On becoming a beekeper


When I was about 8, we moved from city to country because life in the city was becoming crowded and unpleasant. Every morning we had to sweep the porch clear of soot from the coal-powered railroad two blocks away, and some days my mom couldn’t hang sheets out to dry.

Both of my parents had country childhoods, and they wanted me and my younger brother to have the same memories, to cook their home-grown fruits and veggies, and to let us kids ride bikes on the little-trafficked asphalt roads.

I remember Mom and Dad scouring the Harrisburg Sunday Patriot ads and occasionally following For Sale signs through Cumberland County, Penn., making phone calls, taking directional notes and finally going to visit. Fred and I remained outdoors while this was going on, entertaining ourselves by pretending we were the new owners.

Compromises and questions dominated every conversation until – at last – the  choices narrowed down. Agreements were reached, and very soon our family moved across the Susquehanna to rural Hampden Township, where we took on our new roles as the city folks down Valley Drive.

We bought a piece of property, four acres or so, and lived in an old log-house updated with planking and the raising of the roof. It was still just an old house, but the idea was to build my parents’ dream house facing the road and sell off the wooded acre with the old house on it.

Good grief. That house must be more than 100 years old, if it still exists.

We loved discovering hidden magical places like the mossy creek bank where I sat on a regal throne and reigned over the fairy countryside at my feet. I was the fairy princess whose subjects trusted to save them from the marauding acorn warriors.

Many a bloody battle littered the creek’s margin. That was my refuge – until Mom’s voice shattered the quiet woods: “Dinner’s ready. Come right away.”

Life was good “out in the country,” but I drained our consolidated school’s library within a few weeks, in spite of being moved from 4th to 5th grade. And a bored 4th grader is a challenge. I tutored other students, I got a card to use the Harrisburg Library. I took piano lessons and enrolled in every club or group they could think of, and I was still a pain in the neck to most of the teachers.

Enter 4-H. You don’t hear much about 4-H these days. I believe the program approaches middle school kids, boys and girls, and will launch clubs around any interest, most likely in rural areas.

The first group I was in was a sewing club, and my project was a broomstick skirt. Remember those? Using about two yards of gingham, you stitch the two ends together, run a long gathering stitch where the waist will be, pull it up to fit the wearer’s dimensions, and hem it to the right length.

I don’t recall putting in a waistband. That’s rather a tricky process and I doubt if we tackled that part without considerable attention from the adults. The finished garment rarely saw the light of day, but my lifelong passion for sewing began then and there.

“Broomstick” was a term supposedly describing the way the Indians dried their skirts, tied around a broomstick to dry in intentional wrinkles.

When most of my friends chose sheep-raising for a 4-H project, we decided that would be too traumatic for me, given an understanding of what happens to Lamb Chop after being raised as a pet. Besides, Daddy really didn’t want to inherit my project. They knew me well, my parents, and I have to agree they were right.

So it was that we decided on beekeeping for my 4-H finale. The project on the whole would get mixed reviews. I assured Daddy that I’d pay him back from my first harvest, and I really tried.

At its best, beekeeping sent me to the library to research what I was letting myself in for, and at its worst, relying heavily on Daddy because he was stronger than I was and had a whole lot more money than I did.

The cost was considerable, although neighbors offered equipment they no longer needed. We learned how to diagnose a disease, ants, killer bees, ad infinitum.

The current crisis in the honeybee industry is frightening. For reasons not entirely understood, beekeepers are reporting lower numbers of bees – which means inadequate pollenization in the orchards and cornfields of America. The production of nutritious honey is also depressed, of course, to the detriment of allergy-sufferers whose bodies actually cope better with local allergens. Or so they say.

“They” also say you get used to the stings and after while don’t feel them. Wrong. They never bothered Daddy much, and my brother and mom stayed in the house when we were working with the hives. Try as I might, I never seemed to get the cumbersome pants and jackets and gloves to stay put, and the hat with the screened face mask? By the time I got that on, my tiny fire in the smoker went out and I had to take off the gloves to coax the fire back to life.

I never touched a hive without getting stung, and I did swell up dramatically. I don’t recall if I ever thanked my poor dad, who usually bailed me out and completed the tasks without complaint.

That’s the way most daddies are. I hope I thanked him.