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How Natural Honey Was Located

May 9, 2024

Gladys Suggitt and Maurice Watson planting potatoes

By Gladys Suggitt with an introduction by Guy Scott

Honey is nature’s sweetener. It requires no processing and is a perfect example of an all-natural food. In pioneer times, honey and maple sugar served as a valuable substitute for imported sugar. The granulated sugars we use today were both expensive and hard to acquire, so the early pioneers turned to Mother Nature to satisfy their sweet tooth.

Maple syrup was derived primarily from the sap of the sugar or hard maple, a tree quite common in our area. But for anyone who has dabbled in the art of making maple syrup, it requires extensive labour to produce. Honey, on the other hand, can be simply ‘harvested’ in its finished state… if one was lucky enough to discover a hive of honey bees. And that’s the rub: how could you find honey bees? In pioneer times, the discovery of a honey bee hive with its harvest of natural sweetness was often a lucky or chance find. The honey bees built their hives in the hollow of a large tree, not the man-made boxes we see today. A good honey tree often yielded 100 pounds of honey: a bonus find for a pioneer family. But these lucky finds only happened rarely, if at all. So enterprising settlers developed a clever method of hunting down the wild honey bee hive. Gladys Suggitt described how one settler tracked down a valuable store of honey:

To accomplish this (find the honey tree) he required a little box about 4 inches wide and 6 inches long with a hand hold carved from the bottom of the box extending out 3 or 4 inches from one end. This bee box was 4 or 5 inches deep, and approximately one inch from the top of the end on which the hand hold was, a narrow slit was left into which was fitted a little smooth moving wooden slide, and on top there was a piece of glass large enough to cover the top. Inside the box was placed a small amount of natural honey. The bee man making this box would go out and look on the wild aster or goldenrod for a wild honey bee. If one was not easily found, a little brood wad or old beeswax was placed on a large stone and set on fire. As the smoke and fragrance spiralled into the air, if good judgement had been used in selecting the location, a honey bee would soon appear. When the bee would alight, the scheming bee man would carefully flick it into the box and the glass was placed on top, then carefully pulling back the wooden slide, the bee was given access to the honey below. When the bee started to feed, the glass was removed and a careful watch was kept. Some sprinkled a little flour on the bee. The bee, having obtained a load of honey, would rise in the air, circle three times, and head for home, which was always in a straight line, thus the saying, ‘he made a bee line for home.’

The time until the bee’s return was carefully noted, giving indication of the distance to the bee tree. This time would vary from a few minutes to half an hour, the tree would usually in a radius of two miles. Sometimes at one mile the bee would be 30-40 minutes in returning. A bee finding a new source of honey would put on a ‘bee dance’ and attract others to follow.

Soon several bees would be coming to the honey in the box, and when they left for home with a load of honey, the bee man would walk quickly for between 100-200 yards in the direction the bees had gone and again place the box on a stone or stump and wait for the bees to find it again. This procedure was followed until the tree was found. One such tree on the banks of the Burnt River took the bees 10 minutes to find the box when it was only 60 feet from the tree.

The tree when found was cut down to obtain the honey. The comb was 6-8 feet deep in the tree, and the honey was gathered in large tubs. The bees were stupefied with either tobacco smoke or smoke from decayed wood called ‘touch wood’ while the honey was taken down. Bee hunters often captured the wild bees to start their own hives.

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