Exclusive With The Queen… Bee


Bruce’s cell phone rang. He usually looks at the display and sends the call to voicemail—when we’re at the dinner table. Instead, he flipped the phone open and said, “What’s up?”  It could only be his mama.

His parents are seventy-seven and eighty-four. They are both active and fairly healthy for their age, but Bruce’s father had a heart attack ten years ago and triple bypass surgery soon after. Most recently, he’s undergone a pacemaker implant.  We used to worry when the phone rang in the middle of the night. Now, we hold our breath even if it rings during the day.

Bruce exhaled audibly. “I don’t even know if I have a decent box,” he said to his mother,  “OK, I’ll see what I can put together. We’ll be there as soon as we can.”

“What is going on?”

“You want to go with me?” He asked and then added, “You might want to bring your camera.”

I stared at him.

“My daddy’s found a swarm of honey bees… do you want to go with me?”

“No, not really. I’ve got a lot to do.” I gathered up the dirty dishes.

“It could be interesting. The last time he was stung by a bee, he swelled up and had trouble breathing, remember?” Bruce said.

The men in Bruce’s family are farmers and bee keepers.  They don’t do either for a living, but as hobbyists, they are serious. Over the past few years, mites have invaded honeybee hives and populations have declined. When Bruce’s parent’s bees died out, they didn’t replace them. This was a relief; the chance of his father having an allergic reaction had scared us.

My worry set in again. Swelling and closed airways don’t frighten my father-in-law away from honey.  I grabbed some Benadryl, and an epi-pen, along with my camera. We headed to the farm.

Bruce’s parents live on a nine acre property that sits part way up Ragged Mountain.  Even in later retirement, they continue to grow a big garden every summer, raise several head of beef cattle, and work part time doing odd jobs for neighbors. Two weeks ago, Bruce’s father was cutting twelve foot pine logs and loading them onto a wagon without help.

Arriving at the farm, Bruce and his father went to work building a bee box from scraps collected in the back of the truck.  They sawed a board into fifteen inch lengths, replaced rotten pieces, and tacked edges. In twenty minutes they had a hive box ready for the swarm.

The bees had collected into a buzzing clot on one small, low branch in a dogwood tree next to the garden. Bruce’s mama and I scoped out the swarm to make sure it didn’t move while the box was being assembled. The branch still hung with their weight, while other bees flew back and forth like scouts, collecting and disseminating information to the mass.

The two men came toward the tree with the box, a burlap sack, and a pair of clippers.

Bruce’s mama frowned. “You don’t have your bonnet,” she said to her husband.

The bonnet is a hat with mesh attached. It covers the face and cinches under the collar at the neck.

“I’m not using that. I don’t need it,” he said.

Married to the man for sixty years, she didn’t argue and just shrugged.

I’m more brazen. “Are you sure?” I asked, “You know the last time you got stung, you had difficulty breathing.”

He looked at me and smiled, “They won’t sting me.”

I lacked his confidence, standing there with an antidote in my pocket.  If he wasn’t going to listen, at least I’d be prepared.

Three of us stood a good distance from the tree.  Bruce’s father walked directly to the branch covered in bees, held it in his hand—close to the limb—and clipped it.  He was left holding the swarm at the end of a stick. The buzzing mass started a mere inch from his fingers.

The bees didn’t fly off, they stuck tight, like they were glued to the dogwood branch and to each other. The airborne bees continued to arrive at the place where the branch had been, and others began surrounding my father-in-law, landing on his shirt, pants, shoes, hat, and exposed skin. They lit, crawled on him, and flew again. He didn’t flinch.

He bent down, holding the branch in front of the opening in the box, and lightly tapped the wooden top with his clippers.  He held the branch for a full minute before he gently shook it, causing a layer of bees to drop onto the burlap in front of the box. He continued to tap the top, making a hollow, echo sound. Every now and then, he’d shake off another layer of bees. They began crawling into the opening.

“We’ve got to watch for the queen. She’s somewhere in the middle of the swarm,” he said.  “If she doesn’t go in, the rest won’t go either.  If she flies away… there goes the hive.”

Bruce moved closer to the box and watched as layer after layer of bees slid from branch to burlap, and then crawled into the box opening.  “There she is,” he said pointing.

His father bent closer to the humming knot on the branch and pointed to the same bee, a little longer than the rest.  They both watched as she marched into the bee box.  Not long afterward, the rest of the bees disappeared after her.  Bruce’s father brushed the remaining bees from his shirt, pants, and hat. Then he smiled.

“Guess I’ll have to move the bed down here tonight… so he can keep an eye on them,” my mother-in-law  said with a laugh, “and maybe the kitchen table. He’ll be down this hill every extra minute.”

He walked over to us, stowing his clippers in a back pocket. Not a drop of sweat  moistened his brow. “Should be a good hive of bees,” he said. “My Daddy always told us, ‘A hive of bees in May is worth a load of hay.’  He was right you know. We’ve found some in June, but they’re more likely to take off on you and go somewhere else.”

“How did you know those bees weren’t going to sting you?” I asked, fingering the epi-pen in my pocket.

“Swarming bees don’t sting.  They’re tired… and more interested in staying close to their queen, finding a place to keep her safe, than worrying about attacking someone.”

“So you gave them a place to rest, and a home for their queen… what more could they ask?” I said.

“Not much,” he said and walked back up the hill to put his tools away, “and maybe they’ll repay me with some honey.”










Images courtesy of M Dawn Thacker. Exclusive With The Queen Bee/Swarm In May © 2011 M Dawn Thacker. Read M Dawn’s latest on Now.readthisplease.com If you encounter a swarm of bees, consult a beekeeper first.

6 Responses to “Exclusive With The Queen… Bee”
  1. Gaboo says:

    Amazing, M Dawn. Truly an honor to ‘witness’ this documentary on here. Read it twice. Your father-in-law is one brave cat. Thanks.

  2. Thank you gaboo. It was fun to record the process in words and pics. My father-in-law is brave, in more ways than one, and I still have an intact epi-pen.

  3. Donna says:

    Wow that was a great story. The pictures are awesome. Must have really been something to watch.

    • thank you Donna, it was an experience I’m glad I didn’t miss. watching my father-in-law go about the business of bee keeping with the trust that they wouldn’t sting him and seeing their trust that he wouldn’t hurt them was….well words escape me. He’s inspiring

  4. Virginia Phillips-Smith says:

    Wonderful story. George Bailey loved the honey bees and was upset when they began disappearing. Good story. I did not know the swarming bees would not sting. I’m not going to test the theory though as Mr. Thacker did.

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