Somewhere along life's trail one of my ancestors told me that my wonderful old great uncle, Moulton Alexander Rockefeller, my grandfather's brother, was a graduate of Columbia University with a degree in journalism.
Be that as it may, I knew him as a quiet, peaceable alcoholic who leaned on a shovel for the city of West Haven, Connecticut's public works department. More importantly, I got to know him as a beekeeper who introduced me to the magnificent world of the honey bee and our native pollinators.
Someone else in my family told me the reason my Uncle Moult was such a drinker was that upon his graduation he was going to get married, but his wife-to-be literally left him standing at the altar. Apparently, he started drinking that day and didn't stop until he went out among the stars.
Unfortunately, much of the time, Uncle Moult was a non-person who ate with us and lived in the tiny hired-man's house at "Rockefeller Center," my grandfather's name for the farm. But one beautiful spring day he became real to me when he asked if I would help gather a swarm of bees.
The term, "swarm of bees" sent chills up and down my spine, especially because of the tall tales swarming around Colonial Park School about how a swarm could sting one to death instantly. So when I said I'd help, I really did think I was putting my life in jeopardy.
However, from the moment he started to describe what was entailed in "capturing a swarm of bees," I realized that everything I had been told about the danger of bees was a fraud, and this event would become a great adventure for me that would last a lifetime.
We placed a Langstroth bee box in a wheelbarrow and I trundled it to the apple orchard where the swarm was gathered in the outer branches of one of our Macintosh apple trees. Meanwhile Uncle Moult carried the ladder and handsaw—no bee suits and no smoker, no fear.
After instructing me on the ins and outs of being polite to bees, the technique of sawing off the branch the swarm was on and how to place the swarm in the box—and promising how and why I would not be stung if I followed his instructions—I took the saw and box and went up the ladder.
Everything went off exactly as promised. I was not stung, even though there were thousands of bees buzzing around me. When the limb was sawed off and I carefully (and politely) placed the swarm in the collecting box, I slowly went down the ladder and handed the box to Uncle Moult.
With bees still buzzing all around us, he slowly began digging into thousands of bees—bare-handed—talking softly to them, "Well, hello little ladies," he said, gently pushing them aside until he found the queen and her guards. "Oh, there you are,Your Majesty," he said, carefully picking them up and placing the queen and her entourage in his hand. "Look, see how much bigger she is," he said, placing them right under my nose, and then adding, "This is the old queen, a new one was raised by her old workers, and she took over the hive."
After I had a good look and a good, deep sniff (from the moment I arrived at the top of the ladder and began to saw off the limb, the strong, sweet aroma of honey bees was so beautiful, it captured me for life), he removed five of the frames from the bee box, placed the Queen and her entourage in the side of a frame and began shaking the swarm into the box—sometimes so violently I was worried the bees would retaliate.
When the branch was almost empty he placed the other frames into the box, being very careful not to harm any bees. Then he placed the inner and outside covers back on the box, placed the limb—with bees all around it—on top of the box and said,"Now, Catsfur, watch the opening to the bees' new home."
What I witnessed is something I still look forward to this day when I collect a swarm. Within moments, workers began to collect just outside the opening. They turned themselves about, facing into the hive, and began to beat their wings to a blur, so energetically I could actually hear them.
"Look," Moult whispered, "see how the workers are fanning the air out of the box? They're sending the queen's perfume outside, so the others milling around will smell the new queen and know how to get into their new home."
Then he pointed to hundreds of bees still buzzing about in the upper reaches of the tree. "By morning all those bees will be in their new home and as soon as it warms up they'll be out pollinating the apple trees, bringing in nectar to make honey for their new babies—and ultimately for you and me."
I'd stop here, but I have to tell you how my dear Uncle Moult impacted my life from that day on. I discovered he was a keen intellectual with a huge library, and invited me to share his books, among which was an edition of the 1906 "American Birds." It featured the lives of two men who became my heroes, Oregon bird conservationists and photographers, Herman T. Bohlman and William L. Finely.
The adventures of those two wonderful men, and a sister volume, "Where Rolls the Oregon," by Dallas Lore Sharp, became the beginning of my quest to become the Oregonian I am today.