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Of Cats and Bee Colonies And Keeping Both Content

Grandfather took my little hand in his calloused grasp and led me down through the grass to his apiary in the apple orchard, where he was to satisfy my ambition to help him "take off" some honey.

I was 8 and now big enough to go by myself on the choo-choo to have a couple of days with Grampie in the big farmhouse. His associates were Plug-Ugly, the dog, who was trained down to a whisper about farm duties, and Mephistopheles, the cat, who had one eye left and the disposition of hired assassins. There had been two cats at one time, Mephistopheles and Mrs. Topheles, but the happy bride had called it quits after a short honeymoon and disappeared.

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Grandfather proclaimed Mephy the finest barn cat in Maine and told for sure that he had once repulsed a fisher seeking poultry. I believed, because Mephy would rake my shins whenever I came to see Gramps. His only friend was Gramps, who would feed him with one hand and hold a shovel in the other as essential armament against an unprovoked attack. Then, his tummy full, Mephy would climb onto Grampie's lap and cuddle like a cosset lamb. Grampie had told me, "Next time you come, we'll take off some honey and I'll make a pan of biscuits."

This was happening, and we were among his 25-or-so colonies of three-banded Italians. It was clover-bloom time, and the air was full of working bees that paid no attention to us. Grampie told me no bee ever came back to any hive but his own, and if he started the day on clover he'd stay on clover all day, never mixing his nectars. We walked along the row of hives, and Gramp thumped his fist on each in turn and spoke kindly to the queen. He told me their names as we went. Then he said bees are deaf and have no equipment whatever for hearing. They have some way of communicating, but not in terms a human can comprehend. So I said, "Why do you talk to them?"

He patted my head. He said, "Johnny-Boy, we're not so smart that we can take chances. Suppose you were a bee and didn't have any ears, but in some way God had fixed you up so you could hear me just the same, but He didn't tell you that. Now, wouldn't you like to hear me say something?"

That afternoon we did take off the first section of new clover honey, and in the cool of the evening we cut two- pound combs of it into a soup plate, and we polished off the pan of hot cream-tarter biscuits. Mephistopheles sat in the corner rocker and snarled at his own black thoughts.

All that Gramp ever taught me about bees had already been taught 30 years earlier to his son, my father, so when Dad achieved his own "piece of land" he wanted a colony of bees. Grandfather said he'd donate one if we'd come and get it, but this was back before trucks were common and gravel roads were meant for horses.

Moving a hive of bees 28 miles might not be altogether fun. So my father went to a beekeeper in our own town who agreed to hive his next swarm for us, and we took him an empty one with the foundations all in place. It was a week or so later he walked up to tell us our bees were ready. My father felt he and I could pick up the hive together, and on opposite sides walk it a quarter mile to our new bee platform under the spruces on our back line.

I was now 10 years of age.

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It was again a bright summer day. Mr. Lowell, who sold us our bees, said it was not a large swarm, but it had a queen and had gone into our hive readily enough. It had flown only one day on honey, so comb had barely begun, and the only heft would be the bees and the box. We shouldn't have any trouble toting the thing up the street. It was not the heft that bothered us. It was the lack of any handles, and the sidewise way we had to lift it with our fingers under the bottom board.

A beehive comes all apart and is made for easy opening. The first thing a colony of bees does after moving in is to seal the inside with their propolis, so the hive is tight, and our swarm hadn't done that yet. One misstep, one careless tilt, and we'd have been halfway home with a serious problem. We had gone but a few rods when my father wisely said, "I'm not tired, but I think we'd be smart to ease our muscles and let the bees rest a bit."

Mr. Lowell had closed the entrance to the hive with a small block of pine, held in place with pushpins, so no bees could come out, and so long as the pushpins stayed in place we could consider ourselves alone. We rested, and the bees rested, too.

I suppose we rested thus four or five times on our walk, and when we picked the hive up after the second rest we met Bill Bailey.

"Evening, Bill," said my father, and Bill said, "I see you've caught a bee!"

"No," said my father. "We have gone into the baby bee business and are selling house to house. Can we interest you in a bee?"

Bill said, "Do you really have bees in there?"

"Just the demonstrators," my dad said, and we walked along. Setting the hive on our platform, we pulled the pushpins and went into the house. The deed was done, and we now had a hive of bees. The next morning we found our bees in flight and completely at home. We made a "super" ready and put it in place, and were soon to have the 28 one-pound boxes of comb honey then standard on the hive.

Bill Bailey had said he'd like to buy our first comb. It was white clover honey, the finest kind, and Bill gave me 25 cents for it. It was well worth the price.

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