23. The Bee Hunt

by. H. W. Moss

Charlie Lenihan had an excited gleam in his eyes as he pulled on a pair of long black boots. We asked Peg, his wife of 35 years, why the happy smile.

“Somebody rang Charlie and he’s goin’ to Quin fer bees,” she explained. Their wedding anniversary was only days away, but at the moment she was more pleased about the bees.

Bees mean honey.

Honey is money to the Lenihans who derive their income from thirty hives, a cabbage patch and the bed-and-breakfast rooms, once their children’s’ bedrooms, they rent whenever travelers knock.

The Lenihans lived in Derra, Kilkishen, which is in county Clare, in the Republic of Ireland. On the map take a straight line down from Galway Bay to find Kilkishen. My brother and I happened to be one-night lodgers enjoying a breakfast of eggs and blood sausage when the call came to pick up the swarm in Quin. We were not far from Ennis, the largest city on the southwest seaboard of the Emerald Isle, and had spent the previous night in Cork. From there we drove to Blarney Castle where we managed to place our lips against the famous stone. We were on our way to O’Callaghansmills to visit distant relatives and stopped at sunset the night before at the Lenihan’s house. A sign over their nameplate on the front door proclaimed “apiary,” a word with which I was familiar but my brother was not.

One night in the neighborhood, perfect strangers by American standards, we had already become fast friends with Peg and Charlie.

“Do ya boys want ta go along?” Charlie asked brightly.

Naturally, Kioren and I leaped at the opportunity, but Peg insisted we finish breakfast and have another pot of tea. The Irish are much like the English in that respect. Mustn’t trudge off anywhere without a warm cuppa inya.

Charlie, however, was in a rush. He stood and gulped the last of his tea and went to gather his gear. At the end of his driveway is a small shed where he keeps some of the tools of his trade. He filled the trunk of his car with items he would need: a shovel, long overcoat and gloves with cuffs the length of his arms. He checked a plastic bucket’s lid for tight fit, tossed it in the boot along with a wide-brim hat that had a shroud-like veil attached. He was ready in five minutes. The swarm, he explained, might decide to leave before he could get there.

In the car he talked as he drove the fourteen miles to Quin, his accent thick as the amber treacle he sought.

“We had a very bad winter, y’know,” Charlie explained. “What kills bees is the wet. ’85 was the worst year we’ve had here. The bees can’t bring in the pollen. A swarm of bees, they’re like gold this year. We had 90% losses 85-86 winter.”

Charlie trilled his “r’s” and stretched many of the last syllables on a word. “Swarm” came out “swar-am” and “winter” was “win-tuhr” which gave his delivery of the English language a melody no American vernacular quite approaches. He explained that bees swarm because they are increasing in numbers and no longer have room. He likened himself to their moving van; he’s the real estate agent helping them find a new place to live. His reputation as an apiarist produces many calls from neighbors like the one this morning.

“Any other year you’d get a swarm o’ bees you wouldn’t be ast. Only take ’em away,” he reflected out loud. Today he said he expects to have to pay for the privilege of removing bees from the land where they trespass. He might pay “five and five. Two fives. Ten pounds, I would be willing. I won’t get away with one or two but I might get away wit half.”

Charlie was prepared to bargain. In this respect, the Irish are much like everyone else on the planet. It was late June and too late, he said, to get honey from the bees we are about to meet. “If you get a swarm in May,” observed Charlie, “quite possible to get honey that year. There is an old sayin’:

A swarm in May / Is wort a cock o’ hay.
A swarm in June / Is wort a silver spoon.
And a swarm in July / Idn’t wort a cald die.”

We argued briefly over what a “cald die” was. Charlie admitted he memorized the rhyme as a child and didn’t know exactly. He offered little enlightenment other than to point out that it was “a wort’less ting.” Finally we all, including Charlie, decided he must be saying the words “cold day” which, if you think about it, would be rather worthless to a bee man.

