Nature's Serial Story by Edward Payson Roe
Chapter XXXI. June and Honey-Bees
It is said that there is no heaven anywhere for those incapable of recognizing and enjoying it. Be this as it may, the month of June is a segment of heaven annually bestowed on those whose eyes and ears have been opened to beauty in sight and sound. Indeed, what sense in man is not gratified to the point of imaginary perfection during this early fruition of the varied promise of spring? Even to the sense of touch, how exquisite is the "feel" of the fragrant rose-petals, the soft young foliage that has transformed the world, and the queer downy fledglings in innumerable nests! To the eye informed by a heart in love with nature the longest days of the year are all too short to note half that exists and takes place. Who sees and distinguishes the varied blossoming of the many kinds of grain and grasses that are waving in every field? And yet here is a beauty as distinct and delicate as can be found in some of Mendelssohn's "Songs without Words"--blossomings so odd, delicate, and evanescent as to suggest a child's dream of a flower. Place them under a strong glass, and who can fail to wonder at the miracles of form and color that are revealed? From these tiny flowerets the scale runs upward until it touches the hybrid rose. During this period, also, many of the forest trees emulate the wild flowers at their feet until their inflorescence culminates in the white cord-like fringe that foretells the spiny chestnut burrs.
So much has been written comparing this exquisite season when spring passes insensibly into summer with the fulfilled prophecy of girlhood, that no attempt shall be made to repeat the simile. Amy's birthday should have been in May, but it came early in June. May was still in her heart, and might linger there indefinitely; but her mind, her thoughts, kept pace with nature as unconsciously as the flowers that bloomed in their season. There were little remembrances from all the family, but Webb's gift promised the most pleasure. It was a powerful opera-glass; and as he handed it to her on the piazza in the early morning he said:
"Our troupe are all here now, Amy, and I thought that you would like to see the singers, and observe their costumes and expressions. Some birds have a good deal of expression and a very charming manner while singing--a manner much more to my taste than that of many a prima donna whom I have heard, although my taste may be uncultivated. Focus your glass on that indigo-bird in yonder tree-top. Don't you see him?--the one that is favoring us with such a lively strain, beginning with a repetition of short, sprightly notes. The glass may enable you to see his markings accurately."
"Oh, what an exquisite glossy blue! and it grows so deep and rich about the head, throat, and breast! How plain I can see him, even to the black velvet under his eyes! There is brown on his wings, too. Why, I can look right into his little throat, and almost imagine I see the notes he is flinging abroad so vivaciously. I can even make out his claws closed on a twig, and the dew on the leaves around him is like gems. Truly, Webb, you were inspired when you thought of this gift."
"Yes," he replied, quietly, looking much pleased, however, "with a very honest wish to add to your enjoyment of the summer. I must confess, too, that I had one thought at least for myself. You have described the indigo-bird far more accurately than I could have done, although I have seen it every summer as long as I can remember. You have taught me to see; why should I not help you to see more when I can do it so easily? My thought was that you would lend me the glass occasionally, so that I might try to keep pace with you. I've been using the microscope too much--prying into nature, as Burt would say, with the spirit of an anatomist."
"I shall value the glass a great deal more if you share it with me," she said, simply, with a sincere, direct gaze into his eyes; "and be assured, Webb," she added, earnestly, "you are helping me more than I can help you. I'm not an artist, and never can be, but if I were I should want something more than mere surface, however beautiful it might be. Think of it, Webb, I'm eighteen to-day, and I know so little! You always make me feel that there is so much to learn, and, what is more, that it is worth knowing. You should have been a teacher, for you would make the children feel, when learning their lessons, as Alf does when after game. How well nature bears close scrutiny!" she added, sweeping the scene with her glass. "I can go every day now on an exploring expedition. But there is the breakfast-bell."
Mr. Clifford came in a little late, rubbing his hands felicitously, as he said:
"I have just come from the apiary, and think we shall have another swarm to-day. Did you ever hear the old saying, Amy,
'A swarm of bees in June Is worth a silver spoon'?
If one comes out to-day, and we hive it safely, we shall call it yours, and you shall have the honey."
"How much you are all doing to sweeten my life!" she said, laughing; "but I never expected the present of a swarm of bees. I assure you it is a gift that you will have to keep for me, and yet I should like to see how the bees swarm, and how you hive them. Would it be safe? I've heard that bees are so wise, and know when people are afraid of them."
