Frank Dagles and the Hunt for the Wild Honey Bee
The wild honey bee has been in a longer and steeper decline than even the domesticated bees whose disappearance from hives was first noticed in 2006.
But seventy-five years ago on Lake George, autumn was the time for hunting the wild bee and stocking up with honey.
Frank Dagles, who died earlier this year, kept beehives himself, but he could remember when honey came from wild bees and the old, hollow trees in the woods where they nested. After the crops were harvested, he told me in an interview ten years ago, the attention of many farmers turned to the search for the bee tree.
Tracking the wild bees was a family affair, Dagles said. He and his brother would set out from the family farm in North Bolton with a small container of sugar water which they would place on the ground, waiting until it attracted a bee. When a bee arrived and sipped the sugar water, it would fly into the air. The boys would follow “the bee line,” that is, the direction in which the bee flies toward the hive, stopping to allow more bees to feed. For if at first only one bee was feeding, at each successive stop more would gather, until there might be some sixty bees around the container. (Honey bees have an innate communication system by which scouts find food, then alert and convey to the other bees in the hive information about a food source. Recruits are able to find food and bring it back to the hive to be stored for the winter.) Eventually, the swarm would lead them to a tree, usually an old hemlock, Dagles said. On one occasion, he recalled, they led him from the farm in North Bolton over the mountain to Northwest Bay, to the farm where he later lived most of his adult life.
Once the bee tree was found, it was cut down and the honeycomb removed. First, however, the bees had to be made docile through “smudging,” Dagles said. That entailed building a smoky fire. The honey would be carried home in buckets.
Hunting wild bees is a custom no longer practiced much in the Adirondacks. According to Dagles, the loss of farms and food sources for wild bees was at least partially to blame. They feast on corn, cucumber and squash, he said. Moreover, points out Bolton town historian Ted Caldwell, much of the surrounding forest is now part of the Adirondack Forest Preserve, where it is, of course, illegal to cut trees.
I’m glad I took the opportunity to interview Frank about wild honey bees. As his godson, Dr. David Hinson said at his funeral last April, no one knew the outdoors – from farm to field, from woods to waters – better than Frank Dagles.
“Frank was a dedicated fisherman, logger, farmer, beekeeper, hunter and ice auger champion. He grew everything that was possibly cultivatable in the North Country, including the biggest pumpkins the land has seen. He could split wood from daybreak to sunset and boil sap into the darkest and richest of maple syrups. He knew the woods of Northwest Bay so well that he could track a deer or find lost hunters with only a small flashlight.
“Frank taught me how to fish brook trout, ice fish for perch and salmon and hard-line for lake trout. He taught me how to tell the difference between a partridge and a wintergreen berry; what mountain streams were safe to drink from and how to make a whistle out of whistlewood. He even showed me that building a fire on ice would not make a hole in it!” Hinson recalled.
Scientists are now studying the decline of the wild bee in the Adirondacks. To understand the causes, they’re seeking a more detailed knowledge of the wild bee’s ecology. It’s too bad Frank Dagles is no longer here to assist them. After interviewing him, the scientists would not only know more about wild bees, but would no doubt be able to imagine the hunt through the woods and perhaps even what the taste of virgin honey on homemade biscuits was like, something which Frank was among the last on Lake George to remember.