The Day of the Great Honeybee Swarm in Catawba

When I realized what I had gotten myself into, it was too late! I cannot say my life flashed before my eyes since I was only twelve years old. That would be a short flash. On the other hand, I will never forget that day in May when the honeybees swarmed, and I was left holding the rope, literally. Folks, bear with me, as I start from the beginning.

I have made mention in my first two books that I was a hard worker even as a child, and that reputation has followed me throughout my life. I do believe working hard was instilled in me by my Mother Elizabeth and my Grandmother Carroll. Neither one of them let any grass grow under their feet. I was called upon in Catawba to work at odd jobs and was able to earn some money and gain a lot of knowledge at the same time.

It was a very warm day in May when Mama called me in from outside, saying Marvin Brillhart had called and wanted me to come up and help him out for a little while. I thought about a haymaking job, but hay was not ready to cut yet. But it was a job, and pulling weeds in our garden at home would have to wait. I got on my bike and headed up the Creek Road, now called Blacksburg Road; however, I don’t recognize that name because Blacksburg is several miles west. Nothing against Blacksburg, mind you, but it was the Creek Road when I left Catawba, and I am not changing now. And while I am at it, I call the Back Road by that name even though the people there have addresses called Newport Road. They ain’t nowhere near Newport.

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I hardly ever wore a shirt during the summer and did not have one on as I peddled my bike past the Andrews property. My usual attire was to wear blue jeans with the right leg rolled up a bit so as they would not get caught up in the bike chain. I also wore my Wolverine work shoes purchased at Minor’s Store. I was about five minutes from the farm that was managed by Mr. Brillhart.  He lived on the property with his wife Amy and daughters, Elizabeth and Eleanor. Eleanor Brillhart Avery, currently, lives in Colonial Heights Virginia and was a co-writer of the Echoes From Catawba Volume 1 article on the Catawba Methodist Church.  The Brillhart family of Catawba was a highly respected family, especially, active in the community and Catawba Methodist Church.

I sped down the long driveway and parked near the back door of the house like I always did when reporting for work. Mr. Brillhart came out to greet me and lay out the reason for his wanting me to help him.  He said, “honeybees from one of his hives swarmed into a big sycamore tree near the house.” As I looked up, I saw honeybees gathered in a clump the size of a basketball on a tree limb 25 feet above the ground. Things got very interesting with what he said next. “We are going to get that swarm down and back into a hive if we could.” Honestly, two words in that sentence bothered me: “We” and “if”? (Go back and read the previous sentence.) Understand my concern? I wanted no part of this, but I saw no way to avoid it. Sometimes during life, a person has no option but to tackle a bad situation and hope for a good outcome. On top of the obvious challenge, there was a backstory that is best described by this Bible verse in Galatians Chapter 6 Verse 7: ”for whatever a man (boy) sows this he will also reap.”

DSCN1279 (2)Every boy growing up in the Appalachian Mountains would own as his first weapon of choice, a handmade gravel-shooter (sometimes called a sling-shot).  A favorite target was a hornet’s nest, gray-colored and shaped somewhat like a football.  We used small pebbles up to the size of marbles. Hornet and wasp nests were primary targets, although bee hives were used as targets on occasion. Every farm had bee hives for harvesting honey as well as having a source of pollination for fruit trees. My background in abusing all kinds of bees was about to come back and even the score.

I did not see Mr. Brillhart go back into the house, but my gawking at the bee swarm was interrupted when he came back out. I stared in awe at this very tall man decked out from head to toe in “bee wear.” He had on thick pants extending down snugly over his boot tops, a pullover shirt that came up around his neck, and long gloves covering his hands. Lastly, he wore a straw hat with a netting that drooped down completely covering his face. There was no way a bee could come into contact with his skin. Later I learned that all that he wore was official “bee wear” for handling bees, including extracting honey or, in this case extracting a bee swarm.

By contrast, there I stood, with no shirt, jeans, and my Wolverine boots with no socks. Mr. Brillhart gave me a coat of his that was too big but would cover some of my chest and back. He proceeded to tell me about his plan. I was cautioned to show no fear, which would send a message to the bees not to sting me throughout the process.

beeswarmHe would climb the tree with the help of a ladder up to the limb with the swarm on it sticking straight out from the tree. He tied the rope to the limb about 2 two feet from the trunk. He then climbed up to the limb directly above the swarm and tossed the rope over it, and the long rope fell to the ground. He had created a reverse pully system.  Mr. Brillhart climbed a little higher and gave me instructions.  He would remove the limb with a saw while I held the rope taut so that when the limb was free, I could slowly lower the rope to the ground, and Mr. Brillhart could then carry the limb with the bees to a nearby hive.

The final stage of this job started as I slowly let the rope down as Mr. Brillhart was guiding me, saying “easy now, slowly, slowly, don’t show fear.” The limb was ten feet off the ground, and I saw those bees were very agitated. It happened quickly as I realized some bees were following the rope that led to the holder. I showed fear, lots of fear as they got on my neck, hands, face, and a couple down to my ankles. The limb settled on the ground, I let go of the rope, and I ran. Mr. Brillhart gave me a dollar and thanked me, while at the same time scolding for a bit, before taking the bees away to a hive. Mama counted ten stings on me and said the dollar should cover a tube of lotion.

I like honey drizzled over a warm cathead-sized biscuit and always keep some in our pantry. But every time I eat honey, I think about The Catawba Honeybee Swarm in Catawba.

One of my memories of growing up in the Appalachian Mountains left a stinging impression upon me.  Hope you enjoy!

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4 thoughts on “The Day of the Great Honeybee Swarm in Catawba

  1. Talk about Colony Collapse Disorder! Seriously insects are declining in abundance in many parts of the world, and species are being lost at a rapid rate, especially through the felling of tropical trees. “If bees disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.” Attributed to Albert Einstein

  2. What a wonderful story reminds me of when I was a young boy growing up. I worked for a couple farmers in the Wabun community that’s west of Salem in the Glenvar area.Rode a bicycle with my britches rolled up on the right side,use to tie a rag around the tire when it got a knot on the wore out tires. Fished in the Roanoke River,I could talk for hours about my childhood days.I just love your pictures and story’s.God Bless!

  3. Thank you for the entertaining story. Your stories always bring back many memories of growing up in Salem, although I do not recall encountering a beehive! Well . . . not on purpose . . . !

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