Vol. IV, No. 3, Winter 1991



The Beehunter

By Donald Holliday



After I wound my way up the head of the hollow and got to the top of the bluff, I looked backdown at Dad squatting by the spring. He hadn't moved, not a hair, except every little while he'd raise his head, slow--slower than forty-year itch--and as his head rose, he'd look left a little, and then right, and then back left, back and forth-all just as slow as he raised his head. It was like he was watching something being sucked up by a whirlwind that was bogged down in cold sorghum. And when his head got as high as the whirlwind went, he'd keep moving his head off to one side like he was following something with his eyes, something that had got out of the top of the wind above the treetops. Then he'd turn his eyes back down to the spring, squat there motionless for minutes, then start the whole thing over again, and he'd keep it up till I got back with the beebait he'd sent me back to the house to get.

In July and August, after the hay was all put up and the tobacco grown and topped and just standing in the scorching fields curing out the top leaves and when the spring branches had dried up all the way back up to the springs, he'd start to smell like sweet anise, because that was when he started beehunting.

Or at least I thought it was. Actually, he did it all the time. He'd be plowing corn or cutting alfalfa and stop at the end of a row or the end of a round to let the horses blow, and his eyes went to the corn tassels or the alfalfa blooms, anywhere a bee was working. And then he'd start that motionless gazing till he started raising his head, up and up, back and forth, till he'd coursed a bee, its legs packed with yellow stuff it got from corn tassels and jimsonweed and such, out of its nectar-loaded spiral into a beeline course toward its hive. Around the house and barns, the course usually was toward one of the beehives he kept under the big whiteoaks out by the hog ponds, but not always. Bees don't know whether they're tame or not, and wild ones that had hives in hollow trees out in the woods worked corn and alfalfa and cucumbers and such just like the tame ones did. So, every once in a while, a bee rose from the corn or strawberries and flew out over the timber, straight toward the big sand-rocks northeast of the house spring or straight toward the big redgum at the head of Sam France hollow or straight toward Winding Stair down on the end of Booth Ridge, and he marked that course as sure as a meridian on a map. So, from coursing bees out of the east fields or the Thomason place fields or the fields around the house and barns, he marked where those courses crossed and knew where to go, when summer's ever-sure drought months gave him time. He never forgot a bee course.

In July and August, and in September after the tobacco had been cut and hung in the barns to cure, when all the wet-weather springs and most of the ponds had dried up and there were just a few places for bees to water, when summer dogdays had killed all the wind, that's when Dad started beehunting. He mixed beebait out of old dark honey and water and a few drops of sweet anise. Bees can smell sweet anise a mile, which is about as far as they fly to work flowers or to water. Then, he'd put a bottle of beebait and some old jar lids in his pockets and go to where he knew bees would be watering, as close as he could get to one of the places he'd marked in his mind from coursing bees out of the fields. And there he'd sit, or squat, watching bees come in empty and fast, land on a rock at the edge of the water or on top of moss or a leaf, fill up with water, and then start their slow, loaded spiral up over the treetops, where they could fly a beeline through the windless air back to their trees. Dad could follow a bee against a summer sky the heat had burned almost all the blue out of, could follow it until it became smaller than the atoms of the air and disappeared behind one of them.

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Slay and Don Holliday
Bee after bee he watched land, water, rise, and disappear. Sometimes, bees from more than one tree watered at the same place. Then he marked more than one course, but today he marked one exactly--where it led over the turn of Sandrock Point, over a big leaning postoak with a limb as crooked as a dog's hind leg on the east side, just above two large cedars growing close together, the one on the lower side a few feet taller than the other. As soon as I got back with the beebait, that's where we headed.

Through thorny blackhaw and greenbriars, we made our way up onto the postoak flats on Sandrock Point. There, the big postoak that had looked so distinctive from down by the spring looked like all the other postoaks, but zig-zag-ging back and forth, up and down the point a hundred yards or so, we found the two cedars first, the lower one larger than the one above, and then above them we found the big oak with its crooked limb. In a ledgy spot open enough for bees to climb out of, Dad took one of the jar lids from his pocket. Into the lid he poured some of the beebait. He sat the lid on an open ledge, then picked up a small rock and placed it in the lid, carefully, so the part of the rock above the syrupy beebait was left dry and clean and bees could land on it without getting bedraggled and then not be able to fly out of it. Then we sat and waited and watched. I was doubtful. How could a bee zinging along well up above the tall cedars--a hundred feet maybe--ever find that three-inch jar lid, especially if that old bee happens to be a hundred or two yards uphill or downhill from where we sat? Well, a bee didn't have to find a three-inch lid. A bee had only to find the sweet anise, which permeated even that windless air much farther than I could tell, but bees could tell, because it wasn't five minutes before they began to land on that little rock in that little lid in the middle of a million miles of brush and briars, and it wasn't ten minutes until there was a fuzzy mass of them there, as hungry as boarding house diners. And there they watered in a sweet orgy of honey and anise.

