52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks #1 – William Charles Strait

Relationship: Father
Screen Shot 2015-03-29 at 1.08.35 PM

My father’s name is William Charles Strait. He is a junior since his dad’s name also was William Charles Strait. He was born and raised in Newton, Sussex County, New Jersey. He’s attended school there, started a business there and still lives very close in Lafayette.

At one point in his life, my father kept honey bees.

In the 1940s and 50s, my grandfather William Charles Strait was the long-time maintenance man at St. Paul’s Abbey in New Jersey. The Abbey was a Benedictine monastery located along Route 206, just south of Newton in Sussex County. My grandfather occasionally brought my dad to work with him. My dad was also named William Charles but known as Bill or Billy when he was young. Through my grandfather, Dad was introduced to the hard-working, black-robed Benedictine brothers and priests living at the Abbey. The Strait family became close with some of the priests who made numerous social visits to their home.

At about 15 or 16 years old, Dad started taking on jobs for himself rather than just visiting the Abbey. He rode his bicycle back and forth the one mile or so from his home on Lincoln Place. He first began working in the plant nursery with Brother Nevard. Dad transplanted thousands of plants, especially in the spring, from their starter flats into larger pots.

My dad was then introduced to Father Augustin who, along with his other monastic duties, was in charge of tending the bees. That sparked my dad’s interest in the art of beekeeping.   Father Augustin taught him the basics and Dad also began making the wooden bee hive bodies for the monks to use in their hives at the Abbey.[1]

Before we continue with our story, we need a short lesson on beehives. Beehives have some distinctive parts. There is the bottom plate upon which the whole hive sits. The body of the hive contains compartments called supers. The bottom super is where the queen and her brood live and the queen excluder keeps her in this bottom section. Since the queen is Screen Shot 2015-01-11 at 8.47.23 AMsignificantly larger than the other hive bees, the excluder works by having slats spaced just far enough apart to allow all the bees except the queen to move freely between the upper and lower supers. The upper super is used by the bees to store excess honey not used to feed the queen. Each super contains eight to ten open frames which the bees use as a base to create the honeycomb. The whole hive is covered by an inner cover and a top outer cover. The inner cover is optional, but makes it much easier to remove the top outer cover when tending the hive.

After learning what he could from Father Augustin, Dad started keeping his own hives. He ordered his first “starter” bees from Georgia. The five pound package, which came with drone bees, worker bees, and a queen bee, all with a can of sugar syrup, was shipped right through the United States Postal System. The post office employees were quick to call my dad on the phone to say, “Come get these bees out of here, NOW!” when the buzzing package arrived. Occasionally he would order a queen bee separately. In this case, a block of wood with a hole drilled in it contained the queen along with a couple of drones that would feed her during the trip.

Dad had anywhere from four to five hives in the backyard of his parents’ home at 43 Lincoln Place in Newton. He also placed some hives in farm fields at two places in Sparta, two places in Johnsonburg, and scattered some in fields around Andover. The farmers in the area, like Post’s Strawberry Farm, appreciated the placement of the hives because their crops would be pollinated while Dad benefited from the honey harvest.

Screen Shot 2015-01-11 at 8.47.05 AMWhile he tended the hives Dad would wear ordinary long pants and a long-sleeved shirt tightly buttoned at the wrists and neck. The traditional beekeeping suit, shown at the left, looks a lot like a hazardous material suit and my dad chose only to wear one specific part of it, the bee veil. This is a hat, with netting hanging from the brim, and it covered his head and neck and protected his face from stings. Dad didn’t mind getting stung on the hands occasionally but firmly believed that getting stung on the face was nasty business. He would sometimes use gloves but mostly went bare-handed.

