A Beekeeper's Pledge

Uncle Herm with a truck load of produce from his garden
While visiting Uncle Herm in Kentucky’s McCoy Bottom several summers ago, I asked him where he kept his beehives.
           He narrowed his dark eyes. “Honey, mites killed all my bees before your mommy died.”
           A novice beekeeper, my heart sank. Mom passed in 2007. If Herman Glen McCoy, third generation beekeeper, couldn’t fend off mites back then, how could I in the present epidemic?
           Snagged in a moment of sadness and defeat, we stood beside one of his vegetable gardens, the graveyard high on the mountainside overlooking us.
His father and grandfather McCoy are buried there. Their bees produced enough honey to feed their large families and sell to folks up and down Peter Creek.
During the Depression and WW II, their produce, poultry, eggs, and honey helped nourish those remaining in their Appalachian homeland. With most the young men off to war and the women working in factories up north, my grandfather hired women as farmhands. They’d sometimes show up in heels to hoe the cornfields, asking for food or cash in return.
           In the last decade of her life, my mother, Sadie McCoy O’Brien, often spoke of her father’s generosity, his bees and honey. “Dad was happy when he found wide-mouth jars for his comb honey. That’s the only way he put it up.”
           Mom moved from Michigan back to the McCoy Bottom in the mid 70’s. She built her dream house with a pantry spacious enough to hold the fruit of her labors. For over twenty years, her “brother Herm” deposited jars of honey and buckets of produce on her back doorstep.
Uncle Herm and me in his kitchen

           “Uncle Herm, did you ever go back to beekeeping?”
“No. Everybody lost their bees. Then Gearl got sick, and it was too much with growing the gardens.”
During my aunt’s illness and since her passing, Uncle Herm’s never missed a summer growing several crops, giving the bulk away.
I eyed his green beans hanging in clusters from corn stalks. “Do you still have some honey?”
“There might be some in the basement.”
I followed him down steps into damp darkness to a shelf of canned food.
He took a quart and wiped off the shoot. “I don’t know if this is any good.”
“It’s crystalized, that’s all.”
“Well, if you want it, take it.” He walked to a bench and picked up a hive smoker. “This was Daddy’s. I won’t be using it, so take it too if you want.”
I hugged my uncle and skipped up the steps with his gifts, brought them home, and have dutifully used them.
           Dear Reader, although our three hives from last spring didn’t survive the winter, they left honey behind for us. This week we’ll see what reward awaits our time, expense, and devotion. 
Then, if bee biology and other forces of nature favor us, I’ll use my forefathers’ smoker for our one package of bees May 19. I’ll face the mites and other bee enemies for their sake.

And to perpetuate my heritage—fourth generation beekeeper.