"You can fix yourself up with a thick veil and a pair of gloves so that there will be no danger, and your swarm of bees, when once in hive, will take care of themselves, and help take care of you. That's the beauty of bee-culture."
"Our bees are literally in clover this year," Leonard remarked. "That heavy coating of wood-ashes that I gave to a half-acre near the apiary proved most effective, and the plot now looks as if a flurry of snow had passed over it, the white clover blossoms are so thick. That is something I could never understand, Webb. Wood-ashes will always bring white clover. It's hard to believe that it all comes from seed dormant in the ground."
"Well, it does," was the reply.
"A great many think that the ashes simply produce conditions in the soil which generate the clover."
"Out of nothing? That would not be simple at all, and if any one could prove it he would make a sensation in the scientific world."
"Now, Len, here's your chance," laughed Burt. "Just imagine what a halo of glory you would get by setting the scientific world agape with wonder!"
"I could make the scientific world gape in a much easier way," Leonard replied, dryly. "Well, Amy, if you are as fond of honey as I am, you will think a swarm of bees a very nice present. Fancy buckwheat cakes eaten with honey made from buckwheat blossoms! There's a conjunction that gives to winter an unflagging charm. If the old Hebrews felt as I do, a land flowing with milk and honey must have been very alluring. Such a land the valley of the Hudson certainly is. It's one of the finest grass regions of the world, and grass means milk; and the extensive raspberry fields along its banks mean honey. White clover is all very well, but I've noticed that when the raspberry-bushes are in bloom they are alive with bees. I believe even the locust-trees would be deserted for these insignificant little blossoms that, like many plain people, are well worth close acquaintance."
"The linden-tree, which also blooms this month," added Webb, "furnishes the richest harvest for the honeybees, and I don't believe they would leave its blossoms for any others. I wish there were more lindens in this region, for they are as ornamental as they are useful. I've read that they are largely cultivated in Russia for the sake of the bees. The honey made from the linden or bass-wood blossoms is said to be crystal in its transparency, and unsurpassed in delicacy of flavor."
"Well," said Mr. Clifford, "I shall look after the apiary to-day. That's good lazy work for an old man. You can help me watch at a safe distance, Amy, and protected, as I said, if they swarm. It wouldn't be well for you to go too near the hives at first, you know," he added, in laughing gallantry, "for they might mistake you for a flower. They are so well acquainted with me that I raise neither expectations nor fears. You needn't come out before ten o'clock, for they don't swarm until toward midday."
With shy steps, and well protected, Amy approached the apiary, near which the old gentleman was sitting in placid fearlessness under the shade of a maple, the honey of whose spring blossoms was already in the hive. For a time she kept at a most respectful distance, but, as the bees did not notice her, she at last drew nearer, and removed her veil, and with the aid of her glass saw the indefatigable workers coming in and going out with such celerity that they seemed to be assuring each other that there were tons of honey now to be had for the gathering. The bees grew into large insects under her powerful lenses, and their forms and movements were very distinct. Suddenly from the entrance of one hive near Mr. Clifford, which she happened to be covering with her glass, she saw pouring out a perfect torrent of bees. She started back in affright, but Mr. Clifford told her to stand still, and she noted that he quietly kept his seat, while following through his gold-rimmed spectacles the swirling, swaying stream that rushed into the upper air. The combined hum smote the ear with its intensity. Each bee was describing circles with almost the swiftness of light, and there were such numbers that they formed a nebulous living mass. Involuntarily she crouched down in the grass. In a few moments, however, she saw the swarm draw together and cluster like a great black ball on a bough of a small pear-tree. The queen had alighted, and all her subjects gathered around her.
"Ah," chuckled the old gentleman, rising quietly, "they couldn't have been more sensible if they had been human--not half so sensible in that case, perhaps. I think you will have your swarm now without doubt. That's the beauty of these Italian bees when they are kept pure: they are so quiet and sensible. Come away now, until I return prepared to hive them."