There are several thousand bees in any given hive whose sole purpose is to take care of all of the queen’s needs. My dad’s skills with bees included the ability to tell whether the hive was “queen right.” My dad would lift top cover and carefully listen to the hive activity. A hive that has a problem with the queen sounds quite different from a hive that is working in harmony. When he found a hive with an inadequate queen, he opened the bottom super, located the queen, destroyed her and placed a new queen in the hive. Things were then off and running again.

There are different species of bees with different characteristics including honey production, temperament, tongue length, color, and hardiness. My dad preferred the Italian bees because they were cleaner, better honey makers, and less temperamental than other choices.Screen Shot 2015-01-11 at 8.46.52 AM

Per the Bee Source website:

Italian honey bees, of the subspecies Apis mellifera ligustica, were brought to the U.S. in 1859. They quickly became the favored bee stock in this country and remain so to this day. Known for their extended periods of brood rearing, Italian bees can build colony populations in the spring and maintain them for the entire summer. They are less defensive and less prone to disease than their German counterparts, and they are excellent honey producers. They also are very lightly colored, ranging from a light leather hue to an almost lemon yellow, a trait that is highly coveted by many beekeepers for its aesthetic appeal. [2]

As opposed to the Caucasian bee:

A. m. caucasica is a race of honey bees native to the foothills of the Ural Mountains near the Caspian Sea in eastern Europe. This stock was once popular in the U.S., but it has declined in regard over the last few decades. Its most notable characteristic is its very long tongue, which enables the bees to forage for nectar from flowers that other bee stocks may not have access to. They tend to be a moderately colored bee and, like the Carniolans, are extremely docile. However, their slow spring buildup keeps them from generating very large honey crops, and they tend to use an excessive amount of propolis -the sticky resin substance sometimes called “bee glue” that is used to seal cracks and joints of bee structures-making their hives difficult to manipulate.[3]

The sticky “bee glue” is exactly what caused my dad to use Italian honey bees in his hives. He didn’t like the fact that the Caucasian bee hives were harder to pry apart since they would plug up any hole, crack or unused space with the surprisingly sticky propolis. While lifting heavy, honey-laden supers the last thing he wanted to deal with was a hive that was also hard to get apart. So, Italian bees it was.

A standard-sized super body is nine and ½ inches high and a hive usually consists of two of these. These supers can produce 80 to 95 pounds of honey and honeycomb in a year.   This makes for some heavy lifting which is why my dad preferred the ¾ bodies which are only 7 and ⅞ inches high and are 25 pounds lighter when full. When the hives got completely full of bees and honey, the bees would swarm. In order to prevent this, Dad harvested the honey, rotated the bottom super to the top, placed the queen back in the bottom, and occasionally moved the location of the hive to a spot more conducive to honey production.

At his busiest, Dad processed about one ton of honey a year. Some came from his hives but he also handled honey from the New Jersey state bee inspector. He had two large tanks in a workshop that stored the honey while it was being packaged for sale in bear-shaped bottles.

In 1966, I arrived on the scene, and my sister arrived shortly after in 1968. About that the same time my father gave up his part-time beekeeping when he started his own construction business based out of his workshop behind our house at 9 Merriam Avenue in Newton. He needed to concentrate on his fledgling business and couldn’t devote the time needed to the bees.  Dad says, “I sold the whole shebang to the state bee inspector, Jack Mathenias.” Jack must have supplied my dad with honey afterwards because I remember growing up with the cute little bear bottles as a staple in our kitchen cabinets.

I smile and think about Dad raising bees every time I pass a honey bear bottle on a grocery store shelf.

Screen Shot 2015-01-11 at 8.46.38 AM

[1] William Charles Strait (Lafayette, New Jersey), interview by Jodi Lynn Strait, 18 August 2013; notes on oral conversation privately held by interviewer, Tucson, Arizona, 2013.
[2] The Bee Source, “The Different Types of Honey Bees,” http://www.beesource.com/resources/usda/the-different-types-of-honey-bees : 2013
[3] Ibid.
[4] William Charles Strait, interview, 18 August 2013.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s