The road, like many in Ireland, narrowed to exactly one lane. The surrounding foliage arced above like a green ceiling about to fall on us. There were no turn-arounds or shoulders to ride if confronted by another car coming in the opposite direction as Charlie easily hit 50 miles per hour on the straightaway. He did slow somewhat at blind corners, a bend in the road or obvious bumps and dips. And for long minutes at a time we did not travel on real pavement, merely dirt paths that could barely accommodate a car.

Occasionally we passed a modern farm house. The front yard was usually a big well-kept lawn, its side and back yards given over to crops. Many older buildings, some as much as four centuries old with durable four foot wide stone walls — rubble walls as they are known — stand firm but abandoned, their thatch or slate roofs having long ago fallen in on the living area. Often the family moved away entirely, leaving the land orphaned, for life in the city or another country. Just as often, though, the children who are heirs to the estate chose to erect a contemporary home on a different nearby tract leaving these hollow old structures to be engulfed by the trees and bush and weeds that threatened to block the county roads we traveled on with Charlie at the wheel.

There is a dearth of road markers in this part of Ireland. Many small lanes and drives simply go unnamed. Only the junctions where several roads cross are labeled and numerous small paths, barely wide enough to drive down, jutted at an angle, not the perpendicular, off the one road we followed. Nonetheless, Charlie made great speed and found his way without benefit of a map or stopping to ask directions.

The swarm had lighted in Peter’s back yard. His house was made of wood and looked to be not more than twenty years old, modern enough and a type of construction seen mainly in rural America. He had a lush herb garden on one side near a walkway that lead to the back yard and when I identified sage and thyme, Charlie was delighted. Round white blossoms topped onions in a patch that was going to seed, their cellophane blooms not yet open. The onions were planted in several rows in front of the chicken coop.

At least twenty red hens and a rooster ran at us in a wave, but the flock stopped in a group at the edge of their pen.

We followed Peter as he guided us up the hill. He focused on the bees which had taken roost on the lowest branch of a small tree, no more than a sapling. The weight of this host sagged the branch and bees dripped to the earth about fifteen inches below the limb. Hundreds of insects were piled in a mound on the ground which was linked to the actual swarm by a ladder of crawling bees. The myriad above, which must have numbered a thousand or more, formed a football sized mass that writhed in an organic dance accompanied by a throbbing drone.

The air was filled with brown bullets. There were enough to form a cloud but they were spread out, perhaps foraging, perhaps as a defense. Amazingly, not one attacked us. They created a background zipping sound behind which Peter explained why he wanted them removed.

“Y’see, I have my own hives. But I’ve been stung so much I’m allergic to them. So I don’t want to be around them, y’see. As a result,” he added with typical Irish understatement, “I sort of lost a bit of zest for them.”

The swarm was a ripe fruit ready for Charlie to pluck. But to Peter, it was a festering pustule.

“You won’t get them any lower than that now, Charlie,” Peter observed.

Charlie donned his veil and armed himself with the bucket. He approached the cluster with deference. As we watched, it appeared almost too easy for him to gather the seething mass of insects.

First he placed the plastic container below the branch. Although it rested on the hundreds which had fallen to earth, it was not so heavy it aggravated them and he left it there only briefly. Charlie held the branch with his left hand near where it joined the trunk and with his right gave it a sharp slap. The cluster fell as one into the bucket which he quickly covered. Picking it up, he walked over to me and, with a wide grin, put it in my arms and asked if I would mind taking care of it for him.

I placed an ear to the lid and it sounded like a thousand cats purring. I was astonished the bees were still not angry, but was thankful for their quiescence: Charlie was the only one wearing any protection.

However, Charlie explained, he could not be certain he had the queen. She should have been in the center of the cluster he captured although she might just as easily be among the group that dripped to earth.

“You know,” he said with calm dignity, “a box would be mighty useful right about now if you have one, Peter.” In a moment, Peter returned from his shed with shovel and a cardboard box.

