‘It’s a Patient Game’
Will Gilman chats with Shannon Doyle and his son, Ronan, 3, after they came to visit Gilman at his apartment in Chelsea, Vt., on September 11, 2013. Doyle often works with Gilman, both in his store and at his apartment.
Valley News - Sarah Priestap
WIll GIlman of Chelsea chats with Amos Doyle of Chelsea as Gilman heads back to Doyle's house, where his van was parked, after a day of bee lining in Chelsea, Vt., on September 11, 2013.
Valley News - Sarah Priestap
A honey bee hovers over a flower in Chelsa, Vt., on September 11, 2013. Bee-lining is a simple way to track honey bees back to their hive. If the hive is "wild" and hasn't been claimed by someone else, the bees belong to the finder.
Valley News - Sarah Priestap
Writer Nicola Smith uses a specially made box to capture a honey bee as Will Gilman of Chelsea coaches her through the process in a garden in Chelsea, Vt., on September 11, 2013. While Gilman has been a quadripeligic since his early twenties, he enjoys a number of hands-on activities, such as bee-lining, with the help of friends and passers-by.
Valley News - Sarah Priestap
Will Gilman, right, of Chelsea, chats with Alice Doyle and her dog Heidi at Doyle's home in Chelsea, Vt., on September 11, 2013. Gilman began his day of bee lining in a patch of flowers on Doyle's land, and was explaining to her what bee lining is.
Valley News - Sarah Priestap
A framed photograph of Bill Melvin is prominently displayed in Will Gilman's apartment off his family's home in Chelsea, Vt., on September 11, 2013. Melvin was a good friend of Gilman's and taught Gilman everything he knows about bee lining.
Valley News - Sarah Priestap
To line bees, you have to know bees, and Will Gilman knows bees.
He knows that bees gather nectar to make honey, and that pollen is a source of protein to feed young bees. He knows that bees are sensitive to color, smell and the weather. He’s learned through experience that wild bees like to make hives in hollow trees that tend to be near water. In his observation, hot, humid days seem to irritate them and make their behavior less predictable. He can distinguish between a docile honey bee and an agitated one, and it’s a question of a higher, meaner pitch.
The great puzzle of bees and their behavior and their hierarchical, complex society is of unending fascination to Gilman, who started lining bees in the 1980s, when he was in his 20s. “It’s like reading a mystery novel. Once you get started, you just can’t stop. You follow the clues,” he said.
To bee line is to track honeybees back to their hives, and their honey. When Gilman began learning about bees from a man named Bill Melvin in Chelsea, where both men lived, it was possible still to find wild beehives in the hollows of trees like basswood or hemlock.
“He was the bee king,” Gilman said of Melvin, who died 10 years ago. “He was much better than I will ever be.”
In the old days, before the proliferation of commercial hives, and honey in Aisle 6 at the grocery store, people lined bees so they could have honey on hand as a sweetener. To locate a wild beehive was a process of deduction and perseverance. “It’s a patient game,” Gilman said.
The law allowed the finder to keep the honey even if the tree was on someone else’s property, which was often the case. You marked it as containing a hive, paid the owner for the value of the tree, and he or she, in turn, permitted you to cut it down and remove the hive, the bees and the honey. Often, bee liners would try to move the hive back to their own property, to start a colony there.
The old adage “to make a bee line for” refers to the straight line a bee follows when it flies back to the hive. But, it doesn’t make a straight line, not at first. When a bee has finished collecting nectar, it rises into the air unsteadily, like a tipsy patron who’s been holding up one end of the bar at McSorley’s Old Ale House but now has been called home. If the bee is sticky with nectar or sugar syrup, it alights on a clump of grass to groom itself, using its front legs and tongue to painstakingly clean off the excess sugar.
Then it begins to circle, and if you’re lining bees this is the part that’s child’s play, because the bee is easily spotted, a dancer doing a slow waltz around a ballroom. But once it’s stopped circling, it darts off at top speed, and it does fly in a more-or-less straight line. If you’re lucky, or have the telescopic vision of a hawk, you can follow it with your eyes for a little while, and if the sun reflects off its gauzy wings, it looks like a flying golden chip, hard to miss. But it if it flies straight up into a clear blue sky, it’s a mere speck vanishing into the air.
