The old oak tree and the hunt for honey

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In 1856, Henry Hiram Riley (1813-1888) published a book titled, The Puddleford Papers, in which he humorously described the characters and the antics of a fictitious community on the frontier of the then “far west.”

One of those characters was a fiercely independent backwoodsman named Venison Styles with whom the author supposedly became friends. Here is Riley’s description of a hunt for honey undertaken by Styles and himself.

Bee hunting

Before daybreak, one morning in October, Venison, myself, his honey-box, and axes, set out “a bee-hunting,” as he called it. We were soon deep in the heart of the wilderness, tramping over the fallen leaves, and pushing forward to where the “bees were thick a-workin,’” according to Venison.

At last, Venison informed me that here was the spot where he should “try ‘em;” — that “bees were the knowingest critters alive” — that they lived in “the holler trees, all around us.”

He said “they had queens to govern ‘em” — that they had “workers and drones” — that “everything about ‘em was done just so, and if any of ‘em broke the laws, they just killed ‘em, and pitched ‘em overboard.”

And they have “wars,” he says, and “gin’rals,” and “captins,” and “sogers,” and “go out a-fightin,’ and a-stealin’ honey;” they are very “knowin’ critters, and there is no tellin’ nothin’ about ‘em.”

Venison opened the little box he had brought with him, which was filled with honey, and placed it on a stump. He then found a lingering flower that had escaped the frost, with a honey-bee upon it.

This he picked, bee and all, and placed on the honey. Soon the bee began to work and load himself; and finally he rose in circles, winding high in the air, and suddenly turning, he shot out of sight.

“Where has he gone?” inquired I.

“Gone hum where he lives,” answered Venison, “to unload his thighs and tell the news.”

In a few moments, three bees returned, filled themselves, and departed; then six; then a dozen, until a black line was formed, along which they were rushing both ways, empty and laden, one end of which was lost in the forest. We started on a trot, with our eyes upward, to follow this living line; and after having proceeded a quarter of a mile it became so confused and scattered that we gave it up, and returned.

“What now?” I inquired.

“I’ll have ‘em!” he replied. “They can’t cheat old Venison. I’ve hunted the critters 40 years, and I allers takes ‘em when I tries. I’ll draw a couple of more sights on ‘em.”

Venison divided his honey, and placed some off to each side of his box. The bees followed him and commenced their work. Very soon, instead of one, he had three lines of bees established, all rushing to its point somewhere in the woods.

Venison and I followed again, and, sure enough, we “had ‘em.’” They were buzzing in the top of a great oak, coming in and going out, wheeling up and down through the air as though some great celebration was going on.

It seemed that the whole hive of workers must have sallied forth to carry away Venison’s honey-box.

“Will they sting?” inquired I.

“Some folks say they will,” he replied. “If they hate a man they’ll follow him a mile; and nobody knows who they hate and who they don’t, until they’re tried.”

“Where’s the honey?” I inquired again.

“Well, that’s the next thing I’m arter;” and Venison put his ear to the trunk of the tree to ascertain in what part of it they were “a-workin.”

He listened a while, but “they warn’t low down, for he didn’t hear ‘em hummin.”

He thought the honey was “high up somewheres.” So at the tree he went with his axe, and in half an hour the old oak — older, probably, than any man on the globe — came down with a crash.

Upon an examination, the honey was, Venison thought, packed away in a hollow of the tree, about 50 feet from the ground, as a large knot-hole was discerned out of which the bees were streaming in great consternation. So he severed the trunk again, at the bottom of the hollow, and there it was, great flakes piled one upon another, some of which had been broken by the fall of the tree, and were dripping and oozing out their wild richness.

“That’s the raal stuff,” exclaimed Venison.

Venison had brought nothing with him to hold his honey, and I was curious to know how he would manage. He cut the tree again above the knot. During his labor the bees had settled all over him. His hands, face, and hair were filled, besides a circle of them that were angrily wheeling about his head.

But he heeded them not, except by an occasional shake, more of pity than rage.

“Now,” said Venison, when his work was finished, the tree cut, the knot-hole stopped, and the whole turned upside down, “that’s what I call a nat’ral bee-hive, and we’ll just stuff in a little dry grass on the top, and then I’ll be ready to move.”

“Move!” I exclaimed, “move! You don’t expect we will carry home a tree, do you?”

“Two or three on ‘em, I s’pect. Venison allers gets as much as that.”

Venison was right. Before noon, half a dozen hives were captured and ready for removal.

After the excitement was over, I began to grow quite serious over our forenoon’s labor. There stood our six bee-hives, and clinging to each in large clusters were its inhabitants, who had been driven forth by us to brave a pitiless winter.

Destruction

We had destroyed six cities and banished their people; six cities, six governments of law and order. Cities laid out in lanes, and streets, and squares; cities of dwelling-houses and castles; cities filled with all sorts of people; all castes in society.

There were the queen and her palace; the drones and their castles; and the serf, or day-laborer, and his hut; and there, sitting upon her throne, the sovereign swayed as mighty a sceptre, tyrannized over as great a people, in her opinion, as any human despot. She undoubtedly talked large, swelled up herself with her importance, boasted of her blood, of her divine right to rule, just as all earthly princes do. There she projected plans of war, marshalled her forces, and stimulated their courage with inflammatory appeals.

And a lazy aristocracy had been broken up by us; we had turned hundreds of drones adrift, and according to the modern definition, drones must be aristocrats; that is, they did no work, and lived upon the labor of others.

They were, probably, just like all other aristocratic drones. They lounged about the hive in each other’s company; had an occasional uproar at each other’s table; turned out to take the morning air, and slept after dinner.

They probably advised in matters of public policy, and cried every day, “Long live the Queen.”

I did not care much about the drones, however. But we had turned the poor day-laborer out of doors; he who rose with the sun, and went forth to work while the dew was yet on the flowers. We had humbled the pride of six cities, and brought it to the dust. Is it strange that I felt sober?

But Venison broke my musing by informing me that it was “about time to cakalate a little about getting our honey home, and he guessed he’d go and rig up a raft, and float the cargo down.”

And soon a raft was constructed of flood-wood, and bound together with green withes, the honey rolled aboard, two long poles prepared to be used to guide the craft, and away we glided, followed by a long train of bees, who had been despoiled, and who streamed along after us, until the shadows of evening arrested their flight, and parted them and their treasure forever.

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Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules.

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