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A WALK WITH AUGUST
On our first Friday evening, when the sky was still pink from the sunset, I went with August to the bee yard. I hadn’t been to the hives before, so she gave me a lesson in “bee yard etiquette”. She reminded me that the world was really one big bee yard, and the same rules worked fine in both places. Don’t be afraid, no life-loving bee wants to sting you. Still, don’t be an idiot; wear long sleeves and trousers. If you feel anxious, whistle. Anxiety agitates, while whistling melts a bee’s temper. Above all, send the bees love. August had been stung so many times she had immunity. In fact, she said, stings helped her arthritis, but since I didn’t have arthritis, I should cover up. She made me put on one of her long-sleeved white shirts, then placed one of the white helmets on my head and adjusted the netting. Everything appeared softer, nicer.
August kept 48 hives scattered through the woods around the house, and she was allowed to have another 280 on neighbouring farms. Thus, the bees had a rich variety of flowers to choose from and produced honey which was more delicious than ever. Those farmers loved her bees, as they made the watermelons redder and the cucumbers bigger. They would have welcomed her bees for free, but to show her gratitude, August paid every one of them with five gallons of honey.
She was constantly checking on all her hives. I watched her load her red wagon with frames that you put in the hives for the bees to deposit honey on.
“We have to make sure the queen has plenty of room to lay her eggs, or else we’ll get a swarm,” she said.
“What does a swarm mean?”
“Well, if you have a queen and a group of independent-minded bees that split off from the rest of the hive and look for another place to live, then you’ve got a swarm. They usually cluster on a tree branch somewhere.”
It was clear she didn’t like swarms.
“So,” she said, getting down to business, “what we have to do is take out the frames filled with honey and put in empty ones.”
August pulled the wagon while I walked behind it carrying the smoker stuffed with pine straw. August’s assistant beekeeper, Zach, had placed a brick on top of each hive to inform August what to do. If the brick was at the front, it meant the colony had nearly filled the combs and needed another frame. If the brick was at the back, there were problems which had to be dealt with, like wax moths or ailing queens. Turned on its side, the brick announced a happy bee family. August struck a match and lit the straw in the smoker. She waved the bucket, sending smoke into the hive. The smoke, she said, worked better than a sedative. Still, when August removed the lids, the bees poured out flapping their wings around our faces. The air rained bees, and I sent them love, just like August said. She pulled out a frame.
“There she is, Lily,” said August. “That’s the queen, the large one.” I made a curtsy like people do for the Queen of England, which made August laugh.
adapted from The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd