Commentary

In Beekeeping, Learning Curve Is Steep, Stinging

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Storyteller Bill Harley remembers his first foray into beekeeping. Harley is a storyteller, songwriter and author who is currently covered in baking soda to reduce swelling from bee stings in Seekonk, Mass. His latest recording of songs for families is I Wanna Play.

ROBERT SIEGEL:

The Agriculture Department calls it the biggest general threat to our food supply. Millions and millions of honeybees are dying and scientists don't know why. In this country alone, beekeepers have lost one-quarter of their colonies. I bet you're worrying because bees pollinate lots of crops - from apples and broccoli, to squash and soybeans. Experts here as well as in Europe and South America are working to find out what's going on. Congress has held hearings - there's even been a briefing in Vice President Cheney's office.

Meanwhile, out in the field, beekeepers are going about their business trying to keep their hives happy and the plants that will end up on our dinner tables pollinated.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Commentator Bill Harley is among them. In addition to being a song writer and a storyteller, he watches over a beehive in Massachusetts. And he has fond memories of his fist foray into beekeeping.

Mr. BILL HARLEY (Songwriter; Storyteller): Look, he said, it's really easy. Just smack the box on the ground once like this - bump. And all the bees drop to the bottom. Then you open up the top and take out the queen's little cage. Hang the queen between the frames. Put the box in the hive and leave it for a couple of days.

It's easy. I nodded. It sounded easy but the idea of introducing 10,000 bees into a hive still made me nervous. The old hands at the Bristle County Beekeepers Association - of which I am now a member - assured me it was doable. Luckily for me, beekeepers are a cult. Ready to help any fool who's interested. It's easy they say. Right, I nodded. The wonderful thing was I knew nothing about it. The most liberating thing one can do is to happily admit that you are an idiot. What a relief to say I don't know. These words release you from pretense and posture.

The Bristle County beekeepers recognized my ignorance. This guy doesn't know anything, one of them said, pointing at me in the middle of a discussion about the tendency of bees to swarm. They all smiled and nodded. I left the meeting with more knowledge and less confidence.

Just smack the box on the ground once. That seemed like weird advice when you were smacking something with 10,000 stingers. As it turns out, I've known someone for years who happens to be a beekeeper and a midwife. This seemed like a good combination to have around. On the morning, the bees arrived. She said she'd come over. The packages arrived. A package is a screen box holding workers, drones and a queen - separated from the rest in her own little cage so they'd get used to her smell, her pheromones, her hottie nature or whatever.

I put on my helmet and veil. They smelled new. I wondered if the bees would detect the stained odor of polyethylene on a new beekeeper. I wore light clothing - remembering someone told me because of a long history involving bears, bees are genetically predisposed to be annoyed by anything brown and fuzzy. I lit the smoker. I sprayed sugar water on the bees to give them something to think about - smoke and sugar wouldn't calm me down but I'm not a bee.

I took the package of 10,000 bees hanging down in a clump from the top of the box. I don't know what I'm doing, I said. You're fine. You're doing fine, my friend, the midwife, said. It sounded like she had said that before. I smacked the box down on the ground once - bump. The bees fell to the bottom and their buzzing modulated up a step and a half.

(Soundbite of buzzing)

Mr. HARLEY: I've changed my mind, I said. You're doing fine, she counseled. I pulled out the queen's little box and looked. She was in there with some of her attendants. I named her Eleanor(ph). As I picked up the package of bees, they started to crawl out - a lot of them. They crawled on my hand and up my arm as I slid the open box in the hive. There were a dozen bees crawling on my hand. The fact is the bees weren't interested in me at all. They were interested in the queen and the sugar and the smoke and the hive and their sisters and brothers but not me. I brushed them off my hand and closed the hive.

A week later, a friend of mine came over and watched from a distance as I opened the hive to check on the queen. How'd you get them in there, he asked. It's easy, I said. I'm an idiot.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: Bill Harley is a storyteller, songwriter, author and beekeeper in Seekonk, Massachusetts

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