Gilman, who owns Will’s Store on Chelsea’s Main Street, hasn’t bee lined as much since Melvin died, but when he was alive, the two men would go out with friends into the woods. Melvin had taken Gilman under his wing a few years after Gilman was in a motorcycle accident that left him a quadriplegic. But neither man was daunted: the crew would put Gilman’s wheelchair in a pickup truck, drive him out to a site, and try to get him as close as they could to the tree in qu estion.
Gilman felt an affinity for bee lining very quickly. The pursuit gave him “reasons to be out. It got you out on the hills here.”
“Willie would go right out into the woods in his wheelchair to some crazy places,” said Doug Lyford, a Chelsea resident who taught Gilman math and shop at the Chelsea School, and counts Gilman as one of his close friends.
In an old scrapbook Gilman has photographs of the crew of bee liners beginning the process of taking down a basswood, a particular favorite of honey bees, for its nectar and as habitat. Once the tree was felled, the men began to cut it into sections to get at the comb. It was possible to fill a wash tub or two full of honey. A general rule of thumb regarding honey comb was “the darker the wax, the older it was,” Gilman said. And the belief was that wild honey had a stronger flavor and better taste than your average commercial honey.
But bee lining is, in some sense, a younger person’s sport. “When you’re in your 50s you don’t have as many friends with time on their hands,” Gilman said.
A Sense of History
Will Gilman is the third of four children born to Sid and Marion Gilman. “I’m the terrible third child,” he said lightly. “It’s said they have a complex. If I had it only my parents suffered. I got into trouble, not bad trouble. Mischief.”
He’s lived in a small room off the old family home on Route 110 since 2010. What had been a small storage shed was turned into his bedroom in 1977 and outfitted to make it easier for him to maneuver. You enter through the barn, past his late father’s collection of cast iron seats from horse-drawn plows, manure spreaders and rakes that have been arranged in neat rows on a wall. There are 28 on display, dating from the 19th and early 20th centuries, with such names as Champion, Buckeye, Walter A. Wood and Corbin. They are only a small percentage of the collection: Gilman estimates that his father had 114 of them at the time of his death.
A small ramp leads into Gilman’s room. A small bed is against one wall, and on the opposite wall is a map of the United States, roughly the size of a child’s blanket. Photographs of family and friends crowd the walls. Gilman reads constantly, histories most of all, and subscribes to the journal Vermont History . Ron Chernow’s history of the life of George Washington, and a biography of Ulysses S. Grant sit on a bookshelf. A self-described Civil War addict, Gilman put up the map so he could trace Civil War campaigns and pinpoint other locations as he reads about them.
“If you start quizzing him on the Civil War, he can name battles and dates. I can’t remember a fraction of what he can,” said Gary Mullen, a Tunbridge resident who was four years behind Gilman at Chelsea School and became good friends with him in the late 1970s.
“Like his father, he’s a true historian,” said filmmaker John O’Brien, one of a group of men who used to meet regularly with Gilman to play the card game 88. “We’d be playing and he’d talk about what happened to some Vermont regiment at Harper’s Ferry.”
Histories aren’t the only books he consumes: piled on top of the Civil War histories are the Anne of Green Gables books by Lucy Maud Montgomery. He and his longtime girlfriend Rae, who started out as his caregiver and still looks after him, traveled to Prince Edward Island this summer and they wanted to absorb some of the atmosphere before they arrived so they delved into the series. They’ve read books to each other for years, Gilman said: Mark Twain, J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, Lewis Carroll.
Now 57, Gilman has a narrow, almost elfin face and graying hair. He speaks rapidly and at a higher pitch. Because his hands and fingers do not fully function, although he can use his hands like mitts to push away objects or pull them close, anything of crucial importance to him — telephone, computer — is at his eye level or below.
His wheelchair looks like a kid’s schooldesk on wheels, with a flat surface that can be used to write on; also attached to the desk is an old, empty tin can that works as a drink holder. On a warm day, Gilman leans over the tin can and drinks Coke through a straw.