Gingerly, Charlie dipped the spade Peter gave him into the earth around the leftover bees doing his best not to disturb them. Then he used the blade like a spoon and lifted the mound whole into the box and folded closed the flaps.

“Not a bad little bee, eh Charlie?” asked Peter. “They’re a bit darker than the Italian.”

“Ai, a cross breed, that lot. And what do oi owe ye, Peter?”

There was no bargaining. Charlie came out much better than he thought he would. Peter was merely glad to be rid of what, to him, had become a pest.

“It would be my luck to have a swarm land,” Peter said adding that he still owned a number of hives. He said to Charlie, “Some day, you come back and we’ll go through them. They want cleaning out. Since I became allergic I put on the long finger. And the finger gets very long, y’know.”

I failed to ask Peter to explain himself at the time and it took several years before I found someone from Ireland who could tell me exactly what he meant by “put on the long finger.” Turns out, it means to put off doing something until later. In Peter’s case, it would seem, maybe never.

Charlie was pleased with the offer. He ushered us back to the car and placed the bees in the trunk along with the veil. On the return trip, we learned more bee lore.

“Bees are in their best when they’re swarming,” Charlie said. “They’re not inclined to sting you. And if you put water on those, now, they’d stay for the day. But if you didn’t put water on them and the sun was shining directly on ’em, they’ll raise again. They’ll send out scouts and they’ll pick out a place before they start to swarm.”

Charlie said he keeps the bees from leaving in a swarm again by locating the queen and marking her with white paint.

“Usually when you’re putting them into a hive, you put a board sloping up to the hive, a wide board, and a sheet. A white sheet. You tro ’em out of the bucket (he’s been pronouncing it ‘book-it’ so long now I’m used to the word) onto the board and they’ll walk up and into the hive by themselves. Now, by doing that sometimes you will find the queen. And in my case, if I find the queen, I would mark her and clip a wing. Clip one wing so I won’t lose my swarm. After ten months, it’s the old queen that will go. Having her clipped and marked she can’t go. The swarm will go out, but what happens is she will come out of the hive and she will pitch down in the grass, she can’t fly. And the swarm will come backin’ in. You’ll hold onto your bees that way.”

The queen must have a certain amount of pollen and nectar, according to Charlie, or she will not reproduce. Last year his queens stopped laying early in the year. Charlie said that a queen lays between 1,500 to 2,000 eggs per day. His stopped laying early. The life of a worker bee is only 45 to 50 days which is why the queen needs to be constantly at work. Their wings wear out, said Charlie.

“We ’ad no young bees comin’ on stream when all the old bees were dying away. So there was no bees left to generate the heat that they need. There was plenty food, but ’twas no good. I do nothing to help them in a case like that. That’s why they all died out. The month of Febr’rury was the coldest month we have got in years.”

The best bees are the cross breed like those he picked up today. Charlie explained the distinctions between bee types.

“There’s an Italian one that I had but don’t any more because they are not a profit making bee for me. They are a yellow bee something like the wasp. They make honey but it takes twice as much to feed ’em in the winter time as it does the ord’nary cross breds.”

With the exception of a cell-shaped mold, Charlie said he made all the implements for his bee trade himself. He takes wax from a hive and melts it onto this sheet of cells that is hung on a square wood frame. The frame is placed inside a box he builds to house the hive.

There are nearly 30 bee boxes in his back yard next to his cabbage patch. Charlie recycles his wax by melting the sheets down again in a container in the greenhouse. Using a clever, inexpensive technique, he requires no heat source other than the sun. Old cell wax is broken up and placed in a container which he covers with a piece of window glass. Sunlight creates enough heat to melt the wax into manageable amounts which he then pours into the mold and hangs in another hive.

Last year Charlie collected nearly 900 pounds of honey from his hives. That translates to 30 pounds per hive.

Pure Irish honey is gold to those willing to go on a bee hunt.