Letter to the bees

The Honey Harvest
by Rosanne Hood

Dear bees

I simply must tell you that I was extremely impressed with your efforts in the summer of 1999/2000. You all worked exceptionally well. I never expected the staggering amount of honey you gave me. I do suppose, though, that you regarded me as more of a thief. Sorry about that.

I know you think that I have no right to take your winter supplies. But I think you surely must have noticed that I left each hive with a full box, untouched by me. You didn’t really need all that honey, anyway. It is still hot and there are still flowers around and you will have to agree that I have surely done my bit in providing you with a large variety of flowering things to visit for nectar. And you should also know that I won’t be taking any more honey from you this year. From now on what you collect, is yours.

Anyway, I thought I should tell you about what happened when we had our annual bunfight in February. Why February? Because it is usually the only month when temperatures rocket into the thirties, which is important for me, if not for you. It needs to be hot for me to extract the maximum amount of honey.

We began the day with Hive Five. Hive Five, you were exceptionally productive this season. It was just a pity you were so very bad tempered about my visit. My bee suit is designed to keep you out. I don’t look anything at all like your natural enemy, the Brown Bear. It really was most unkind of you to find a way down into my gumboots and to attack my ankles so ferociously. This was surely below the belt. It meant that later that night I could hardly walk. I suppose you thought that if I never walked again, you’d be happy. Well, I’m sorry you feel that way. I am made of sterner stuff. Anyway, not to dwell on your misdemeanours at this point, did you know that each one of the 16 frames I took, (well OK, that I stole) from you, weighed more than 2kg? This meant that the total combined weight of the two of your four boxes I took was in excess of 40kg. And I know you know that after I had taken out each frame from the top box and very gently brushed you off it with a soft brush dipped in a bucket of cold water, (though it hardly stopped you from attacking me immediately) I put it in a spare box on the wheelbarrow until your top box was empty. I then took the empty top box off your hive and repeated the procedure with your second box. Your persistent company was a little unnerving, particularly when six of your comrades got into my gloves and crawled up my arms to wage war. One of your number even got up as far as to be seen right before my eyes on the wrong side of my face mask. You can’t blame me for squashing that fellow, though technically, it was a lady bee of course. Well, in spite of this rather excessively unhelpful company, I then covered the whole load with a sheet and pushed it away and up the driveway. I know you know all about all of this because you came with me.

Did you see what an effort it was for me to push two thirds of my weight up a steep driveway in a wheelbarrow? Oh yes, I hear you mutter, it was not a fraction of the effort it took to collect, process, store and seal all that honey yourselves. And yes, I know the effort kills you. You work so hard over summer that your life expectancy barely exceeds three weeks. Well, I have news for you. I too can put in an inordinate amount of effort when necessary. But I do not expect to die from it. My life expectancy exceeds three weeks, most certainly. That is just how it is. Don’t ask me to justify it.

Well, for those of you who were still taking an active interest, the wheelbarrow went right into the shed and the automatic door went down. The resultant instant darkness meant that most of you buzzed off to the narrow slot of open window and attempted to get out through it all at once. So, in relative calm, I struggled to lift first one, then the other box off the wheelbarrow and stack them on the floor by the long table I had set up the night before. The table was covered with black plastic. There was a serious looking blade attached to a power cord, and a large white extractor stood nearby. I covered your boxes with another sheet, just to discourage those of you who were hanging about from getting back into the frames. Then it was back out through the magically opening and shutting door to visit Hive Four.

Hive Four, your behaviour was exemplary. It was a pity, wasn’t it, that Hive Five came to visit as well. I accept that they didn’t come to visit you, it was to continue to let me know that they thought I was a thief, and execution by stinging would be a minimum sentence. Well, of course you know that to sting is to commit suicide. So none of you in Hive Four lost your lives. And I was only a short time visiting you because you are less in number and had only three boxes, so I took only your top one. But what a perfect one it was! Eight spectacularly plump and evenly filled frames of pure, golden honey lightly covered in fine, white wax. You get 100% for picture-perfect frame development. Excellent work Hive Four. As you know, I rewarded you with an extra box, so you are now a four box hive.

The temperature was cranking up. This was getting to be very hot work. However, not wishing to waste trips up the driveway with only one box, I next went to visit Hive Three.

