On Monday,  Neil called and said he was on his way down from Fort Worth. When he pulled into the driveway in Houston, I knew he had something brewing.

He opened the back of his car, and there was a cardboard box, a white cube of a little less than a yard long and a foot all around the other ways. I would know later it held over 20,000 bees, including a young queen.

Brother Neil has known my fascination with bees for a while. A large part of that had been because of him. When I was a young woman of 18 and Neil was a preteen, he started bee keeping with Ira Golden. Ira lived at one end of our street and we lived at the other. The whole street were blue collar misfits but the Goldens and us stood out amongst them. Neil had opened one of the hives, the bees humming about, a silvery summer years ago in Ira’s backyard. So I could see. “Don’t be fidgety or nervous. If you get stung, don’t jump.” Neil had said. A young boy on the cusp of manhood, he was calm and confident in his ability to manage the bees as he proceeded to show me the inter workings of the hive.

He knew I’d been wanting bees at the farm.

“They are for your birthday,” he said, and hugged me.

I dropped everything I had to do in Houston and with Mother, 3 dogs and the box of bees, we headed for Hempstead. The bee hive, painted white, filled with racks of comb and a veil for me and tools of the trade softly rattled against each other as we sped along the two lane country road. Having a lot more birthdays since those days decades ago makes me think of things differently. I know a lot more, but know a lot less and increasingly have an appreciation for everything, the things I understand and the things I don’t. I caught  myself noting where a bee might find nectar and pollen in the flowers and fields we were passing.

“You’ve got to have some kind of concrete blocks or something for us to get the hive up off the ground.” Neil said.

He suggested we place the hive on a part of the farm where the cows don’t go, a little weird slice of wooded acreage, fenced off and close enough to get to but not so close that the bees couldn’t have the freedom to set up their flight paths.

“Copperhead Alley. Sounds like a good place to me,” I said.

“I’ll get the tractor and mow it before we put the hive up. Get your boots on.” He said. Copperheads love the low vegetation there and I am guessing there are rats and mice aplenty to feed on.

I started rummaging around in the old barn for concrete blocks as Neil made his way across the field to the gate. The old barn is dimly lit and I have salvaged more items than I should have. Underneath the pile of flooring that came out of a turn of the century house off a country road I  had spied three years ago, was a cobwebby red item I had forgotten I had.

A bit more than ten years ago, my Jake and Josh had taken part in a party. Part Animal House, part Friends in planning, they had purchased food and drink. The non alcoholic beverages had come in heavy red plastic crates. Something about those crates. I don’t know. Okay, I do know. It was the knowledge that the one son gone now and one still here had picked them up in a time of fun, of carefree enjoyment of friends and life.  I held onto the crates because I could, a silly connecting thing that stood for the real thing I wished to hold onto.

“How about these,” I said.

“Perfect,” said Neil.

He placed them north and south and gingerly looking for a copperhead family member, picked up a 2 foot x  4 foot piece of cut sandstone, from the pile Silent Bob had salvaged, at my request, from the facing of the Central Square building on Travis street in downtown Houston.

“What are you smiling at,” Neil said.

“I’m happy about how this whole hive stand is taking shape,” as I told him where the stone came from.

He added the hive.

It was sufficiently off the ground, slightly sloping north to south, dappled in sunlight shaded by the clumping bamboos I had planted two years ago.

Neil placed the ‘nuc’ on top of the hive.

A ‘nuc’ is the term used for nucleus colonies, small honey bee colonies created from larger ones. The term can refer to the smaller size box and the colony of honeybees within it. A nuc hive is centered on a queen, the nucleus of the colony.

“Now stand back a bit and lets see how fussy they are,” Neil said as he removed the small stopper that had kept the bees in the nuc.

They streamed out.

“See how they are flying in circles?” Neil said. “They are orienting themselves.”

They were. Right at the mouth of the nuc and within two feet or so, they were circling. I stepped a bit closer. I could hear the humming. Some had found the narrow slit of the hive and had marched in.

“That’s good. Real good. We will let them be for about thirty minutes and then we will finish the transfer.”

By the time we returned, we’d put the dogs in the barn and sat Mother on the golf cart a safe distance away so she could watch. Neil shook the quart jar half full of sugar and water. We gathered pine straw and Neil lit the smoke can. It smoldered as he squeezed its small bellows.

smoker

“Put your veil and gloves on. You need to be calm when you work bees,” he said again.

“I will be. I promise,” I said.

The bees flew all around us as we moved closer. I don’t know what an agitated bee looks or sounds like. Not really. But these didn’t seem agitated. Still a bit confused maybe, but not angry.

“Honey bees are really very docile,” Neil said as one landed on his arm. I saw a couple of them land on my glove. “They have a job to do and they are generally intent on doing it.”

Neil very gently placed the nuc on the ground.

He lifted the top off of the hive. It was filled with racks. He removed four of them and a few worker bees, maybe fifty or so, were moving about the wax hexagons.

Rack

Then he took the lid off of the nuc. There were literally thousands of bees. A small colony of honey bees is measured in tens of thousands.

As he began the transfer, he explained.

“The racks are made just wide enough for the bees to traverse them so when you start placing new racks or old ones, you take the tool I gave you and move them together very tightly. We smoke the hive because it masks the alarm pheremone that they emit as we work them.”

With that he organized the new hive with racks from the nuc. Very carefully he shook the rest of the bees from the nuc onto the top of the hive. Looking into the box he noticed a clump of bees and there in the center of them was the young queen.

“Well, that’s not good,” he said.

He shook her and the rest onto the open hive.

“They will follow their queen anywhere. This colony will make it or not.”

We checked it before we left and the sugar water feeder was being used. Bees were entering and exiting the small slit that gave access to the hive. To my ears, the hive was humming happily.

Finished

“Did you see that one bee sitting at the edge of the rack fanning it’s wings so fast,” I said.

“Yep. She was cooling the hive. Wait till you see the guard bees doing their thing, Janet.” Neil said.

I can hardly wait.

Author’s note: A gratuitous dewberry shot.

Dewberry