Early sweets are gathered by bees from the bloom of all kinds of fruit-bearing trees and plants, from violets, hepaticas, and other flowers. In May the busy insects forage on the clematis, dandelion, honey locust, tulip or "yellow poplar." The locust bears nectar only at intervals of several years, but the big blossoms of the tulip tree are commonly rich in it—so rich that sometimes the nectar can be dipped out with a spoon— as well as in pollen, which is a necessity to the bee. That unhappily imported weed among our trees, the ailanthus or "tree of heaven," is another favorite of the bees, despite its ill-smelling blossoms.
Through the summer months there is almost a surfeit of sweets for the honey-maker: boneset, borage, bugloss, white clover, coralberry, figwort, goldenrod, milkweed, motherwort, mustard, rape, sage, Spanish needle, spider-flower, sumac, sunflower, teasel, willow-herb—a legion of others—and, favored of all in forested regions, the cream-colored blossoms of the linden or basswood.
The West has a famous nectar-bearer called the Rocky Mountain bee-plant. In the South, the bees of the lowlands use the cotton plants; those of the mountains, where there is a bewildering variety of "honey-bloom," seek by preference the linden and the delightfully aromatic blossoms of the sour-wood.
As summer wanes, the bees turn to the asters, catnip, fireweed, fleabane, heartsease, and other late-blooming plants. Wherever there is a buckwheat field they will be found in their glory. Later they work in the turnip patches. Some of the many species of goldenrod yield nectar until well on in October.
The equipment for bee hunting is very simple. You will need a small box or two, same thinned honey or sugar-water (scented or not as you choose), a few pinches of flour in a little box or bag (or, preferably, a small tube of artist's white paint and a camel's-hair brush). A watch, compass, and perhaps an opera glass, should be taken along, particularly if you are an amateur; and do not omit a lunch, for you are likely to be out all day.
As for boxes, a couple of half-pound candy boxes will do; but it is better to make a special one for the purpose. This is merely a light wooden box about four inches cube, without top or bottom, but with a glass slide at the top working in saw-cuts in the sides. About an inch below these saw-cuts, and parallel with them, are narrow strips to support a little feeding tray, which is about an inch and a half wide, just long enough to fit inside the box, and of such height that its top will come within a half inch of the glass slide. Do not use an old cigar box for material, since bees, like other insects, detest the odor of tobacco. Some boxes are made with sliding wooden bottoms, and others are double, hinged together, with a wooden slide between; but the simpler one here described will do very well.
Now, early in the morning of a warm, still day, go where there are nectar-bearing flowers. The place must be at least a mile, preferably two miles, away from any house where tame bees are kept, or you will be annoyed by them. Few bees go more than two miles from home in search of honey.
Choose an open glade or hillside, or an old field, or a fire-burnt waste where weeds and vines have sprung up, but free from leafy trees and shrubs, so that you can see for a considerable distance all around.
If bees are working here, put a little of your honey bait in the feeding tray of your box, cautiously set the box over the first bee that you find on a flower, and close the bottom with your hand. The bee will buzz up against the glass, and then soon will seek the honey. Now set the box on a stump or other elevation in the midst of a clear space. As stumps are not always to be found where wanted, some bee hunters carry with them a staff pointed at one end and with a bit of shingle tacked to the other end to serve as a platform for the box.
As soon as the bee is hard at work on the honey, approach quickly and withdraw the glass slide. Dust him slightly with flour, or put a bit of paint on his back just large enough to be noticeable, so you can identify him when he returns. Then withdraw to one side, get into a comfortable reclining position, and, if you have an opera glass, get it ready for action.
When the bee has gorged himself he will rise from the bait in half-circles and sudden dodges, generally to one side of the bait, returning toward it, and oscillating back again. He is getting his bearings. Now he mounts higher and higher in an increasing spiral. Then, so suddenly that it takes good eyes or a glass to follow him, he darts off for home. Watch him as far as you can, and note the direction of his flight. He will not go through woods, but over them. If he flies toward a farmhouse, pay no further attention to him, for he is a tame bee. In that case, go somewhere else and begin anew. But if he goes to the big woods, look at your watch and time his absence. You will know him when he returns by the mark that vou have put on him.
On an average, a bee flies a mile in five minuter, and he spends about two minutes in the hive, disgorging. Bees vary in their flight, but a good general rule is to subtract two from the number of minutes absent, and divide by ten; the quotient is the number of miles, or the fraction of a mile, from your stand to the bee-tree. The time of the bee's second flight will be a more reliable datum than that of the first, because by that time he will have established his bearings and will go straight to and fro.
The pioneer bee will probably come back alone from his first trip. Let him fill up and depart as before; but now watch the course of his flight very closely, for it will be a "bee-line" for home. His course will be slightly sinuous, but its general direction will be straight for the hive, unless the ground is so rough as to cause contrary air currents, in which case he will seek the lee of woods or the shelter of a ravine, or unless there is a lake or large pond in the way, which he probably will sway around—for some reason known only to themselves, bees dislike to pass over a body of water— so a bee-line is not necessarily a straight line. Pick out some tall or peculiarly topped tree, or other prominent object in line with his course, take its bearings by compass, and study it carefully, so that you may recognize this landmark thereafter.