Hive Three, you got a surprise didn’t you! Despite the fact that members of Hive Five were attempting to stir up a general wholesale attack on me and making a frightful racket, you did not seem aware that this wasn’t an ordinary day. Nevertheless, whether it was the total shock of having your roof disappear, or the fact that when it did, a flurry of Hive Five bees descended on you like the Red Army (well, we know, for a fact, that Hive Five are fiery tempered Russian bees while the rest of you are mostly milder Italians) you quickly joined the fray. In fact, you were so savage, though lacking the ability of Hive Five to breach my defences, that I was mightily pleased that you only had three boxes and I only needed to stay long enough to take one. While not quite as perfect as Hive Four’s box had been, yours was very good indeed. I am sure it weighed more than 20kg when I finally got it on top of Hive Four’s box, and repeated my slow and tedious wheelbarrow pushing trek uphill to the shed.

It just was not fair that whenever I stopped barrowing for a breather in the sweltering heat, you should have continued to assault my person in the company of Hive Five. Shame on you for joining forces with those terrorists. Anyway, just as the previous trip up the driveway had ended in the shed, so too did yours and Hive Four’s box join the stack, except your heavy box had to start a new stack because I could not lift it up to be the fourth box on a three box stack.

Hive Two, I’m sorry I arrived with a ready made attack force, because you were, yourselves, very polite. Your two boxes that I took were so incredibly heavy, I could barely lift them into the wheelbarrow. I must say, you had been very neat about sealing the honey right to the very edges so that almost none dripped out into the wheelbarrow. And I could see that you had really needed a fifth box because you had entirely filled up all the space in your ceiling and walls with wild combs full of honey. You had nowhere else to put it. Well, that problem is rectified now. Keep up the good work!

Those bees who kept accompanying me up the drive were surely getting bored? I was certainly getting sick of you. It took even longer to get up the drive on the third trip. I had to keep reminding myself that there would only be one more trip to make. I could not see my watch, hidden as it was behind the bee suit and thick, elbow length leather gloves taped securely at the wrist. I had no idea how long this was taking me. But the one obvious observation I could make was that it was, so far, the hottest day of the year.

After leaving Hive Two’s boxes in the shed, it was back to visit Hive One. Last, but not least. Last to visit because you are nice bees to end up with. Also nice to be last because you are closest to the drive, now that I am getting worn out from all this heavy barrowing.

Top marks to Hive One for superb effort! I think we can safely say you equalled Hive Five this year. I could even add that I think you may have done better, but we ought not let Hive Five know about that. They have bad tempers. They are very bad losers and efficient fighters, a poor combination I feel!

Of course, most of you know all this already. But you may now like to hear about what happened next. Well of course Hive Five would say they couldn’t care less, but nonchalance was never their forte, I’m afraid.

The first thing that happened was that I needed to go into the house for a large drink of water, except I had no real desire to take all my hangers-on into the house with me. I suppose if you were one of them, you will not be reading this. You will be inside my vacuum cleaner, quite dead. You see, (addressing the rest of you who still live), when your now sadly departed comrades (about 150 of them, it transpired) followed me into the laundry, I had to take evasive action. I shut all doors and reached for the can of fly spray. When I finally left the laundry, coughing and choking from the fumes, there was a carpet of dead bees on the laundry floor. All I can say is that it served them right. I can only take so much aggression.

One litre of ice cold water and a banana later, it was 11.00am. I’d taken two and a half hours to move 8 heavy boxes of honey to the shed. I grabbed the thermometer, zipped up all openings in my bee suit, crunched on dead bees on my way out through the laundry, and prepared to start work in the shed.

Fortunately, almost all of you had found your way out the little slot of window I’d left open, so now I shut it. You were out, you could stay out. You would not be welcome in the shed at all. Not even just to look.

It is because you so efficiently seal up a frame of honey with a layer of wax, that I must now use a thermostatically controlled electric knife to heat and strip this wax off each side of each frame. This sounds easy. It is not. And it is hot work. The thermometer shows me it is 40°C inside the shed. At this temperature, the warm honey flows like water. As I painstakingly strip wax, (an activity known as “capping”) honey starts dripping out of the amazingly regular hexagonal tubes you store it in. But don’t worry, I didn’t waste it. Everything is retained on the table by ledges on either side under the plastic to stop sticky stuff from dripping onto the floor. Pretty soon I seem to be working in a pond of runny honey. Everything is gooey. I have changed my gloves from leather ones to plastic ones. The knife handle slips in my sticky grasp. The frames slip from my sticky fingers. My shirt and shorts under the bee suit are wet with sweat. I am thirsty again. But this is not the time to go and get more water. There is too much work to do. You see, I too can work just as hard as a bee at harvesting honey.

Now if I’d had some help, this task would have been easier. But I was on my own. So as well as stripping all the wax off the frames, I also had to spin them in the extractor. The trouble with leaving a pile of uncapped frames for too long in this heat was that honey kept dripping out. So I rigged up a box with a plastic insert to catch the honey. That worked quite well. I decided to remove wax from two boxes of frames at a time (8 frames per box) then extract them. Oh dear, it was such a hard task getting to the 16th. I pushed up my sleeve and looked at my watch. It was 1.30pm. It had taken me two and a half hours to get 16 frames ready for extraction. I looked at the 6 remaining boxes and sighed.

Two at a time, I placed the frames in the extractor. Well, if wielding a hot knife in 40° had been hot work, that was nothing compared to all the physical activity needed to spin the extractor. The really good thing was that all your heavy frames were mostly loaded to maximum capacity and were all well balanced. This made my job just a little bit easier. If the two frames in the extractor are of different weights, the extractor will leap about like a demented washing machine. But because the frames were loaded to maximum capacity, although they did spin smoothly, the task of extracting from them became so much longer than usual. When one side has released all its honey, then each frame is flipped over and the process repeated.

On and on I laboured, swapping between using the knife, and using the extractor (and emptying the extractor into many buckets) for hour after hour, until with two and a half boxes left to do, I clean ran out of energy. I think that this is when a bee would die.

It was almost 4.30pm and school bus time and I was sure Edward would not want to walk up the road in 33°. I looked at the mess, the remaining boxes and the overflowing buckets. They would have to wait till tomorrow. This was most perplexing. Never before had I failed to finish extracting in one day. I must be getting old and slow. I mustered sufficient energy to get out of my sticky bee suit and made a dash for the car, parked outside in the sun. One of your number buzzed in with me. But it was so frightfully hot inside that car, I think it was pleased to buzz right out again. It had no right to wait until we got back and dive bomb us as we rushed for the house. When I swiped at it, it stung me on the hand. Foolish bee. Stinging is deadly for a bee.

That night, after vacuuming the laundry floor, I did some tallying. I guess it does not exactly please you to know that since your forebears accompanied me from Canberra to Radcliffe in 1991, you have given me (all right, I might agree to admit I have stolen from you) 500kg of honey. Not all at once, of course! 1995 had been the best year. In 1995 you produced 90kg to end up in my buckets. It had taken two of us all day to deal with that amount. Last year it was 50kg. As to this year, I had no idea. The buckets needed straining and weighing. There are just so many tasks you can do at one time. Anyway, I did start some of the buckets straining overnight, and I began to get an idea that 2000 was shaping up to be a record year.

I suppose you must feel the same way sometimes, having to go out every day and do exactly the same thing as you were doing yesterday. The only thing different was that I had washed the bee suit overnight, and it was clean. At least it was clean to begin with. But up in the shed, all was just as I had left it. Sticky. And hot. It was hotter, earlier. It was going to 35° the weather report had said. At 9.00am in the shed it was 28°.

Well, this job would not do itself. So I got stuck right back into it, counting as I worked. One, two, three, four. The half a box from yesterday was now done. Only 16 frames left to go. I removed the wax from all the rest of them first, then started with the extractor. My shoulders ached from extracting efforts. Three frames broke from the excessive weight they were carrying. I ran out of buckets and had to go and get the last few from the very back of the cupboard of wine making supplies in the house. It was 1.30pm and 42° in the shed when with a final heave, I got the last dregs of honey out of the 16th frame. What a marathon task. But it was not finished yet.