The young girl obeyed with alacrity, and was almost trembling with excitement, to which fear as well as the novelty of the scene contributed not a little. Mr. Clifford soon returned, well protected and prepared for his work. Taking an empty hive, he placed it on the ground in a secluded spot, and laid before its entrances a broad, smooth board. Then he mounted a step-ladder, holding in his left hand a large tin pan, and gently brushed the bees into it as if they had been inanimate things. A sheet had first been spread beneath the pear-tree to catch those that did not fall into the pan. Touched thus gently and carefully, the immense vitality of the swarm remained dormant; but a rough, sudden movement would have transformed it instantly into a vengeful cloud of insects, each animated by the one impulse to use its stiletto. Corning down from the ladder he turned the pan toward Amy, and with her glass she saw that it was nearly half full of a crawling, seething mass that fairly made her shudder. But much experience rendered the old gentleman confident, and he only smiled as he carried the pan of bees to the empty hive, and poured them out on the board before it. The sheet was next gathered up and placed near the hive also, and then the old gentleman backed slowly and quietly away until he had joined Amy, to whom he said, "My part of the work is now done, and I think we shall soon see them enter the hive." He was right, for within twenty minutes every bee had disappeared within the new domicile. "To-night I will place the hive on the platform with the others, and to-morrow your bees will be at work for you, Amy. I don't wonder you are so interested, for of all insects I think bees take the palm. It is possible that the swarm will not fancy their new quarters, and will come out again, but it is not probable. Screened by this bush, you can watch in perfect safety;" and he left her well content, with her glass fixed on the apiary.
Having satisfied herself for the time with observing the workers coming and going, she went around to the white clover-field to see the process of gathering the honey. She had long since learned that bees while at work are harmless, unless so cornered that they sting in self-defence. Sitting on a rock at the edge of the clover-field, she listened to the drowsy monotone of innumerable wings. Then she bent her glass on a clover head, and it grew at once into a collection of little white tubes or jars in which from earth, air, and dew nature distilled the nectar that the bees were gathering. The intent workers stood on their heads and emptied these fragrant honey-jars with marvellous quickness. They knew when they were loaded, and in straight lines as geometrically true as the hexagon cells in which the honey would be stored they darted to their hives. When the day grew warm she returned to the house and read, with a wonder and delight which no fairy tale had ever produced, John Burroughs's paper, "The Pastoral Bees," which Webb had found for her before going to his work. To her childish credulity fairy lore had been more interesting than wonderful, but the instincts and habits of these children of nature touched on mysteries that can never be solved.
At dinner the experiences of the apiary were discussed, and Leonard asked, "Do you think the old-fashioned custom of beating tin pans and blowing horns influences a swarm to alight? The custom is still maintained by some people in the vicinity."
"I doubt it," said Webb. "It is no longer practiced by scientific bee-keepers, and yet it is founded on the principle that anything which disconcerts the bees may change their plans. It is said that water or dry earth thrown into a whirling swarm will sometimes cause it to alight or return to the hive."
"Your speaking of blowing horns," said Mr. Clifford, laughing, "recalls a hiving experience that occurred seventy years ago. I was a boy then, but was so punctured with stings on a June day like this that a vivid impression was made on my memory. We were expecting swarms every day. A neighbor, a quaint old man who lived very near, had gained the reputation of an expert at this business. I can see him now, with his high stove-pipe hat, and his gnarled, wrinkled visage, which he shrouded in a green veil when hiving a swarm. He was a good-hearted old fellow, but very rough in his talk. He had been to sea in early life, and profanity had become the characteristic of his vernacular. Well, word came one morning that the bees were swarming, and a minute later I aroused the old man, who was smoking and dozing on his porch. I don't believe you ever ran faster, Alf, than I did then. Hiving bees was the old fellow's hobby and pride, and he dived into his cottage, smashing his clay pipe on the way, with the haste of an attacked soldier seizing his weapons. In a moment he was out with all his paraphernalia. To me was given a fish-horn of portentous size and sound. The 'skips,' which were the old fashioned straw hives that the bears so often emptied for our forefathers, stood in a large door-yard, over which the swarm was circling. As we arrived on the scene the women were coming from the house with tin pans, and nearly all the family were out-of-doors. It so happened that an old white horse was grazing in the yard, and at this critical moment was near the end of the bench on which stood the hives. Coming up behind him, I thoughtlessly let off a terrific blast from my horn, at which he, terrified, kicked viciously. Over went a straw skip, and in a moment we had another swarm of bees on hand that we had not bargained for. Dropping my horn, I covered my face with my arm, and ran for life to the house, but I must have been stung twenty times before I escaped. The bees seemed everywhere, and as mad as hornets. Although half wild with pain, I had to laugh as I saw the old man frantically trying to adjust his veil, meanwhile almost dancing in his anguish. In half a minute he succumbed, and tore into a wood-shed. Everybody went to cover instantly except the white horse, and he had nowhere to go, but galloped around the yard as if possessed. This only made matters worse, for innocent as he was, the bees justly regarded him as the cause of all the trouble. At last, in his uncontrollable agony, he floundered over a stone wall, and disappeared. For an hour or two it was almost as much as one's life was worth to venture out. The old man, shrouded and mittened, at last crept off homeward to nurse his wounds and his wrath, and he made the air fairly sulphurous around him with his oaths. But that kind of sulphuric treatment did not affect the bees, for I observed from a window that at one point nearest the skips he began to run, and he kept up a lively pace until within his door. What became of the swarm we expected to hive I do not know. Probably it went to the woods. That night we destroyed the irate swarm whose skip had been kicked over, and peace was restored."
