Earl Downes is the bee man around these parts. Earl really knows bees. He lives off the beaten path on Dresserville Road, a few miles outside Moravia. Earl has sold his honey self-serve for many years from a display stand in his front yard. In the barn next to his house is a workshop where he builds and repairs hives. There is also a nice extraction room there and he recently added a nifty little honey store on the side.
Folks from all over, including many city people, go to Earl’s for honey of many varieties. Early in the spring, the bees around here make basswood honey. I never knew there was such a thing as basswood honey until I met Earl. Buckwheat honey is a regional favorite. Buckwheat flowers are white and a field of them has a unique pungent aroma that I rather like, but some folks find it offensive. Whatever the case, buckwheat honey appears dark brown in the jar on a shelf. But, as Earl showed me one day, when you hold it up to the light, you can see that it actually has a gorgeous translucent mahogany hue.
Sometimes people will stop by Earl’s to get stung, on purpose. No kidding. They say it’s good for what ails you-- arthritis in particular. Earl tells me country folks have been using bee stings as medicine for centuries. Nowadays they call it “bee-sting therapy.”
When someone stops for a sting, Earl holds the bee by its wings and touches her (only females have a stinger) down on the desired location. The bee will oblige by injecting a barbed hypodermic syringe full of venom into the patient. Earl is glad to help folks out this way. He doesn’t even charge for it.
In his younger days, before he became the local bee man, Earl was a local building contractor. I met him when, in my younger days, I went into business as a remodeling contractor.
Earl used to go down to Lehigh Lumber in Moravia most every morning for coffee and conversation. An irregular regular bunch of men would be there, some of them old-timers. On winter mornings, when work was often less pressing, I liked to linger and join the discussion. Sometimes we would all sit around in the back room where Joe DeForrest repaired the broken window sashes that customers brought in. He rescreened windows and doors too. And if you needed a lamp rewired, he could do that.
A fellow can learn a lot chewing the fat over a cup of coffee with old-timers down to Lehigh in the early morning: the local news, national happenings, politics, construction, and beekeeping were recurring topics. This is where I first met and got to know Earl.
When I was a teenager I bought a paperback book all about keeping honeybees. They’ve always intrigued me. But I never did get a hive. I told this to Earl one morning and he said he would set me up with a hive any time. More years passed and Earl kept offering. Finally, in the spring of 1999, with the Y2K crisis looming, I took him up on the offer. It seemed like a good time to get more self sufficient. Besides, Marlene uses a lot of honey when making her breads and granola.
Well, to make a long story shorter, I’ll tell you that my first year of beekeeping was a great success. I put the hive out on the corner of my property, off the lawn, near the brambles, along the woods. Every so often I’d pull on my white leather bee gloves with the canvass gauntlets, tie my pants tight to my boots, put on my bee veil, fire up my smoker and, hive tool in hand, crack open the top lid of my hive. This was always an adventure because the bees usually got quite upset with me and, on occasion, I would get a sting or two, even with the protective equipment. Honeybees are very persistent when they are angry. And I can tell you it’s just alittle unnerving when they cluster on the bee veil a couple inches in front of your nose.
I did not really know what I was doing or what I was looking for when I delved into my hive but it was definitely a happenin’ place in there, and those fascinating little creatures sure were making lots of honey. In the fall Earl helped me harvest and extract around 75 pounds of the glorious natural sweetener. He said that was a good amount for a new hive. I was thrilled. Even though the bees did all the work, I felt like I was quite the apiculturist. I had visions of being an old bee man, like Earl.
My hive wintered well and was a hum of activity in the spring. Then something amazing happened..... (to be continued in the next blog)
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