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A Great Honeybee Rescue

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The rainy season is going strong in the Southwest High Desert where I live. Each afternoon, clouds develop and we get an evening thunder shower. The air feels fresh and cool, and I spend hours outside, gardening, watching birds and enjoying the wildflowers.

I have a field of wild zinnias, many primroses, gaura and mallow, as well as huge bushes of datura and bird-of-paradise. There are so many hummingbirds buzzing around that they are almost a hazard! This morning, I experienced a different sort of buzzing.

I saw a flock of honeybees forming a cluster in one of my small oak trees. They flew into my yard, like a small tornado. They whirled and dodged, following their queen. They flew together in unison like a flock of birds does, or a school of fish. It was amazing to watch! They gathered together in a big mass, larger than a basketball, along the tree branches and trunk.

As most gardeners know, mites, viruses and other diseases have caused a serious die-off among honeybees the last few years. Some bee keepers in agricultural areas have lost half of their little pollinators, a real problem where fruits, nuts and vegetables are being grown. When I saw this family settling in my tree, I knew I had to find some way to provide them with a home.

Consulting the phone directory, I called local stores, the county animal control office, the state wildlife office, and the agriculture extension office. No one could help me. Finally, in desperation, I called the Mennonite farmer who lives up the road from me. His family knows everyone! That was the solution! Shortly a woman called me, and in a few minutes she brought her equipment into my yard.

What an interesting process! She carried a wooden bee box up to the base of the tree. It had vertical slats where bees could build new combs. She pulled out a few of these slats, like taking out drawers from a cabinet. Then she put on a net-covered hat and long gloves, and tied a string around her shirt so it would not be loose.

One of her tools looked like a metal teapot, and in it she had smouldering horse manure. She allowed the smoke to drift over the bees, and as they grew less restless, she gathered large handfuls of them and poured them into the box. It looked exactly like she was pouring handfuls of pebbles. Except that they flew out again immediately. She must have poured every bee into the box a dozen times, but they wouldn't stay. Until at last, she poured the queen bee in, and the others following her scent, flew in after her, just like running water. The beekeeper took a little brush, and swept the few remaining bees from the leaves and twigs of the tree. Nearly all of them went right into the box.

She left her bee box in my back yard, so any stragglers can move in with their family over the next few days. They can set up housekeeping in their new home and feed on my flowers. She told me that before bees swarm they fill up on wax and honey from their old home for food and building material. Interestingly, there are many little bits of beeswax on the twigs of my tree, and some sticky honey they left.

What a wonderful experience it was, watching that woman with her "livestock!" I have always loved watching the affection between farmers and their animals as they work together. This was just another sort of love!
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