The craft of the bee hunter, although based upon some curious woods lore, is not hard to acquire under proper tutelage. The theory is simple enough. First capture a few wild bees and let them fill up on honey or other bait that has been brought along for the purpose; then liberate them, follow in the direction of their flight as far as you are sure of it, capture and send out more guides, and so on until the tree is reached. In practice, successful bee hunters resort to some shrewd arts unknown in any other branch of wildcraft.
A backwoodsman's way of "lining" bees, when he merely chances upon them, not prepared for regular bee hunting", is to capture one of the insects and fasten to it, or stick into it, a small, downy feather, a bit of straw or thistle-down, or some other light thing by which he can distinguish the insect in its flight; then he liberates it, and follows it as far as he can by sight. The bee, bothered by its strange incumbrance, and finding that it cannot rid itself of the thing by its own exertions, goes home for help. Then the hunter, having secured a few more bees, follows the line of flight as far as he can, sets free another marked bee, and thus proceeds until he either finds the hive or at least gets a clear notion of its whereabouts. Then he, too, goes home, and prepares for bee robbing in earnest.
That sort of thing is accidental. But a regular bee hunter does not depend upon luck at any stage of the game. He goes out looking for bees, and for bees only. He knows where to look, where not to look, and what to do when he finds the bees, all according to the season of the year and the lay of the land.
The easiest time to find a bee-tree is early in the spring, or late in the fall, because then there is no nectar for the bees and they will take kindly to bait; also, because then there are no leaves on the trees to interfere with the hunter's vision, Of course, it is poor policy to rob a beehive in spring, for what honey is left will be old, dark colored, and not so well flavored as new honey; but this is a good time to mark the bee-tree for future attack. The methods for spring and summer hunting are different; so I will describe them in sequence.
In the first warm days of spring, while there still is snow on the ground, a hive may sometimes be located by listening for the humming of the bees in their cleansing flight, and by looking for dead bees on the snow, under likely looking trees, where they have been dropped by workers in cleaning the hive. But, as a rule, it will be necessary to find where the bees are collecting early sweets, or, in default of this, to lure them to bait specially prepared for the purpose.
As soon as the sap of the sugar maple begins to rise, which may be as early as the middle of February if the season is forward, but commonly is later, the bee hunter goes among the maples and birches. Wherever a gash or bruise in the bark lets the sap ooze out, or "bleed," as he calls it, he may find bees at work. The sap flows best on a warm day following a freezing night. A regular bee hunter will purposely wound a number of trees in different localities, in anticipation of this.
Early in March he looks for skunk-cabbage, which, by the way, is not the only malodorous thing that bees frequent at this season. Toward the middle or end of March the willow catkins attract a buzzing throng. In April the beech and some ot the maples are in bloom and fragrant with sweets.
Then come the columbine and dicentra (Dutchman's breeches), from which the honey bee gathers pollen only, for its tongue .is too short to reach the nectar as the bumblebee's does.
If such scouting trips fail, the hunter will resort to lures. A backwoodsman who has neither honey, nor sirup, nor sugar, with which to prepare bee-bait, will steep corn-cobs for a couple of days in what, by way of euphemism, he calls "sour-bait," or in strong brine scented with anise or bergamot. These he places on stumps in his fields, where the bees are pretty sure to take them for treasure-trove. A surer way to attract them is by roasting honyecomb or beeswax. For this purpose a piece of tin or a flat stone is heated in the fire, and the comb or wax, moistened with water, is placed on it. The chief objection to this method is that it is bothersome to carry the hot rock or tin from place to place.
Bees are fond of certain essential oils, such as oil of anise and oil of bergamot, which, either singly or in combination, may be used as a lure by adding a few drops to a vial of sugar-water. This may be done at any season. Some bee men prefer to take flowers of the particular plant or tree that the bees are favoring at a given time, pack them well down in a wide-mouthed jar, add just enough diluted alcohol (25%) to cover, and let stand a few days. In this way you can make your own essences of buckwheat, goldenrod, clover, etc., with which to dope your sugar-water. The latter is a thin sirup made by dissolving granulated sugar in three times its bulk of water, or clear honey thinned with an equal bulk of warm water, or a mixture of sugar and honey in water. A 4-ounce vial of it is plenty.
The reason why ordinary thick honey will not do so well as the diluted mixture is this: You will wish to judge, from the time of the bees' flight, how far away the bee-tree is. Their time of absence when carrying nectar is pretty accurately known, for different distances. But honey is much thicker, heavier, and more sticky than the nectar that bees gather from flowers, the latter being little more than sweetened water plus aroma. Consequently it takes the bees longer to fill up on honey, they stagger with it in their flight, and it takes longer to discharge their cargo.
So the hunter will set out a bait of, say, diluted honey to which a drop of oil of anise has been added. Bees will smell such an enticing odor for a mile or more. In any case, the object is first to capture some wild bees as guides. The way to manage them after they are caught is to be described later.