Want to find out who your friends are? Get a hive of honeybees.
Yep, as if life here at Rusty Metal Farm wasn’t crazy enough already — enter the Rusty Metal Bees. Thus far the Rusty Metal sled dogs and chickens have remained silent on the issue.
My friends, however? Not so reticent.
Stalwarts who have stood by my side through unimaginable tragedy, grief, blizzards, and home and mechanical crises of all shapes and sizes are threatening to jump ship.
“You better keep those things on a leash,” my neighbor Shawn, who lives about a quarter-mile up the road, said the other day after he allegedly spotted a honeybee in flowers on his front porch.
He also joked about a loaded shotgun and my finding “bee bits” all over his yard if the trespassing continues.
When my regular house-dog-chicken sitter Chad found out about the new arrivals, he expressed some trepidation about adding bee tending to his caretaker resume.
Others have warned me not to expect to see them here on the farm until the bees are tucked in and the hive closed down for the winter.
I’m not sure why honeybees have such a bad rap. Sure, they sting in self-defense, but wouldn’t all of us do likewise if equipped with built-in barbed spears?
It has been close to two decades since there was an active hive here on the farm. Back then the apiary was the domain of my late husband, and I was his somewhat able assistant.
So when my friends Carl and Dorothy one day casually mentioned having one too many hives about the same time I was musing about getting back into bees, the plan was hatched.
Last week Carl showed up early one morning with a hive, bees, extra frames and boxes — just add nectar.
After gently — VERY gently — removing the hive from the back of Carl’s truck and carefully — VERY carefully — removing the wrapping from the hive’s entrances, we stood back and waited.
Soon bees were out on the hive’s stoop and surveying their new surroundings, and we could tell from the tone of their buzzing they were somewhat unhappy over the disturbance.
But bees are creatures with a work ethic that could put a Puritan to shame, and by midmorning they were coming and going loaded with nectar and pollen.
Twenty years ago we abandoned beekeeping after a bear toppled and ransacked the hives one fall.
The hope is that the proximity of the sled dogs will deter any bears. If not, the electric fencing and solar charger are on standby.
Bees have been in the news a lot lately from swarms moving into residences to the importance of small so-called backyard beekeepers in strengthening bee populations.
Bees, after all, pollinate our crops, and their annual economic contributions total in the billions of dollars.
Locally, retired schoolteacher Venette King remembers when her own late husband Garfield King kept bees, first on the family farm and later in the backyard of their house.
“Our neighbors never even knew we had the bees there,” King recalls. “Some would have thrown fits if they had known.”
The secret was safe with the Kings and the bees until the day Garfield’s bees swarmed.
“That’s the day the neighborhood discovered we had bees,” King said.
For years, Garfield King was a superintendent of schools in the St. John Valley, and Venette King recalled the years he would bring over classes of fourth-graders to learn about beekeeping.
“He would set up a beautiful display in the garage,” she said. “He’d have an open hive, a jar half full of bees so they could take a close look and some honey.”
To this day, King said, adults come up to her and reminisce about their day with her husband and his bees.
King said her husband was very successful with his bees except in one area — he was never able to keep a hive over the winter.
“He tried everything,” she said. “He covered them, he put them in the garage and in the barn, but he never could get them through a winter.”
The only thing he did not try — and not for lack of suggesting it, Venette said — was putting the bees under the bed for the winter.
My new bees are Russian bees, which Carl tells me are a bit more winter-hardy and he is having great success overwintering the bees.
The downside, he said, is the Russians are a bit more apt to swarm.
Bees swarm — move out in large numbers — for a variety of reasons, such as overcrowding, so it’s up to the diligent beekeeper to make sure they have plenty of space to live, breed, rear their young and make honey.
It’s all slowly coming back to me as I relearn the lingo and the ways of beekeepers.
The bees themselves are a marvel of evolution and natural selection.
One queen rules the roost with the help of her “court”: female worker bees who feed and tend to her every need.
Actually, all worker bees are females and depending on their age they are nursemaids, the cleanup crew, scouts, guards or foragers.
Just as there is a division of labor, the hive is divided up with areas strictly for honey, which is the byproduct of the nectar gathered by the bees; areas for rearing young (or “brood”); and areas for pollen storage.
Then there are the “drones,” the male bees. Their only job is to mate with the queen. That’s it. Other than that, they sit around in the hive as the females work and feed them. They don’t even sting.
It would be way too easy to make a pro-feminist joke here.
However, come fall the drones do get their comeuppance when the workers say “enough is enough” and kick them to the curb and out of the hive for good.
Hell apparently has no fury like a female honeybee before winter sets in.
For now, though, peace and tranquility reign at the hive and on a warm, sunny day I can actually work with them with minimal protective gear.
In fact, as long as the beekeeper is slow, calm and quiet and respecting the bees’ space, they have a pretty high tolerance for humans. Let’s hope so; I’m allergic. (And yes, I do have an EpiPen.)
At some point, I’m hoping my friends and neighbors buy into the bee philosophy.
In the meantime, as I wait for the honey to flow, maybe I’ll pick up some Tolstoy or Chekhov to read to my Russian bees.
Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award-winning writer and photographer, who frequently submits articles to the Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.