A Honeybee Swarm

Ruth Pearson
(as told by Charles Keener)

© Copyright 2024 by Ruth Pearson

Image by xiSerge from Pixabay
Image by xiSerge from Pixabay

I looked out the window, and thought how wonderful it is to escape for an hour or so from my interior, fluorescent lit office. Tuesday afternoons are reserved for my Rotary Club meetings, and represent a chance to enjoy lunch with other service minded individuals. After our business concludes, members routinely share happy life experiences with one another. As my brain slowly transitioned back to the stack of papers on my desk, I vaguely tuned into a fellow Rotarian until I realized that he was speaking about honeybees. My brain did an abrupt about-face as I listened intently to the story of how a swarm of honeybees returned after being absent for many years. After the meeting, I did my best impersonation of a prosecutor, and grilled my friend Charles about his encounter with honeybees. This story is both a familiar and a cautionary tale of the fragile existence of one of nature’s greatest pollinators.

Charles’ dad was a beekeeper. The first question I asked Charles that afternoon was his earliest memory of being the son of a beekeeper. Charles’ face lit up as he spoke of sitting by the side of the road on Saturday mornings as car after car swarmed by him. Dust swirled in the air as his shirt stuck to his skin. With feet dangling from his chair, he looked at his reflection in rows of honey neatly stacked in jars on the brown folding table set up in front of him. Charles’ sister sat by his side playing with her hair, as their dad intermittently waved a sign at oncoming traffic. “Local Honey for Sale,” screamed the uneven letters. While Charles begged to help draw the sign each week, his inability to write impeded all attempts at assistance. You see, Charles’ earliest memories of being a beekeeper’s son occurred when Charles was only 4 years old.

Charles described how the honeybee hives maintained by his father occupied one side of the family’s backyard, while the other side of the yard contained his mother’s lush fruit and vegetable garden. Each spring through fall, the vibrant hues of the red tomatoes, the green broccoli and zucchini, and yellow sunflowers created an explosion of colors and aromas that enveloped the house. As soon as the sun warmed the garden, Charles would break free from the confines of the house, not bothering to put on shoes, and would run through the field of flowers, careful not to trample on any of his mother’s plants. Joining him on this spring exploration were honeybees, who were also attracted by the color and aromas of the garden. It was there that Charles witnessed the worker bees traveling from one plant to another. If Charles’ eyes were microscopes, he would have been able to witness each bee biting the anthers of a flower and then shaking its body to extract pollen. Amazingly, each bee can propel thousands of grains of pollen from a single flower in a matter of seconds. The bees then fly to another plant to deposit the fruits of their labor. As Charles ran through the clover, imperious to the scientific work of the bees, he was unfortunately stung on several occasions. While honeybees generally leave humans alone unless provoked, they rarely resist stinging a lively child running barefoot through the grass and stepping on them.

Each summer, whenever the family saw their father warming his old knife, they knew that the nectar in the hive was sufficiently dehydrated, and that it was time to cut away the beeswax and extract the honey. As Charles’ dad raised each honeycomb out of its box and deposited it into an extractor, the sweet aroma of sunshine and happiness filled the air. Charles’ dad would quickly spin the manual hand crank as golden honey ran down the sides of the extractor and slowly oozed nature’s nectar through a tap. Hour after tedious hour, Charles’ dad would crank the extractor as sweat flowed down his face. While Charles tried to help when he was young, his lack of arm strength precluded an efficient extraction. As time passed, however, and Charles grew stronger, the job of cranking out the honey fell increasingly to him. Even though his arm felt as if it would fall off by the end of the day, Charles valiantly cranked away as he watched in amazement as uncapped honey flung out the comb. Once all unwanted particles were filtered from the extracted honey, Charles’ mother measured the honey into glass jars. Each jar was then packed into a box, ready for its exodus to the side of the road to be bought, sold, and enjoyed by other families. When the honeybees were productive, the family would extract as much as sixty pounds of honey from the hives. The stickiness that remained on their kitchen counters and dining room table was a constant reminder of the family’s shared pastime.

