My father was a beekeeper. Well, more of a “bee whisperer”. Unlike most beekeepers, he did not wear gloves or a net. This lack of protective gear never seemed to result in the bees stinging him. There just appeared to be a curious bond of trust between man and insect. I, on the other hand, was less fortunate.
Bees are not aggressive; they do not attack humans. They will only sting when they feel there is imminent danger. But it seems that every year their danger radar sounded off when they got entangled in my long, curly, unruly golden locks. I would swat madly at the bee with my bare hands as it buzzed around my head and run screaming into the house. Of course, by this time, the bee’s danger radar mechanism had already been activated with the bee offering the final sacrifice. All that was left to do for my mom was to calm me down enough to extract the bee without leaving the stinger still stuck in my head.
Every spring the shipment of bees arrived – from California, I think – on our small, 160-acre mixed farm in Saskatchewan, Canada. My dad would busy himself relocating the bees to their new home. Most years, he would get more bees than he paid for. No, there were no mistakes in the shipment itself. But oftentimes a swarm of bees would arrive at our place from a beekeeper who was not as diligent as was my father. You see, there can only be one queen bee in a hive. When there are two, one queen bee leaves, taking a group of followers (worker bees – all female) with her to search for a new home. At times, these swarms would temporarily rest on tree branches near the apiary and my dad would coax them into a hive. I have also observed my parents, buckets of water in hand, madly sprinkling a swarm of bees that looked like they were just doing a fly past. If they were successful in getting water on the queen, she would drop to a branch and the rest of the bees would follow.
My brother and I were most excited when honey harvest season rolled around. Dad would select and bring the honeycombs into the honey-processing shed. Mom would cut the tops off with a sharp knife, insert four wooden-framed honeycombs at a time into a large, cylindrical extraction drum, and crank the handle. Through centrifugal force, the honey would spatter on the walls and drip down to the bottom of the container. Meanwhile, my brother and I picked up gobs of wax mixed with the honey that my mom removed and chew the sticky sweet goodness like gum.
When enough honey was collected in the extraction container, my parents would open the tap and fill smaller cans to take them to market. Uncle John would arrive with his one-ton truck, the honey cans would get loaded unto the back and off we’d go to the honey co-op in Tisdale, known as the “Land of Rape and Honey”. No, this is not as ominous as it sounds. In those days, canola was known as “rapeseed” or “rape” for short.
There was only room for three people in the truck cab – uncle John, my dad and either my brother or myself. My mom never went; she was happy to have a day all to herself, no doubt. But how exciting it was for me when it was my turn to go! First, the drop off at the Tisdale honey co-op where my dad would always get a premium price for number one white, clover honey. Then, cash in hand, we would go shopping in nearby Melfort for new, first day-of-school clothes.
At day’s end, dad would buy a loaf of bread, a ring of kovbasa (garlic sausage) and a case of Orange Crush soft drink. With the sun painting the western sky in the warm colours of a prairie sunset, we would pull over on some country gravel road overlooking the prairie landscape to commence with our supper. My dad would break off a piece of kovbasa, wrap it in a slice of white bread and pass it along to the hungry occupants who would ravenously devour our sandwich and sip the soda.
I’ve eaten many a glorious meal in many fine dining establishments both in Canada and abroad. But this meal in the open Saskatchewan prairie has them all beat by a country mile.