"If you had told that story at the breakfast-table," said Amy, as soon as the laugh caused by the old gentleman's account had subsided, "you could never have induced me to be present this morning, even at such a respectful distance."
"An old man who lives not far from us has wonderful success with bees," Leonard remarked. "He has over fifty hives in a space not more than twenty feet square, and I do not think there is a tenth of an acre in his whole lot, which is in the centre of a village. To this bare little plot his bees bring honey from every side, so that for his purpose he practically owns this entire region. He potters around them so much that, as far as he is concerned, they are as docile as barn-door fowls, and he says he minds a sting no more than a mosquito bite. There are half a dozen small trees and bushes in his little yard, and his bees are so accommodating that they rarely swarm elsewhere than on these low trees within a lew feet of the skips. He also places mullein stalks on a pole, and the swarms often cluster on them. He told me that on one day last summer he had ten swarms to look after, and that he hived them all; and he says that his wife is as good at the work as he is. On a pole which forms the corner of a little poultry-coop he keeps the record of the swarms of each season, and for last summer there are sixty-one notches. A year ago this month four swarms went into a barrel that stood in a corner of his yard, and he left them there. By fall they had filled the barrel with honey, and then, in his vernacular, he 'tuck it up'; that is, he killed the bees, and removed all the honey."
"That is the regular bee-phrase in this region. If a hive is to be emptied and the bees destroyed, or a bee tree to be cut down, the act is described as 'taking up' the hive or tree," Burt explained. "By the way, Amy," he added, "we must give you a little bee-hunting experience in the mountains next October. It would make a jolly excursion. We can leave you with a guard at some high point, when we strike a bee-line, and we might not be long in finding the tree."
"We'll put the expedition right down on the fall programme," she said, smilingly. Then turning to Mr. Clifford, she continued: "You spoke in praise of Italian bees. What kind are they? and how many kinds are there?"
"Really only two distinct kinds--our native brownish-black bees, and the Italians imported by Mr. S. B. Parsons and others about fifteen years ago. There is a cross or hybrid between these two kinds that are said to be so ill-natured that it is unsafe to go anywhere near their hives."
"Burt," said Webb, "you must remember reading in Virgil of the 'golden bees.'"
"Yes, indistinctly; but none of them ever got in my bonnet or made much impression. I don't like bees, nor do they like me. They respect only the deliberation of profound gravity and wisdom. Father has these qualities by the right of years, and Webb by nature, and their very presence soothes the irascible insects; but when I go among them they fairly bristle with stings. Give me a horse, and the more spirited the better."
"Oh, no, Burt; can't give you any," said Leonard, with his humorous twinkle. "I'll sell you one, though, cheap."
"Yes, that vicious, uncouth brute that you bought because so cheap. I told you that you were 'sold' at the same time with the horse."
"I admit it," was the rueful reply. "If he ever balks again as he did to-day, I shall be tempted to shoot him."
"Oh, dear!" said Amy, a little petulantly, "I'd rather hear about Italian bees than balky horses. Has my swarm of bees any connection with those that Virgil wrote about, Webb?"
"They may be direct descendants," he replied.
"Then call them May-bees," laughed Burt.
"The kind of bees that Virgil wrote about were undoubtedly their ancestors," resumed Webb, smiling at Burt's sally, "for bees seem to change but little, if any, in their traits and habits. Centuries of domestication do not make them domestic, and your swarm, if not hived, would have gone to the mountains and lived in a hollow tree. I have a book that will give you the history and characteristics of the Italians, if you would like to read about them."
"I certainly should. My mind is on bees now, and I intend to follow them up until I get stung probably. Well, I've enjoyed more honey this morning, although I've not tasted any, than in all my life. You see how useful I make the opera-glass, Webb. With it I can even gather honey that does not cloy."