In addition to selling jars of honey, Charles’ family also sold honeycomb squares. When extracting honey, it is always nice to leave some honey in the comb. These honey drenched combs can then be sold. Many children, and I suspect some adults as well, love to take chunks of honey filled combs and chew on them like sticks of gum until all the delicious, sweet honey taste is devoured.

In the early 1990s, Charles’ father casually observed that the honeybees had not produced as much honey as in previous years. This was nothing to be concerned about they felt, for even honeybees can have an off year. Sadly, the family was mistaken in their assessment. Both the amount of honey produced, and the size of the honeybee colony, decreased the following year, and each year thereafter until the colony eventually died out. What many people did not know at the time, but came to understand too late, was that the Varroa mite had made an appearance in Virginia. The Varroa mite is a particularly dangerous parasite that attacks honeybees. While the Varroa mite can feed and live on adult honeybees, they usually feed and reproduce on the larvae and pupae of the developing brood. In addition to transmitting various viruses, the Varroa mite causes the honeybees to become weak and malformed, and therefore unable to efficiently fly, which is an act necessary for their survival. With these resulting abnormalities, the worker bees are unable to provide enough food for the colony, eventually leading to the colony’s elimination. If a honeybee were the size of an average sized human, the Varroa mite would be the size of a basketball. Imagine something the size of a basketball feeding on a human being. The destruction caused by this parasitic invasion slowly builds over a 3-to-4-year period, and causes scattered brood, crippled honeybees, and an impaired flight performance. Despite the havoc being inflicted, colonies initially show very few discernable symptoms of this infestation. Unfortunately, the unseen harm caused by the mite, without diligent human intervention, intensifies each year until the honeybee population reduces in number, there is a supersedure of queen bees, and the colony eventually breaks down and dies. This is the sad circumstance surrounding the elimination of many honeybees.

Remarkably, Charles’ father provided him with a gift from the honeybees that he has held onto until this day. Charles’ father gave him the last few jars of honey that their honeybees produced. That following winter, with their numbers decimated, and unable to generate enough warmth or food necessary for survival, the family’s honeybee colony died. Following this cycle of life, on April 18, 2016, unable to hold onto his breath of life, Charles’ father, the beekeeper, passed away. Charles states that he will occasionally take out one of the jars of honey his dad gave him and consider giving it to a family member to enjoy. He has, however, been unable to depart with this seemingly simple item, for to do so is to give away a part of his fondest memory of raising bees with his father. Each jar therefore remains a testament to the time when honeybees, and a young child’s father, were a fixture in the family’s backyard.

In January of 2024, Charles’ mother, in anticipation of the crisp air of winter transitioning into the gentle breeze of spring, looked out over the brown twigs and frozen grass of her yard, and reminisced of a time when her vegetables and flowers were lush and green due to the pollinating work of the honeybees. For some reason, the promise of spring that winter reminded them of the hope of new life. Charles’ mother therefore ordered two nucs of bees intending to revive the family’s beekeeping passion. The nucs, however, never arrived. Mother Nature had another plan in mind.

In February of 2024, Charles put swarm traps in his yard and added lemongrass oil to each box to entice the honeybees’ return. He then hung each box on a tree with an opening facing south. Two months later, one or two honeybee scouts cautiously checked out the swarm trap. Over the next few days, more honeybees stopped by for a visit. A week later, feeling secure in their choice, a swarm of honeybees arrived and set up residence once again in their old backyard. These amazing creatures, who give life to plants and food to humans, returned. What I found fascinating in the relaying of this story is that the date of the honeybees’ return was April 18, 2024 – exactly eight years from the day that Charles’ father passed away.

Welcome home. This time, armed with knowledge of the devastating impact of parasites to the honeybee population, I am confident that Charles, and other beekeepers like him, will be more diligent in protecting honeybees in their care.

Ruth Pearson is an attorney living in Virginia. She loves to spend her weekends hiking one of the many trails in the surrounding state and national parks. It is during these hikes, that she can easily witness and appreciate the beauty of nature that God has supplied. Ruth has had the privilege of writing several unpublished plays for radio broadcasts, and has supplied an essay to two anthologies, namely “Feeding Your Soul With the Word of God,” and “Abba Heart.”

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