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Where your honey came from

A lot of eastern Connecticut’s honeybees come from the back end of a horse trailer. 

It’s a long story involving a long drive, a short horse trailer, and a medium-sized beekeeper, Stuart Woronecki, Ph.D., owner of Stonewall Apiary in Hanover, CT.

Three times in early spring, Woronecki gets out of bed well before dawn. The empty trailer’s already hitched to his pick-up. He makes coffee and heads south, hoping to clear New York before rush hour.

He keeps driving, all the way to southern Georgia, stopping for little but coffee and gasoline. In a time of COVID, he doesn’t even stop for food. He fuels himself from a cooler, steering with his left hand, eating with his right.

Seventeen hours later, he pulls into Claxton, a town with a train track running through it, two hardware stores right downtown, and a grocery with a sign offering S&H Green Stamps.

He eats. He downs a gin and tonic, maybe two. He sleeps the good sleep in cheap hotel.

Next morning, he hauls his trailer over to Wilbanks Apiary. Wilbanks has close to 10,000 hives, but it produces no honey. What it produces is bees, and that’s what Woronecki has come for.

He backs his trailer up to a building. The last thing Wilbanks needs at this time of year is a virus, so they won’t let him out of his truck. They let him roll his window down three inches, but everybody stands back.

A crew of Mexicans with agricultural visas loads the trailer with 451 screened boxes, each with some 3,000 bees, all of them very concerned about the situation. Each box also has a queen isolated in a special cage. She’s concerned, too. The multitude around her aren’t her subjects. They’d kill her if they could. 

The crew staples the boxes into rows like high-rise apartments. They’re tight in there. Now it isn’t a horse trailer. It’s a bee trailer.

Woronecki heads north. The 6.3 million bees are worth a good $30,000, but not if they’re dead. They have to be in New London County, 1,003 miles away, by morning. There’s no time for breakdowns, no allowance for an accident, no room for error, no fooling around en route, and definitely no gin and tonics. 

He grabs coffee at truck stops. He steers with his left hand, he eats with his right. He drives all day, he drives all night.

Bees generate a lot of heat. The trailer has electric fans to cool them at the southern end of the trip. But at the northern end, they might get too cold. Woronecki watches the road with one eye, a thermometer with the other. Thirty thousand dollars has to be kept just right.

God, cops, weather and dumb luck willing, he pulls into Stonewall Apiary before dawn. His day’s about half done.

He’s got a crew of native Americans to help him unload — family, friends, employees. They move the 6.3 million bees to an air-conditioned trailer. It’s sweaty, sticky work that involves a few stings from bees clinging to the outside of the box screens, terrified, confused and doomed.

In a couple of hours, more than 100 beekeepers start to drive up. They stay in their vehicles. The crew, huffing behind home-made face masks made by the beekeeper’s wife, loads the trunks and pick-ups. 

A little after noon, Woronecki takes a phone over to the bee yard, sets up a video stream to show people how to install a package of bees. The process is a little complicated.

First, you remove the queen cage, a little pine box with a screen. Behold her beauty! She’s long and tan and oh-so-lovely, a girl from Ipanema with six legs, diaphanous wings and a spermatheca ready to go.

She has to eat herself out of the situation, licking her way through a tunnel packed with sugar candy. Worker bees lick their way in. It takes a few days. By the time they meet, the worker bees will love the smell of her. She will be their queen. 

He tucks the cage into an unpopulated hive. Then he thumps the box of bees on the ground to knock them into a chaotic pile. Then he pulls off the lid and dumps everybody into the hive.

And there they are: home sweet home. Welcome to Connecticut, ladies.

Late afternoon, Woronecki goes home. He eats. He downs a gin and tonic, maybe two. He sleeps the good sleep.

Glenn Alan Cheney is a writer, translator, and managing editor of New London Librarium.

 

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