she said, “if her bees are missing. We have a swarm of them in our yard.” I was horrified. Bees will swarm if they do not like their hive; they fly away and cluster around the queen somewhere while they send out scout bees to find a new home. During this time they do not sting, and if you can get the queen you can put her in a new hive and they will all follow her. But once the scouts come back with news of a new home, they fly off and you can never get them back.
I went and checked on my bees. Opening the hive, I saw it was filled with bees, honey, and their brood. Ignoring me, they ran frantically about, working and hard as they could. I was so relieved!
I called the neighbor lady and told her I still had my bees. Was the swarm still there? I asked her. I had a vague idea of catching it and trying to make them set up residence in another hive at our farm. She said it wasn’t but she would be sure to call me if she saw any more bees.
Two days later she called again. “Sarah, they’re back!” A hint of hysteria was in her voice, “in our shed, thousands of them. A huge swarm, I don’t know what to do!” Then she mentioned the Orkin man and I knew I had no choice.” I’ll get them,” I said, with more confidence than I felt. “I’ll be there in an hour.”
Going into our farmhouse for volunteers, I found a most unhelpful fellow bee class attendee. Laura would not go with me. She declared that I had enough bees, I was crazy to catch more bees, I didn’t know what I was doing—and furthermore, she was playing the computer.
To my surprise my bee-phobic sister Erika agreed to come. Rachel decided to come too, and after the hassle of getting everyone covered in clothing from head to foot, finding a box for the bees, my smoker, some fuel and a lighter, we were off in our old pick-up truck.
At the neighbors farm we were confronted, not with a docile swarm of bees, but an actual thriving hive. It was bigger than the one I had at home, and it was only three days old! The bees were in a homemade dog kennel that had many sections and was standing on one end. I had to get a ladder to reach the top. In the top compartment I could see a steady stream of bees going in and out of the wire door. The door was stuck tight and my nerves were short-circuiting by the time it opened with a horrible creak and a swell of loud buzzing from the bees.
I was face to face with thousands of bees, all buzzing angrily and running around huge layers of honeycomb suspended from their ceiling.
“Erika, come look at this,” I gasped. She came warily to the foot of the ladder carrying our smoking smoker. “Oh geez!” she said in awe. “How are we supposed to find the queen in that?” Good question, I thought inwardly, but said confidently-“I’ll get my leather gloves and break out the comb. We’ll put it in our box and when we find the queen—she is supposed to be bigger than everyone and in the center of a cluster of bees—we’ll put her on the comb and take her home. You smoke the bees so they don’t sting us. I’ll go up the ladder again. Rachel, you get more fuel for the smoker!”
Erika, bless her, was all for it, although I must say she had the easier job. The whole time I was breaking the comb out she was sending up smoke from a safe distance. So much smoke, in fact, I felt I was in danger of suffocating.
I reached bravely into the kennel, grabbed a chunk of comb swarming with bees and broke it off. A gallon of honey immediately poured from the structure, soaking my arm and drowning many bees on the floor.
Steeling myself, I climbed carefully down the ladder while the bees left the comb in my hand and began crawling up my arm. I set it in the box and carefully brushed the bees off me.
“So far, so good,” I said to Erika. She tried to smile but just looked sick.
I climbed again into the fray. The bees were upset now, crawling over my veil and getting in the way. If Erika stopped blowing smoke up for a second to give me a chance to breathe, the bees would go right back into their hive.
After a while I stopped climbing up and down the ladder and started chucking the honey comb over Erika’s head and into the box.
This caused a lot of bees to fall to the ground and ten-year old Rachel added stress to the situation by yelling, “Don’t step on them! Don’t kill it! Watch out!”
I was getting very nervous. I kept thinking I was getting stung. The sweat rolling down my back began to feel like crawling bees. I had to keep going outside so Erika could get bees out of my veil and brush them off my clothes.
I knelt in the grass, gasping gratefully at the clean air, sweat and dust almost blinding me while Erika nervously removed bees. Her face was so white it began to look clear. Knowing Erika’s fear of bees, I couldn’t imagine the agony she was going through. Not that I was feeling too cheerful myself.
Remounting the ladder, I tried not to keel over from smoke inhalation as I captured more bees.
Once, Erika started having problems with the smoker. “I’m not getting enough smoke!” she yelled to me, “it’s not working!”
I didn’t pay attention to her for two reasons. First of all, I personally felt that, judging to the burning in my lungs and my stinging eyes, there was plenty of smoke. Secondly I had a huge piece of comb with tons of bees on it in my hand.
Flames started coming out of the smoker and Erika burned the back of my right leg.
“AAAAHH!” I screamed, and convinced that about fifty billion honeybees had just stung me, I jumped backwards off the ladder. I landed on Erika, who dropped the smoker; as she struggled to get away from my screaming, bee-covered self, she knocked over the ladder, which fell on top of us, knocking the comb and bees I was still desperately holding to the ground, and triggering an avalanche of junk which buried us and the bees.
It took a long time for us to clean up that mess.
About halfway through breaking the comb, I paused at the top of the ladder, mentally exhausted, unable to stick my arm into a mass of crawling sharp legs and buggy eyes one more time.
“Erika.” I said, looking down blearily through the smoke at her. “This was a stupid idea.”
“Took you long enough,” she said unsympathetically. Apparently she had figured that out a while ago. “Hurry up and get back in there.”
So I did. I took out the entire comb and scooped out as many bees as I could. I actually was carrying cupfuls of live bees at times.
We finally finished, shut our box up and put it in the truck. Took our sticky, sweaty clothes, veils and hats off and drove home.
As luck would have it we didn’t get the queen. Two weeks later the neighbor called to say that there were more bees than ever before.
We went again, this time at night, and after I had taken four stings to my right leg, Erika even took a front line place in the battle, climbing the ladder and sticking her arm in the hive.
We brought those bees home too and for good measure bought them a queen who came by mail, to ensure the new hives success.
Erika and I have decided that if we did miss the queen again, and if she does start a third colony, the neighbors can find some other way to dispose of them. We have retired from bee catching.
Sarah Holm has a degree in political science and has recently left the Organic Valley dairy farm where she grew up to attend law school. She is on the Generation Organic executive committee and loves working with other young farmers. She loves farming, gardening, and talking about agriculture politics.