My former next door neighbor Jim has been gone now for about three years; but shortly before he died (at age 85), he told me a story of collecting honey from a bee tree when he was a boy of 8 years of age. This story was brought to mind recently when I heard of a local bee tree. (More on this later.) Anyway, this story is therefore about 80 years old.
Jim grew up in far Western Maryland near Cumberland, close to the West Virginia state line. This remains a very rural area to this day, but was very wooded and rural at the time of this story. Thick forests abounded. His family was not rich, few families in this area were,even today; most families fish and hunt and garden and enjoy the things in life like this that bring small pleasures, but keep food on the table, too.
But, he told me the whole family enjoyed a sweet tooth and enjoyed eating honey on flapjacks and grits and other favorite foods. One day, Jim's father told him they were going to gather honey from a bee tree. A bee tree? Yes, a bee tree. Jim was intrigued.
Jim's father told Jim a bee tree had been identified deep in the woods and that they would leave with a party of men at nightfall. Jim was eager with anticipation all day long. The day was spent gathering items needed to gather honey from a bee tree. Buckets, axes, shovels, wood, rags, matches and the neighboring cousins.
Night approached and a party of 12 men and boys and several dogs went into the woods, using burning torches as guide to their way. The tree was a tall old sycamore deep in the woods that had been identified previously by a ribbon strung around it.
(At some point, lightning had struck the tree and it had burned, but not completely; this had created a large hollow cavity within the trunk. During deer hunting season, several of the men had seen bees making their way to and from this tree and into a small opening at the base of the cavity. They remembered this for the following summer when they hoped to gather the honey from this tree. The summer had arrived and now was the time. It was after the locust tree flower bloom and the tree should be full of wonderful honey at this point, but also full of bees! Thus, their decision to approach at night when the bees would be settled within the tree.)
Several of the men built and lit a small fire near the tree and got the flames rolling well, before throwing wet leave on the fire to create plumes of smoke. This burned Jim's eyes, but would keep the bees from the working party of men. Two of the men then started chopping with axes at the base of the tree to fell it. The old sycamore soon fell with a deafening crack and crash to the forest floor below. Bees and buzzing were everywhere as total confusion reigned within the now broken open hive. But, it was dark and the smoke kept the bees from stinging, as most of them had swallowed honey in anticipation of a fire. (Their abdomens were now full and they could therefore not bend their abdomens to sting).
Men brought the buckets near the tree and hacked open the trunk with axes. Honey and comb was fully encased inside and the honey was freed now to flow. Men began scooping up the honey and comb with their rag covered hands and with their shovels. They ate some of it themselves, and put the rest in their buckets. They gathered 28 gallon buckets full of honey.
The boys who were along were then given the buckets to transport the honey back home while the men doused the flames and cut the wood for home fireplaces. Jim said his two buckets were very heavy and bees were following him where there was light that they could do see to do so. He had to be careful not to stumble over tree roots and lose this precious liquid gold that they had just gathered. Another younger boy held a torch to guide him back home all the way. Evenso, bees found him and he got stung twice on his nose. He told me his nose swelled twice it's normal size, but this may have been hyperbole, as he was given to such.
When back at home, they stored the honey in a cool basement area of the house, and exhausted and hurting, went to bed, anticipating honey on flapjacks for breakfast!
I was reminded of Jim's story recently when our local beekeeping association sent out a message requesting whether anyone wanted to rescue a feral hive (and associated honey) in a bee tree at a local farm. It is rare to see feral bees anymore because of all of the mites and other parasites and predators that take out bees. Most feral bees in trees now have come from someone's hive that swarmed and escaped. The email's sender thought it would be educational for members to see it. Here is the text of the email message:
Do you know of anyone who might want the adventure of moving a feral honey bee hive from a tree? One of the farmers/owners is allergic to honey bees so they really feel they need to get rid of the colony. I’d love to play with this but it’s just more work than I want to get into right now, as hot as it is. The tree is big, the colony is active and seems pretty strong based on the traffic. I plan on taking a fiber optic scope over to see if I can tell how big the cavity is either tonight or tomorrow. Here are some photos (see below). It’s the big tree in the picture. The other shows how small the opening is. The tree looks ideal for them, if it weren't located by the farmer's gate between the pastures.
The farmer says he can wait a couple of days before he kills them if someone is interested.
I am hopeful that a beekeeper was available to step up to do this. I will investigate to find out the rest of the story for readers.
In Jim's story above, the tree and the hive were unfortunately destroyed in the process of retrieving the honey. This has traditionally been the case for centuries as various cultures sought honey from hives. It's only really since the 1800's that the keeping of bees in Langstroth type hives in the US has allowed honey retrieval with sustainability of the hive. That's best for all parties involved.