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An essay by Dallas Lore Sharp

The Honey Flow

Title:     The Honey Flow
Author: Dallas Lore Sharp [More Titles by Sharp]

And this our life, exempt from public haunt and those swift currents that carry the city-dweller resistlessly into the movie show, leaves us caught in the quiet eddy of little unimportant things,--digging among the rutabagas, playing the hose at night, casting the broody hens into the "dungeon," or watching the bees.

Many hours of my short life I have spent watching the bees,--blissful, idle hours, saved from the wreck of time, hours fragrant of white clover and buckwheat and filled with the honey of nothing-to-do; every minute of them capped, like the comb within the hive, against the coming winter of my discontent. If, for the good of mankind, I could write a new Commandment to the Decalogue, it would read: Thou shalt keep a hive of bees.

Let one begin early, and there is more health in a hive of bees than in a hospital; more honey, too, more recreation and joy for the philosophic mind, though no one will deny that very many persons prepare themselves both in body and mind for the comforting rest and change of the hospital with an almost solemn joy.

But personally I prefer a hive of bees. They are a sure cure, it is said, for rheumatism, the patient making bare the afflicted part, then with it stirring up the bees. But it is saner and happier to get the bees before you get the rheumatism and prevent its coming. No one can keep bees without being impressed with the wisdom of the ounce of prevention.

I cannot think of a better habit to contract than keeping bees. What a quieting, pastoral turn it gives to life! You can keep them in the city--on the roof or in the attic--just as you can actually live in the city, if you have to; but bees, even more than cows, suggest a rural prospect, old-fashioned gardens, pastures, idyls,--things out of Virgil, and Theocritus--and out of Spenser too,--

"And more, to lulle him in his slumber soft,
A trickling streame from high rock tumbling downe,
And ever drizling raine upon the loft,
Mixt with a murmuring winde, much like the sowne
Of swarming bees, did cast him in a swowne:
No other noyse, nor peoples troublous cryes,
As still are wont t' annoy the walled towne
Might there be heard: but carelesse Quiet lyes,
Wrapt in eternall silence farre from enimyes"

that is not the land of the lotus, but of the _melli-lotus_, of lilacs, red clover, mint, and goldenrod--a land of honey-bee. Show me the bee-keeper and I will show you a poet; a lover of waters that go softly like Siloa; with the breath of sage and pennyroyal about him; an observer of nature, who can handle his bees without veil or gloves. Only a few men keep bees,--only philosophers, I have found. They are a different order utterly from hen-men, bee-keeping and chicken-raising being respectively the poetry and prose of country life, though there are some things to be said for the hen, deficient as the henyard is in euphony, rhythm, and tune.

In fact there is not much to be said for the bee, not much that the public can understand; for it is neither the bee nor the eagle that is the true American bird, but the rooster. In one of my neighboring towns five thousand petitioners recently prayed the mayor that they be allowed to let their roosters crow. The petition was granted. In all that town, peradventure, not five bee-keepers could be found, and for the same reason that so few righteous men were found in Sodom.

Bee-keeping, like keeping righteous, is exceedingly difficult; it is one of the fine arts, and no dry-mash-and-green-bone affair as of hens. Queens are a peculiar people, and their royal households, sometimes an hundred thousand strong, are as individual as royal houses are liable to be.

I have never had two queens alike, never two colonies that behaved the same, never two seasons that made a repetition of a particular handling possible. A colony of bees is a perpetual problem; the strain of the bees, the age and disposition of the queen, the condition of the colony, the state of the weather, the time of the season, the little-understood laws of the honey-flow,--these singly, and often all in combination, make the wisest handling of a colony of bees a question fresh every summer morning and new every evening.

For bees should be "handled," that is, bees left to their own devices may make you a little honey--ten to thirty pounds in the best of seasons; whereas rightly handled they will as easily make you three hundred pounds of pure comb honey--food of prophets, and with saleratus biscuit instead of locusts, a favorite dish with the sons of prophets here on Mullein Hill.

Did you ever eat apple-blossom honey? Not often, for it is only rarely that the colony can be built up to a strength sufficient to store this earliest flow. But I have sometimes caught it; and then as the season advances, and flow after flow comes on with the breaking of the great floral waves, I get other flavors,--pure white clover, wild raspberry, golden sumac, pearly white clethra, buckwheat, black as axle grease, and last of all, the heavy, rich yellow of the goldenrod. These, by careful watching, I get pure and true to flavor like so many fruit extracts at the soda fountains.

Then sometimes the honey for a whole season will be adulterated, not by anything that I have done, but by the season's peculiar conditions, or by purely local conditions,--conditions that may not prevail in the next town at all.

One year it began in the end of July. The white clover flow was over and the bees were beginning to work upon the earliest blossoms of the dwarf sumac. Sitting in front of the hives soon after the renewed activity commenced, I noticed a peculiarly rank odor on the air, and saw that the bees in vast numbers were rising and making for a pasture somewhere over the sprout-land that lay to the north of the hives. Yet I felt sure there was nothing in blossom in that direction within range of my bees (they will fly off two miles for food); nothing but dense hardwood undergrowth from stumps cut some few years before.

Marking their line of flight I started into the low jungle to find them. I was half a mile in when I caught the busy hum of wings. I looked but could see nothing,--not a flower of any sort, nothing but oak, maple, birch, and young pine saplings just a little higher than my head. But the air was full of bees; yet not of swarming bees, for that is a different and unmistakable hum. Then I found myself in the thick of a copse of witch-hazel up and down the stems of which the bees were wildly buzzing. There was no dew left on the bushes, so it was not that they were after; on looking more closely I saw that they were crawling down the stems to the little burrs containing the seed of last fall's flowering. Holding to the top of the burr with their hind legs they seemed to drink head down from out of the base of the burr.

Picking one of these, I found a hole at its base, and inside, instead of seeds, a hollow filled with plant lice or aphides, that the bees were milking. Here were big black ants, too, and yellow wasps drinking from the same pail.

But a bee's tongue, delicate as it is, would crush a fragile plant louse. I picked another burr, squeezing it gently, when there issued from the hole at the base a drop of crystal-clear liquid, held in the thinnest of envelopes, which I tasted and found sweet. In burr after burr I found these sacks or cysts of sweets secreted by the aphides for the bees to puncture and drain. The largest of them would fill a bee at a draught. Some of the burrs contained big fat grubs of a beetle unknown to me,--the creature that had eaten the seeds, bored the hole at the base, and left the burr cleaned and garnished for the aphides. These in turn invited the bees, and the bees, carrying this "honey-dew" home, mixed it with the pure nectar of the flowers and spoiled the crop.

Can you put stoppers into these millions of honey-dew jugs? Can you command your bees to avoid these dire bushes and drink only of the wells at the bottoms of the white-clover tubes? Hardly that, but you can clip the wing of your queen and make her obedient; you can command the colony not to swarm, not to waste its strength in drones, and you can tell it where and how to put this affected honey so that the pure crop is not spoiled; you can order the going out and coming in of those many thousands so that every one is a faithful, wise, and efficient servant, gathering the fragrance and sweet of the summer from every bank whereon the clover and the wild mints blow.

Small things these for a man with anything to do? Small indeed, but demanding large love and insight, patience, foresight, and knowledge. It does not follow that a man who can handle a colony of bees can rule his spirit or take a city, but the virtues absolutely necessary to the bee-keeper are those required for the guiding of nations; and there should be a bee-plank incorporated into every party platform, promising that president, cabinet, and every member of congress along with the philosophers shall keep bees.

[The end]
Dallas Lore Sharp's essay: The Honey Flow