You know all about the next bit of course. Three boxes high, it was a real effort for me to restrain the sticky handled wheelbarrow from slipping from my equally sticky grasp and flying off down the drive. But after some skilful barrowing on my part, with a lot of unhelpful attention on your part, you got your boxes back. I think you could have been more grateful for the extra room I gave you. It was not polite to treat me like public enemy number one. I know things must have been a little torrid and cramped with the top storeys gone, but they came back, nicely sticky. Fortunately, no bee managed to breach my protection, though I do know some of you would have dearly loved to.

Well, you had your “stickies” back, so that was a preoccupation in itself, and you now knew that there would be no more intrusion into the depths of your hives for the foreseeable future. For most of you, it meant that you could now settle down and get on with assessing the situation in your returned boxes. But Hive Five, I have to admire your tenacity for terrorisation. You insisted I be always accompanied by an elite attack force on the wing. Well I got the last laugh, didn’t I! I walked into our little pine forest. As I ducked and weaved between the thick branches, you lost me. I walked in on one side with a flurry of furious kamikazi bees whizzing all around me. I walked out the other side in solitude and peaceful quiet. What a relief!

Now it was straining and weighing time. The honey is first strained through a sieve, to remove big bits of wax, dead bees and other extraneous items. Then it is strained through extremely finely woven teflon. This will remove almost everything else, including dust. Honey will only flow through the teflon if it is quite warm. There was no problem at all in the 42° shed. The honey flowed like water.

It was also cleaning time. What a job! The shed was sticky from end to end. Door knobs were gooey. The hot knife was crusted with charcoaled honey. The extractor was stickiness personified. The plastic covered table contained a well of waxy cappings and leaked honey. I swept it all into a big slops bucket with my plastic gloved hands. The extractor had to be carted down to the verandah and thoroughly washed out with bucketed hot water and detergent from the laundry. It took ages of rubbing with steel wool to get the carbonated gunk off the hot knife. The sticky plastic table cover had to be rolled up and carried down to the lawn and washed and scrubbed thoroughly with the hose and a yard broom. Likewise, the sticky wooden temporary table top. Honey has a remarkable ability to seep through any small rip or tear and I had managed to put a fair few in the black plastic as I worked. I had to wander all about with a bucket of hot water and a rag (serves them right, those bees who nose dived into my bucket, thinking it was honey!) and clean door knobs, automatic garage door buttons, the handles of the wheel barrow, and anything else I’d touched. Then I had to cart buckets of hot water up to the shed and scrub the sticky floor. The ants were already doing a valiant job at cleaning up, but by the time I’d finished, there was nothing much left for them.

A shower never was so good! I guess that this concept of hanging about in water is an odd one to you, who never get sticky even though honey is your thing.

The buckets of honey (three at a time as I have only three pieces of teflon) were strained, then were taken down to the house and poured into big 30 litre containers. As the first one was filled to capacity, it was weighed. It totalled 31kg. The next three buckets strained overnight in Martin’s workshop at the end of the shed. He was none too thrilled about this, but the shed itself was not ant proof and Martin’s insulated workshop heated up and kept its heat nicely all night if he did not turn on the air conditioner. Next morning the second container weighed in at 33kg. The third lot of three buckets strained the next day then filled the last remaining bulk container to weigh 32kgs. The tally was up to 96kg and there was one more bucket to strain. By evening it was finished. It weighed 10kg. It went into a 10 litre container.

An amazing 106kg of honey! Why, you excelled yourselves! What a tally! Aren’t you pleased with yourselves? Well, I guess I see your point, you don’t have it any more. I have it now. But honestly, you couldn’t have eaten all that over winter. Many of you will be dead by then, anyway. I think you are right, though. We will never see eye to eye on this matter.

I should also tell you that as well as 106kg of honey, there was a further 18kg of slurry stuff from the table. A lot of this was split honey from the capping process. I am somewhat inefficient at removing wax. I probably removed rather more honey than necessary, as well. Anyway, I strained all this stuff and saved the honey bit of it in a special container to maybe give back to you if winter is long and hard. The rest I boiled up in a pot on the kitchen stove and separated out 180g of wonderfully soft and smooth, bright yellow wax. It’s really amazing how you produce that wax. Of course, I realise you have to put an inordinate amount of effort into producing wax and to have me swipe it and melt it all down to turn it into one solid lump is not your idea of value adding. Sorry about that. But to me it’s worth $4.00 per kilogram. So we view this matter differently as well, I guess.

