Some years a commercial beekeeper keeps bees on our farm. He rolls up around Memorial Day in a semi truck in the middle of the night and unloads about 20 bee boxes in our cattle pasture. A few days beforehand he shows up with a crew to set up an electric fence.
The fence keeps the hive safe from our cows and any bears that may be around. Cattle are snoopy and would absolutely knock over hives and trample boxes. Bears are pretty common here and they would steal honey.
After a summer of pollinating, around Labor Day the beekeeper returns in a flatbed truck to collect the bees. Sometimes at night and sometimes not. We love having the bees around, they really are great pollinators. They also are very gentle compared to other types of bees.
In most cases, if honey bees don’t like what we are doing, they warn us. Unlike hornets or wasps who often seem to just sting you automatically if you get too close to their nests, honey bees will bop you in the face to get your attention. If you still don’t do what they want you to, next they will fly into your hair and buzz and squirm.
Over quite a number of years we’ve only had two or three honey bee stinging incidents. These mostly involved our dogs investigating the hive. We’ve only had one incident where a person got stung.
Honey bees are really fun to watch. They like it when we hang laundry to dry on our clothesline. They come and drink water off our bath towels, funny how they know they can get water that way. Or we’ll be out picking zucchini or cucumbers and realize we are totally surrounded by cute, fluffy bees who are totally ignoring us and just going about their day.
I think honey bees also like to watch humans. I’ve been warned and buzzed many times, so I know they keep track of us. Sometimes, I get an eerie feeling knowing that thousands of little beings are aware of me and monitoring what I do.
Anyway, back in the summer of 2013 we were having a terrible season of vegetable growing. That year we received a foot of snow on May 2. Even worse, the snow didn’t melt right away, it stuck around for a few days flattening and killing off all the vegetable transplants I had already put in. After the snow finally melted it rained and rained.
Because it was so wet I couldn’t plant and replant, everything was really delayed. June rolled around and things were better but quickly went south again when no rain fell until September 14.
Perhaps the crazy fluctuations in temperatures and moisture stressed the bees out. It sure stressed me out.
One day I went out to the veggie field with two teenage farm hands to pick string beans. Picking beans is not a favorite task, it’s tedious, takes basically forever and you have to crawl along on your knees or hunch over.
But we were picking these beans, we were picking every single one of them, because they were working out. During a season of constant crop failures, and crap yields on what was still alive, the beans were one thing that was going well.
So we set to work on the end of the veggie field nearest the bee hives. After about five minutes, one of my helpers asked me to look at the bees. Did I think there were more of them than usual? I didn’t even glance up, I just told them to not worry about the bees and keep picking beans.
It was going to be like 6,000 degrees that afternoon and rather than suffer a stroke from the heat, I really just wanted to get these beans picked sooner rather than later.
A couple more minutes go by, “Hey Eener, you should look at the bees,” said one helper. Reluctantly, I looked up. “Maybe, there are more bees than usual flying above the boxes, but we don’t need to worry about that. We just need to pick beans,” I replied.
About 30 seconds went by and then I was asked by both of them to look at the bees again. I looked up and then stood up, we all stood up and stared at the bees. No one talked or moved. No one picked beans. It looked like thick black smoke was rolling out of the hive. It wasn’t smoke though, it was all the bees flying out of their boxes..
I have no idea how many bees flew out of those hives, it looked like millions, maybe even billions. As they left the boxes they made a black curtain above the hive. The noise they made was a low roar that hurt my ears.
The three of us stood there transfixed, not picking beans, just watching bees. Once what appeared to be all of the bees were outside the hive, they started forming a shape. They sorta looked like a school of fish from a nature show. They organized themselves into a giant sphere about the size of one of those oversized beach balls.
Watching them form the ball was hypnotic and fascinating. All those little creatures working together with one goal was beautiful to see. Once the ball was formed I snapped out of my reverie back into reality and started thinking ahead. I wondered: what’s their next goal!!???
It suddenly occurred to me that these bees were planning on traveling and we certainly did not want to be caught in their path. “RUN!” I yelled. “What?” said my helpers. “RUN NOW!” I barked.
The three of us ran to the vehicle we had driven out to the veggie field. We piled in. “Roll up the windows!” I yelled. From the safety of the van, we watched the giant ball of bees move left, move right and then speed forward. All of them flying in perfect formation. They flew right over the bean patch, down the whole length of the garden, over a small swamp and into the woods.
Totally unnerved, we drove the van to the bean patch, collected our buckets and headed to the wash house to wash and bag them. I went back out at dusk to pick the rest of the beans. As for the bees, I have no idea where they went or if any came back. Later that day and for the rest of the summer, I saw bees flying around the hive so at least some of them either never left or came back.
I called the beekeeper to tell him about what we saw that day. He said his bees were doing all sorts of strange things because of the weather. Maybe they were overheating, maybe they were looking for water, maybe they were moving out. He didn’t have high hopes for a good honey yield.
I told him I was in the same boat yield wise. I agreed that my plants were also overheating, looking for water and probably trying to leave. “Well, at least your fence looks good,” I told him. Sometimes a good looking fence is all you end up with.