Looking down from a light aircraft gives insights you just can’t match on the ground. At 6,000 feet, you appreciate how close flowers are along a beeline from hive to field. Beeing in the air is useful for a beekeeper – I’m not going to write about the thrill of flying in a four-seater, looping around the Alberta prairies, nor will I mention that my son was at the controls for about half the flight. (Though I couldn’t resist inserting my 30-second video at the top of this page. A good friend, a seasoned pilot (and beekeeper!), sat alongside my teenager. Many, many thanks to my friend for our flight!)
Years ago, I kept bees in Florida. The owner of a private airstrip took me up in his plane. It was the first time I had a real sense for central Florida’s terrain. Citrus groves were mostly near roads, partly because harvesting trailers need to park close to the fruit. From the air, I realized that groves were often narrow strips hugging the roads. Both trees and roads prefer higher ground. Farther from the roads, I saw more pasture than I expected. The rest of Florida was cypress swamps and flooded sinkholes. I owned forty acres of swamp, a field, and a few nice oak hammocks. My bee shed is in the center of the pasture in the picture below. The rest of my land was reserved for alligators. A real eye-opener from the air.
From the air, you can select new yards and see where the competition placed their hives. You also get a sense of meandering streams, potential flood plains to avoid, and (here in western Canada) you may find remote alfalfa fields which you didn’t know existed.
I met a Montana beekeeper, Harry Rodenberg, who served as a bombardier in World War II. He told me that he kept track of his 3,000 hives from the seat of a light plane. Montana’s alfalfa fields are vast and scattered. After a bad storm, Harry sometimes flew out to check yards for blown lids or tumbled hives. Today, the Rodenberg family operates close to 5,000 hives. Piloting remains part of the family skill set.
You might already know that the first report of the Wright Brothers’ Kitty Hawk flight appeared in a bee magazine. Gleanings in Bee Culture was published by Ohio beekeeper A.I. Root. He manufactured beekeeping equipment, sold candles, made honey, and (like most good beekeepers) had an insatiable curiosity. When he heard that some boys down in Dayton, Ohio, had built a flying machine, he wrote about their adventure less than three months later. The Dayton newspaper missed it entirely, simply doing a tiny ‘Society’ piece announcing that the Wright brothers had returned from a visit to North Carolina. Aeronauts and flying machines were never mentioned. Beekeeper A.I. Root was more enthusiastic. Below is the fourth piece he published about flying machines. It’s from January, 1905, and begins, “What hath God wrought?”
A.I. Root continued writing about bees and flying machines. In 1908, he described an 8-mile flight made by the Wrights “in 7 and 3/4 minutes, which is just over a mile a minute.” I don’t know if A.I. Root ever checked his bees from the seat of a flying machine. But I wonder why more beekeepers don’t take a flight over their bee yards. These days, with easy access to satellite images, it’s less important than it used to be. But for real-time knowledge of where the neighbouring hives are and which fields are blooming, nothing beats a spin in the air.