By Sandra Cooper
Have you ever stood and watched the activity around a beehive? Or better yet, watched in awe as I have many times as bees fly in and out of a good old-fashioned bee tree? Bee trees are very special and can be found way out in the woods or, if you are very lucky, right in your own yard.
Bee trees have an opening in at least one location, usually where a limb has died and the wood has decayed, leaving a hollow space for bees to enter and exit as they go about their tasks of gathering nectar, picking up pollen and fertilizing plants. With time and more decay, a perfectly grand mansion for bees can develop, while the tree continues to grow and thrive around the damaged part. It seems to me that if every tree had a heart made of bees pulsing within its breast, trees and bees might all be the better for the arrangement.
There is an ancient maple tree on the south side of our building that is alive with bees. I often stand under the round hole where the bees fly in and out a few feet above my head, and I am inspired by the activity. Sometimes I stand and listen to their tiny bee engines humming next to my face and I close my eyes and imagine dark, mysterious bee corridors, similar to underground caverns in their complexity, that reach up into the heavy old limbs high above me.
I see dark, rich combs filled with honey waiting there, and I think of them as crystalized stalactites hanging in those secret corridors. I think of the generations of bee labor and thousands of miles of bee travels over untold acres of alfalfa, marigolds, mulberry, clover and dandelion blooms. What a layer of exotic flavors that honey would have. Could there even be top notes of onion or potato blossoms amongst the delicate flavor-scents of violets?
Often on a hot summer day when the sun shines directly on the bees’ front gate, I have observed bees sitting at the opening, fanning their wings to help cool the hive. The queen and her growing brood must be fed, protected and cared for. The survival of the entire hive depends on each bee doing its specialized job well.
I have had the privilege of observing two swarms of bees leaving the bee tree to search for a new home. The first time it happened, I heard a loud humming noise as I stepped out the front door at Slocum Hall. I looked for the source of the humming and saw a huge cloud of bees suspended in close formation at head level. I was drawn to the swarm, had no sense of danger and wanted to feel their incredible energy. I carefully approached them and let myself be surrounded by their miraculous presence as they allowed me to stand in their midst. There was a cloud of bees surrounding my head and I stood still and listened to the throbbing sound from thousands of little bee wings in flight.
After a few seconds, as if an unseen commander gave the signal, the cloud rose about two feet above my head and flew away to seek their new home. I felt like God touched a tender finger to the top of my head and whispered to me, “Sorry, you have to let them go, but I promise you that there will be more.”
The second swarm occurred during our Bluegrass Banjo Camp in May of 2014. The lawn was covered with RVs and tents of banjo players and “banjo-player wannabees” who came for a four-day learning experience with our world-class instructors Bill Evans, Gary Eller and Jason Homey. There were several campers who enjoyed a ringside seat as the swarm left the tree and flew across the street to a large tree that had a dead snag protruding from far up on its trunk. We held our breath as the swarm circled and returned to the bee tree where it settled on a pheromone-laced “swarm box” that had been attached to the tree by a local beginner beekeeper in anticipation of catching the Spring swarm. Our hearts had sunk momentarily when the bees flew across the road to the other tree.
One of our campers, a retired veterinarian and comic commentator, described in detail to the delight of all how he had heard the “leaders” discussing where to fly to and how, on the advice of one of the younger upstart fliers, the swarm had skidded in a U-turn to return to the swarm box waiting for them about two feet from the hive entrance. He swore he could hear a screeching sound, not unlike skidding tires on asphalt, as the swarm abruptly made a U-turn to return to the tree where the swarm box awaited them.
A crowd gathered under the tree to watch in awe as the bees settled on the box like a clump of Spanish Moss as they awaited their turn to enter. A few lost their footing on the swarm pile and dripped off the bottom of the swarm like clumps of warm butterscotch pudding. They flew back and reattached to the living, breathing mound slowly making its way into the swarm box.
About an hour later, the box was full of bees. The beekeeper let them settle in for a few days and then moved them to their new hive. I was again privileged to be a small part of the bees’ re-location and I became the official photographer as they were transferred carefully into a new hive. Let it be noted that the beekeeper and his assistant (my husband) wore cute little pith helmet jungle hats with nets, special gloves and white bee jackets.
As the photographer, I was apparently deemed expendable as I was offered no such protective gear, although I was every bit as up close and personal with the bees as the fellows in the cute white suits! But was I worried? Not in the least, because I had made a deal with the bees. If they allowed me to photograph them moving into their new home in the country, I promised I would only take pictures of their “good” side. No unflattering shots would be published. I was true to my word. I had an edge, however, and did not mention to them that those of us who love bees find them beautiful from every angle. Did I get stung? Oh, don’t “bee” silly! Bees keep their promises.
A Bee Tree Love Story
By Sandra Cooper