From that bait, we coursed the bees again, till we lost them against the tall timber in Coon Creek bottoms, near the mouth of the draw that heads up just below the old Hunt houseplace. We couldn't see where the bees entered the timber, but we knew they were flying down, toward the bottom of the big hollow rather than in a straight line across it. We followed the beeline, across Coon Creek, wading water fit for humans to drink, under walnuts and blackoaks a hundred feet tall, to the first open cedar glade above the creek. There we set another bait, and again bees found it within minutes. From this bait, the bees did not labor to rise above the treetops before setting a course. They flew through the trees, disappeared against heavy foliage and tree trunks, and reappeared often enough in open spaces for us to course them northwest up the south-facing slope, toward a huge blackoak rooted on the top edge of a ten-foot ledge. We left the bait where it was and followed them, straight to the big blackoak, where we could see them lighting in a mass of bees around a hole at the base of a sixteen-inch limb about fifteen feet up the lower side of the tree. The tree was a shell, as hollow as a barrel. We knew it was an old swarm, a big one. Dad took out his pocket knife and carved a big "X" about head high on the upper side of the tree to mark the tree as found, a mark of ownership I've never known a beehunter to violate, although courtesy required the hunter to ask the landowner's permission to cut the tree and offer to share the honey when the beetree was robbed.

Dad and I robbed that tree the next winter. We had to wait until cold weather, because the old oak, leaning out over the ledge, was so hollow we knew it would split all to pieces when it plunged downhill into the rocky hillside below. Slamming into that hillside, if the tree were cut in the summer, would splatter warm honeycomb everywhere, drowning many bees and bedraggling the others, so neither bees nor honey could be saved. When we cut it, the honey was cold, the bees clustered. The tree did split. Little sawing or chopping was necessary to open the trunk wide to get at the honey and the bees. With his hands, as gently as possible, Dad separated masses of bees until he found the queen. We placed her in a cardboard box. We scooped up handsful of bees and put in with her. Then, while we gathered honey into buckets, almost all the remaining bees crawled--it was too cold for them to fly--into the box with the queen.

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After carrying out two five-gallon buckets of honeycomb and the box of bees, we made two other trips--the second with a washtub--back to that tree to gather honey, some of it old and dark and bitter to human taste. But all the honey was eaten, most of it by the swarm who made it, fed to them so they could survive the winter in their new handmade hive under the big whiteoaks. Some of the honey was used for beebait the following summer.

Although a tub of honey was important to us, swarm survival was more important. We would have fed the bees all the honey we gathered had that been necessary. Often, during long, cold springs, we fed our hived bees stored honey, and if we ran out of that, we fed them syrup made of store-bought sugar and water. They paid us back manifold; they gave us honey, they pollinated our crops, and they gave us the parable of the swarm, which tells that individual bees, during their short lives, carry food and water for all, choose one egg to mother all, fan all to cool all, shiver all to warm all, in order that the swarm survive.

The beehunt is ritual. It is social ritual, whereby a son knows his father. It is also psychic ritual, whereby a son knows himself. Bees sting, can sting a man to death or, worse, can sting a man to make him wish not to live. A man can walk into a swarm of bees--bees enraged at the crashing destruction of their oak tree--and not be stung, or be stung by a single bee only by accidently mashing a bee who has crawled between one's side and a descending arm. Yet, amidst thousands of bees, the beehunter walks within a psychic wrong move of pain and death in an instant--and grins. To make that walk is to know that the individual is the monument of every future swarm.

Dr. Don Holliday is Professor of English and Assistant Dean in the College of Arts and Letters at Southwest Missouri State University. He learned beehunting and other Ozarks activities in southern Taney County, Missouri.

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