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My father's swat at beekeeping

EARLY one morning in the midst of my childhood, my father had a revelation about his honeybees. He'd discovered the perfect method of spring feeding and it was sure to make a million - not to mention the prestige it would bring him in the annals of amateur beekeepers. It must not have occurred to any of us that this latest invention was sure to go the way of the homemade root beer and sauerkraut. After hours of pouring rancid-smelling soda in bottles and picking slugs out of mounds of cabbage, my father talking all the while of the wonders of home-canned food, we were awakened night after night by the gunshot explosions of bursting soda bottles and kraut jars in our basement.

Instead we listened with excitement as Dad described in glorious detail how his invention was going to beat the chilly Connecticut springtime and nurture his hives to new levels of productivity.

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Of course I realize now why we didn't see that many of my father's extracurricular projects were unsuccessful. My dad seemed an infallible father: respected at work for his fairness and good judgment, admired at home by the four children he was raising alone with patience and much humor.

As little kids we lined up nightly to sit with Dad on the sofa as he read a chosen book to us, one by one. Later he brought hypothetical dilemmas home for us to ponder over dinner, carefully reasoning through with us the fairest tack to take.

When it came to creative pursuits, however, that was a different story. And because these seemed to be his only failings, the ensuing disasters became family history: the three gardens, which must have totaled at least an acre, that yielded little but hated squash; the loaf of cheese bread that somehow turned into a mass of pizza-tasting dough; the gas barbecue that Dad was going to assemble in time for dinner - we ate at midnight. These projects all met my father's criteria for activity and adventure.

After the vegetable gardens, the berry plants, and the compost heap were under way, honeybees seemed the perfect addition. They came with a tailor-made justification: They were educational, they could provide us with honey, and they would make the gardens more productive. And they had a natural urge for busy-ness that was probably very close to my dad's heart.

Besides, what with all those wooden hives to construct, wax to prepare, and comb to spin, my father could keep busier than the bees themselves. Not to mention the improved methods of beekeeping he could develop.

This latest innovation came to Dad during an early morning visit to the hardware store. He'd long been worried about helping the bees survive our spring. And he decided he'd found the solution.

Bees spend the warm months making and storing honey to sustain themselves in the cold season, when they're forced to stay inside huddled around their queen. By the end of a long winter most of that honey has been eaten, so it's imperative that beekeepers, who harvest the honey, provide supplemental food until the weather grows warm enough for their little charges to survive and make more honey.

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Ordinarily beekeepers solve this difficulty by setting large jars of sugar water upside down at the openings of their hives. The bees can drink the sugar-water mixture as it drips in their door without going outside.

Unfortunately my father had found a flaw in the system. No sooner would he set out a jar of sugar water for his beloved bees than it would freeze in the cold outdoors. His bees faced the possibility of starvation.

BUT Dad's revelation would change all that. He was going to wrap the jars of sugar water in heating wires. The wires could be run out to his hives with extension cords; the bees could feast on warm juice all spring and provide us with gallons of gooey, amber honey in the fall. It was brilliant.

Off he went. Wrapping the jars in plastic coated wires. Filling them with the sugar-water mixture. Tramping off to the backyard to secure them to the hives.

There was only one miscalculation. He forgot to tell the bees. And his genius proved to be too much for the simple creatures. My dad's poor bees, sipping stewed sugar water for the first time in months, thought it was summer and set off with gusto to begin their warm-weather search for pollen. They froze in midair at the entrance of their homes, dropping to the ground in a pile.

But true to form, my father and his bees - with an instinct for perpetual motion - suffered only a temporary setback. Both soon resumed their activity with renewed vigor, although the hives never really did become productive. And Dad set off to hone his profitmaking skills in an evening real estate class.

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