New Workers on the Farm

Life before white sugar probably was pretty good. To those without access to processed sugar or molasses, honey must have seemed like a precious gift, and the bees who made it, magical creatures. I am concluding the same things myself after a recent leap into the world of beekeeping.

For years, my husband and I depended on the neighbor’s beehives to pollinate our vegetable crops. We enjoyed seeing the bees wing in and out of squash and cucumber blossoms early in the mornings, but we took their presence a bit for granted. Until this year.

Spring came and there was silence. Neighbor Richard’s colonies all died during the winter, and at age 88, he decided not to start up again.

As we began checking around for how to obtain bees, we learned that in fact many beekeepers lost bees this winter, either from harsh weather or from two new mites that are sweeping through U.S. apiaries. Nationwide estimates put losses at 90 percent for wild honeybees and 80 percent for domestic ones. (The raw honey price has doubled in the last 18 months.)

All the bee-supply companies we contacted said the same thing: “Sorry, we’re sold out.” We began to have visions of scarce, crooked cucumbers this season, but finally we obtained bees from a hobbyist in a city 100 miles from us who needed to move two hives away from a new bike path behind his yard.

We thought we were acquiring bees strictly as a business requirement, but we soon found ourselves drawn to the little creatures newly invited to join our family. We checked the hives daily. Was the queen laying eggs? Did the workers need empty honey superstructures yet? Why did our bees seem to be hanging out in the neighbors’ mesquite trees instead of in our garden? (Richard said sometimes his bees flew to the Dr. Pepper plant a mile away to scam on any sugar syrup lying around.) We about cried the day the Post Office, instead of calling us to come to town, mistakenly delivered a new queen bee and her attendants to our mailbox, where they cooked in the hot sun and died later that night.

After two weeks, the bees finally found our fields. One morning while picking zucchini I heard a low hum and saw with relief a bee in almost every blossom of every plant, just like old times. Within three weeks, we pulled out the first frame of glorious, delicate honey.

I have a new respect for the work it takes—by one calculation, it requires the lives of four bees to yield one teaspoon of honey. It takes me longer to harvest vegetables now because I can’t resist squatting down to watch the bees work, stuffing pollen in their leg pouches, or having a standoff with a spider.

I HAVE LEARNED other things about honeybees. For one, they are not native to the Western Hemisphere. The first ones arrived in the early 1600s shortly after Europeans sailed for the New World. The origin of honeybees is thought to be the Near East, spreading into Africa, Europe, and Asia. Of the 20,000 different species of bees worldwide, only six make honey. In 1850, the invention of the “Langstroth hive,” with its moveable frames and its understanding of how bees use space, gave rise to honey production by the ton.

Diseases and parasites have always troubled beekeepers. The new mites and now the spread of the more aggressive Africanized honeybee are the latest challenges.

A benefit of keeping bees is that we now have a subject for endless discussion with the older generation of folks, most of whom kept bees in this rural community at some point in their lives. The other day, one gentleman described to me how his uncle would sit out in the peach orchard smoking his pipe and watching his bees work the hives placed under each tree. Hives in those days were made out of apple boxes with a little triangle sawn for a door. Full honeycomb was cut out and squeezed by hand.

Here is one recipe that I think celebrates the gift of the bees on our farm:

Cucumber Salad With Honey Dressing

  • 4 cucumbers, thinly sliced
  • 4 T. honey
  • 6 T. apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 3 generous shakes of black pepper, or to taste

Sprinkle salt on cucumbers and allow to rest while juice is drawn out. Drain juice. Stir honey into the vinegar until dissolved. Pour over cucumbers. For best results, allow to sit an hour to wilt cucumbers. But fresh and crisp is fine, too.

For an old-fashioned creamy cucumber salad, add a bit of sweet or sour cream. This salad may also be made with white sugar.

CAREY BURKETT is an organic vegetable farmer in Hallettsville, Texas.

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