What will I do with all your honey, you ask? A lot of it will make Mead. It’s possible you might actually like a sip of Mead. But you won’t be getting any. Drunk bees from Hive Five would be fairly awesome, I would imagine.

There’s a lot more I do with honey. But I guess it doesn’t really interest you. In fact, I doubt if anything much interests you these days beyond working hard to fill all the empty cells in the boxes I gave back to you. By the time next February comes around, you will have completely forgotten that I visited you in February 2000 and with my bee brush and wheelbarrow, absconded with 124kg of your combined labours. It was a magnificent effort indeed for us all. What’s that you say? You will never make me an honorary bee? Not to worry. In three weeks time I will have mostly forgotten all the extraordinary effort as well!

I’d like to be able to say, “See you all up close again next year.” But as is the way with bees, you won’t live long enough to sting me again.

So, that’s it, then! It was exhausting meeting you. We shared a memorable experience. Thanks for the effort you put into producing such an impressive amount of honey, though it is painfully true that I could well have done without the ankle biters!

Yours truly,

Annual Thief.

This letter was written for The Stony Creek Gazette of April 2000.

A reply from New Zealand

Keeping bees in NZ

John and I read your bee letter “Dear Bees’ with interest, and knowing smiles…Been there, done that! Perhaps the only thing different was that our temperatures would have been slightly lower than yours. We know all about bees inside suits and masks, mad feral bees, pleasant roly-poly jelly-bean Italian bees, backbreaking lifting, heavy , hot uncapping knife, etc etc. We did one better than you with our cappings, i.e. the ones John DID’NT eat as he was uncapping, we put them into the top of an old cream separator we have. I put a piece of fine metal gauze over the drain hole, and left the tap open, and the drainings obediently ran through, and when they got down to the last dregs, I heated the whole thing on the stove top, and a lot more flowed out.

Right at the beginning of my bee-keeping stint, we went out one evening, (not knowing any better) to right a hive that had been pushed out of kilter by the house cow. Well, being evening, the bees got mad and they rushed at me, and stung me on the neck, and John, who refused ever, to put on a white suit but wore his thick tartan shirt and woollen trews, (and made the bees think he was a bear so they always attacked him) came rushing inside, swearing blue murder, with high pitched bees after him and clinging all over, and as he rushed through every door, he flung off another layer of clothing, till he got down to the bathroom in just his bush singlet, and even there a few bees persisted. While all this drama was going on, my bee sting was making my neck and throat swell, and I was finding it hard to breathe, so John had to forget his woes, and take me in to the Doc. who gave me an injection. The Doc. told me that as I got older and got more stings, I would get worse in my reactions, so I was determined not to have my new hobby taken off me even before I’d got into it, so every day, I caught a half -dead bee, that had been left hanging around the shed, and just pricked the top of my leg with its sting. At first I got big red weals , and then as the fortnight went by, my leg gradually got more and more inured to the venom, till finally, it didn’t even notice it. (I have heard that it is good for arthritis too). Now when I get a sting, even after all those years, it still doesn’t bother me too much as long as it is not in a part of me that gets bumped and that moves. – then it can get swollen and itchy if it gets rubbed or knocked.

One time, we carried a hive, very inexpertly around to a neighbour’s who had hillsides of manuka in flower. We put the little square boxes in for the bees to fill. Then we went on holiday, and 2 weeks later we came back and found the hive overflowing with combs, built everywhere to take the flow – but not of manuka, of clear as crystal thistle honey!! Apparently it must have been easier work for the bees to get it.

I had lots of invitations to talk about Bees at women’s meeting, and most of them said it was the most interesting talk they had heard in a long while, so that was good. BUT I loaned my Bee Bible, the ABC of bee keeping to someone, and have never got it back! I can sort of remember the bloke’s expression of glee as he took it, but I can’t remember the bloke.

I finally got rid of my hives when the demands of 4 children, scary bees (my newly ordered queens had got lost in the mail and were dead on arrival, and meanwhile the bees had solved the problem themselves and got this vicious local strain going) and hives needing all that attention just when all the bottling fruit was ready and produce from the garden was calling out to be frozen etc. A person can only do a certain amount, before collapsing entirely!