A swing door leads into the house’s kitchen. Gilman has lived alone here since his mother died in May. He’d moved back home three years ago from his apartment over the store to help care for her. “I owed her a lot. She took care of me for pretty close to 30 years. She put me to bed every night, gave me food, took care of me at night,” he said.
In 1976, when he was 20 and a student at the University of Vermont, Gilman took his motorcycle out for a spin. A car came around a corner, Gilman couldn’t see it because of a malfunctioning mirror, and they collided. Gilman’s neck was broken. For 10 months he was treated at the old Mary Hitchcock Hospital in Hanover, on a respirator, unable to speak. His parents spent every day with him, but for a while no one could say the word “paralyzed,” and when they did it didn’t sink in anyway.
“You’re just so sick. Your mind can’t even dwell on — I won’t even say the day to day but the hour to hour. I didn’t really realize what that all meant. At age 20 you just don’t really believe it anyway. You’re sure they’re wrong,” Gilman said.
After his treatment at Mary Hitchcock he was transferred to the renowned Craig Hospital in Denver, which specializes in rehabilitation therapy for people with spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries. His parents took the first airplane flight of their lives out there with him in a small six-seater plane. He spent six months at Craig, came home in 1977 at age 21, and moved into the room off the barn.
Not one for self-pity, he only once railed at life’s capriciousness, asking his father, “Why me?”
“And it upset my father so much I never did it again,” he said.
Behind the Counter
Most days, Gilman can be found behind the counter of his store. He’s decided to move back to his apartment over the store after his three-year hiatus at the family home, and he wants to spend more time overseeing the running of the business.
On a Friday afternoon he’s doing a brisk trade in Powerball tickets due to a jackpot that stands at around $187 million. Snook Downing, known in town for his industrious collection of cans and bottles which he redeems for money that then goes to animal welfare organizations, enters, and checks on whether his lottery ticket yielded any winnings.
“There’s Mr. Snookums,” Gilman said. He asks whether Downing’s ticket has come up roses. “Not. A. Winner,” Downing said. He buys another lottery ticket, and then fishes in his pocket. “Well, I s’pose I gotta pay you.”
“Afraid so,” Gilman said.
In a small town a local shopkeeper becomes an institution, and Gilman knows almost everyone who comes through the door, and they know him. A few years after the accident he returned to UVM and graduated with a degree in accounting. After landing interviews and doing well, but then getting rejection letters, he decided to make a go of his own business. “I’m going to have to hire myself,” he remembered thinking. Tenacity is a hallmark of his character.
“One time we were talking about life-changing events,” Mullen said. “He couldn’t think of anything that had changed his life. Well, the accident changed his life. It affected him, obviously, but it didn’t ruin his life.”
“That’s the hand he’s been dealt and he’s played it very well,” Lyford said. “Everybody looks at him as they do everybody else in town. They all look at Will the same.”
One sultry late September afternoon, Gilman has parked his wheelchair on the lawn of his friend Alice Doyle, who lives north of Chelsea, on a hilltop with an expansive view east. Her son Amos Doyle, who has beehives, lives a half-mile up the road. In the name of experimentation, Gilman, who has not lined bees in some time, is going to try again. He has with him a small jar of sugar syrup, a bee box and a little bottle of white paint.
From Gilman’s point of view, this is cheating because he already knows the location of the hive, which takes away the excitement of the hunt, the thrill of discovery; but from the perspective of demonstrating how bee lining works, it does the job. And the fact is that populations of wild bees are so low that finding a hive, if one existed in the area, could take days.
With the advent in the 1980s of parasitic varroa and tracheal mites in bees, 99 percent of wild colonies nationwide were wiped out, said Steve Parise, Vermont’s state bee inspector. The term “wild bee” is something of a misnomer, Parise said. Rather, wild bees are populations of escaped domesticated bees that learned to survive in nature, without human management. But that also made them particularly vulnerable to disease.
In 2006, the term “colony collapse disorder” was given to an alarming phenomenon in which honey bee populations worldwide plummeted, imperiling agricultural crop growers and national economies.
