“A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay.”
This is a suburban tree, in a suburban yard, in the suburban neighborhood where my Appalachian family moved after my dad lost his job with the coal company. This is my sweet little granny, who never stopped working her mountain magic even after we moved away from all that we loved.
She still dried shuck beans in the back window of our car, still raised tomatoes in the back yard, and still saved corn silk for tea (good for the bladder, she said) and corn shucks to make dolls out of. But today I want to tell you about something she did that seemed so magical to me that if I hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t believe it had really happened.
It was early May, and Granny had been outside puttering around doing something. (She didn’t believe in idle hands.) But then she came and got me and told me to come into the front yard, next to the tree pictured here. In her hand, she held a big metal spoon and a metal dishpan. All of a sudden, she commenced to hollering and carrying on, beating the dishpan with her spoon and making a tremendous racket. The sound-song she made reminded me faintly of the singing you hear at a Pow-Wow. I wondered, briefly, if she had lost her mind, and I am certain that the neighbors thought so.
But then I noticed that bees were flying toward us, LOTS of bees. I started to get nervous, and more and more kept coming. Pretty soon, she was standing in the very middle of a swarm of buzzing, humming bodies, her wild song luring them in like she was the queen bee herself. She picked up a stick, then, and began to beat on the tree trunk, a slow, deep, steady beat. She said, “We’ll get them to land here.”
Sure enough, drawn to the rhythm, they started landing on the tree branch, until it was covered in a pulsing, seething coating of bees.
“If we wanted to catch a new swarm for a hive, this is how we’d do it. They’ll go anywhere the queen goes”, she said as she reached into the middle of all those bees and extracted a queen, holding it gently in her cupped hand. Sure enough, as she walked away from the tree, carrying the queen, the bees started to follow her as if she were the bee pied piper.
But we didn’t have a hive, there in Richmond, so she let the queen go and off they all flew to look elsewhere for a new home.
My grandmother could see that the world I was living in was different than the one she had known for much of her life, but it was important to her to make sure I had a range of the skills that had kept her and generations of my ancestors before her alive during a time when stores and “brought-on” goods were not readily available. Over the years, she set my young hands to sewing, gardening, canning, caring for livestock, saving seeds, drying, pickling, cooking, and many more useful skills, “just in case”. I’m so grateful I got to spend so much time with her, and that she sang all the while, giving me the gift of music on top of it all