Herbie Randall & a bee tree

Local History

I think most readers read about the antique safe we found in the Williams River recently. You will recall it was my neighbor Herbie Randall (1880-1975) who told me about the safe when I was a young boy. The safe story got me to reminiscing about Herbie.

Whenever I wanted to learn something and my father didn’t know, I would go ask Herbie if he knew. One time, and I don’t remember now how I heard about it, as it is now over 50 years ago, I wanted to find a bee tree. So I went and asked Herbie.

Herbie was deaf as a stone but if you spoke slowly and loudly he could hear you. At first he misunderstood me when I asked about bees. Herbie said, “I don’t have any beans.” Soon though he knew what I wanted. We went out to his garage and he took a bee box off a shelf.

Herbie began instructing me on how to use a bee box. Bee boxes vary by maker but have at least two compartments. One end is used to capture a honeybee on a flower. Between the two compartments is a removable sliding gate.

Bee box made by Jack Bittner. Photo by Ron Patch

Then we walked out in Herbie’s yard looking for a honeybee. He captured a honeybee in one end of the bee box. We had mixed some sugar and water that we poured over a small piece of sponge and placed the sponge in a small tin can cover.

Once we captured a bee we slid this mixture in the opposite end of the bee box. Then you remove the gate partition separating the two sections. Now the bee could enter the chamber where the sweet cocktail was waiting. The bee went to work feasting on the sugary mixture.

So here is how you find a bee tree. First you capture a honeybee as described above. The bee will feed on the sugary mixture and when she’s full, you open the bee box so the bee can fly away.

It helps you to see the bee in flight if you sprinkle a little white flour on her abdomen while she’s feeding. This also allows you to identify her when she returns. Now, a bee can fly about a mile in five minutes so figure on as much as 10 minutes for a round trip. Also allow a couple minutes for the bee to enter the tree and deposit the sugary mixture.

You’ll notice when the bee leaves the bee box she will fly vertically and fly in a few circles. This is how they get their bearings to return to the exact location. Watch the bee in flight and pick a landmark where you lose sight of her. This might only be 30’-50’ away.

When she returns you’ll recognize her by the flour on her abdomen. She’ll fly right into the bee box. Now close the box and carefully walk to where you last saw her. Open the bee box and set her free. Again she will make several circular flights and then head off to the bee tree. Again make note of where you last see her and wait for the bee to return. You will repeat this process many times before you find the bee tree.

Eventually she’ll tell her friends and you’ll have several bees coming to your bee box. This can take the better part of a day so start in the morning. You’ll know you’re close when the bee returns in a minute or two.

Spotting the bee tree is difficult unless it stands alone in a clearing. Look for a tree with a broken off limb that creates a knothole. Having a pair of binoculars is helpful. If you look close eventually you’ll see dozens of bees entering and exiting the tree through the knothole. I found two bee trees when I was a kid using this method. How to get the honey out of the tree is another story.

Today beekeepers are losing many of their beehives. This is probably due to pesticides sprayed on crops and gardens. If you find a bee tree leave it alone. The bees are having a hard enough time without you making it worse.

Why do I refer to worker bees as she or her? Worker bees are females. The few males in a hive are called drones whose sole purpose is to mate with the queen.

This week’s old saying is from an old beekeeper I once knew. ”Bee healthy, eat your honey.”

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