There is no one single cause of colony collapse disorder that scientists can point to, Parise said. Citing likely factors that combined to devastate bee colonies, Parise named the prevalence of mites, the stress to bees that can arise from transporting them hundreds or thousands of miles to commercial orchards, the cross-contamination that can happen when commercial bees from different states are brought together in one location to pollinate crops and, say, bees from Texas drift into hives of bees from California. He also named a lack of diverse nutrition that can come from feeding on monoculture crops, and the role of genetics. Just like humans, bees rely on a balanced diet to thrive.
“The best recommendation is to maintain a strong, healthy hive, control the parasitic mites and provide adequate nutrition year-round for your bees,” Parise said.
Vermont is in a better position than such states as California, Texas and Florida, where commercial growers with acres of crops rely on bees brought in to pollinate, Parise said. The hives here belong, for the most part, to small or hobby farmers, and the bees aren’t transported. Their migration is confined to their natural range, flying between 1 and 1 1/2 miles beyond the hive to collect nectar and pollen.
There are signs that populations of domestic bees, and perhaps wild bees, may be on the rebound due to better management practices, Parise said. And there is, he said, “some evidence that bees are building up resistance to varroa mites.” It’s too early to declare bees free of threat, however.
But in Alice Doyle’s yard, colony collapse disorder or no, scores of honeybees have flocked to a stand of tall yellow flowers, flying swiftly from flower head to flower head. It’s easier to bee line in late summer and early fall, Gilman said, because that’s when their food supplies are diminishing, and they venture farther from the hive to find nectar and pollen. Until a hard frost descends, they will continue to work from mid-morning, when it’s warmer and brighter, until dusk.
“Bees have one objective, which is to make honey,” Gilman said.
The trick to bee lining is that you must first capture one honeybee in the bee box, which is a small, rectangular wooden box divided in half by a wooden partition. Both the top and bottom of the box on either side of the partition slide open. On one side you place a piece of honey comb soaked in honey or sugar syrup: this is the bait. The other side, which is empty, is the first holding chamber for the bee. Windows on the top of the box show show where the bee is in the box.
Capturing a honeybee is easier said than done. You have to move fast enough to clamp the box down over a bee, as if you were bringing a net down over a butterfly. But with practice, Gilman said, it can be done.
Once the bee is in the chamber, you pull up the partition just enough so that the bee is lured to the other side by the smell of the sugar syrup. After three or four minutes, which gives the bee enough time to draw up nectar through its proboscis, you slide open the top door of the compartment. While the bee is feeding you can mark it with a white dot for identification purposes. When the bee is done feeding, it will fly out, circle and head back to its hive.
“She’s going to go back and say, sisters, you wouldn’t believe in it, you can bathe in that stuff over there,” Gilman said, watching the first honeybee winging toward the hive up the road.
Within 15 minutes the first bee, recognizable by the faint white dot on its back, had returned, bringing two other bees with it. Bees use the sun, and geo-magnetic fields, to orient themselves and navigate, Parise said. Bee No. 1 dove toward the honeycomb, while the two other bees hovered over the box. “You can kind of tell the newbies because they’re kind of nervous about going in,” Gilman said.
If he were trying to locate a wild hive, the next step would be to move the bee box perhaps an eighth of a mile in the direction in which the bees are flying. You repeat the process of moving the box with its supply of sugar water until you get near enough to the site of the hive to either see bees going in and out of a tree, or make an educated guess about which tree the bees might call home.
When he first began bee lining, Gilman was struck by their intricate and ordered society, their ingenuity, their sense of purpose, their resilience and their relatively docile temperament. “It was amazing to me how tame they are, you can sit so close to them and watch them.”
To read about them, and then to watch as they went about their work, fascinated him. “There’s a lot to ’em. ...They’re pretty complicated little creatures.”
Thirty minutes after the arrival of the sugar-syrup-laden box, the bees had established a regular rhythm. Ten minutes to the hive, 10 minutes back. Each stop-over brought more bees. A bee box left out for a few hours, with enough sugar syrup in it, can attract a swarm of as many as 100 bees. “One-stop shopping,” Gilman called it. The air was filled with a steady, contented humming, and the flowers sprang back and forth. Around Gilman, the bees came and went.
Nicola Smith can be reached at email@example.com.