Bee Patient: How Angry Honey Bees Taught Me to Take a Deep Breath
By Phillip Meeks, Virginia – Let me say this up front: I’m not naturally a patient person. I tend to wring my hands and pace the floor if it looks like my family is going to be late for church. It’s not unusual for me to kick the cardboard boxes as I’m hurriedly trying to assemble Christmas toys. When I’m expecting an order to arrive, I’m apt to visit the online shipment tracking a dozen times a day. I’m discouraged from drinking too much coffee at home, as it tends to make me irritable.
But once upon a time, way back around the year 2000, some honey bees taught me a lesson on taking a deep breath and thinking things through.
As a newlywed, I wanted to impress my wife’s family. Her 80-year-old grandfather had honey bees. I hesitate to call him a “beekeeper,” because to my knowledge, he’d never been inside a hive, but at various times throughout the years, he’d had a colony of bees on his property. I was interested in beekeeping, but I had yet to take the plunge. (That would come along in 2004.) I had read a book on beekeeping, and I had studied several catalogs. I was confident I knew something.
“Those bees need to be robbed,” said my wife’s grandfather. “There’s a veil in yonder. I think I have some gloves somewhere, too.”
The veil and gloves had both seen better days, but with three flannel shirts and some rubber bands around my pant legs, I went to work. The family watched from the safety of the carport.
I puffed some smoke into the entrance, just like the books suggest, and pried open the top. My heart rate increased at the site of all those bees, but I was a trooper, and I had an audience.
Things started well. I removed one frame full of honey and put it in the pan I’d brought with me, then another. But the bees were growing more curious by the moment, and there were lots of them. My hands began to tremble. In all those layers of clothing in the July heat and humidity, beads of sweat were flowing into my eyes and down my back.
Everything changed when, in my nervousness, I dropped a bee-covered frame. It wasn’t a full drop. I just let one corner slip out of my hand so that one side struck against the box. They didn’t like that. Not at all.
Hundreds of bees came at me. Even as a novice, I could tell by their buzz that their curiosity had progressed to rage.
In instances where I’m working with less-than-content bees, I’ll walk 50 feet or more away from the hives, hum a little tune and then come back to see if they’ve calmed down.
But my new wife and her family were sipping iced tea and watching me.
Being so green, I thought the thing to do was to stay with those angry honey bees—show them how unwavering I was, just like in that classic scene from “Cool Hand Luke.”
By the time it was done, I had harvested the honey, but I had also gotten way too many stings. They found the gaps under my veil.
They found the openings in my shirt. They discovered the seam in my gloves.
It was a few years later when I recounted that story to an experienced beekeeper and heard what may still be some of the best advice I ever received: “If things get too hot, just step away for a minute.”
Today, I’m a beekeeper who knows the value of working deliberately and applying a gentle touch. In instances where I’m working with less-than-content bees, I’ll walk 50 feet or more away from the hives, hum a little tune and then come back to see if they’ve calmed down.
I’ve applied that wisdom in other areas of my life, too.
If an unexpected frost shows up on the forecast in the middle of May, I do what I can to cover the strawberry patch, but I don’t panic. And I don’t even bother to set out pepper, tomato and eggplant transplants or plant corn until closer to the end of May.
When I’m tackling a project of any kind, I’m more apt to invest some time up front to gather all the tools I might possibly need and keep those in reach. The gathering is easier, too, because all my tools are now organized in one central spot. Nothing contributes to stress like tearing the house apart in search of a particular wrench.
I prepare for the unexpected these days. With my beekeeping, I keep empty boxes around for collecting swarms. I keep smoker fuel in a dry part of the garage. Beyond beekeeping, I know where the flashlights and extra batteries are. I’ve assembled a first-aid kit that I keep nearby. In my vehicle, I keep snacks for the kids, insect repellent, an air compressor, a change of clothes and a set of jumper cables. All these items are the result of me “stepping away” from the day-to-day for a bit to take a deep breath and plan.
And that’s what homesteaders should make a point to do as often as possible. If the cows are calving and the crops need harvesting, it’s easy to get consumed, but even the best lumberjacks need to sharpen their axes often.
So, this is your permission to sit on the porch with a cup of decaf and think, because you can’t rush some things.