Wildlife

Bees and "Bee Trees"

Bees provided an important addition to the diet of rural East Texans -- honey. In an age before refined sugar was widely available and while cash to buy it was scarce, homemade robbon cane syrup and honey were the predominant source of sweeteners. They were eaten in original form on biscuits and cornbread and were used to sweeten cakes and cookies.

Some such as Frank Johnson kept their own hives. To harvest the honey he would put on long sleeves and netting over his head to avoid stings and use a source of smoke to temporarily disperse the bees. He would then open the hive, which was a box made in several easily removable sections and remove the honey-filled comb. The honey would be taken the kitchen in a big dishpan and poured into jars along with a piece of the comb and sealed. The comb was made of a waxlike substance, and it was always a treat to chew the comb.

The bees in Frank's hives were probably originally wild and came from a "bee tree," which was usually a hollow oak. Skilled finders of bee trees would watch bees as they gathered nectar from flowers and follow their "beeline" back to the hive. Once the bee tree was located, it would be cut down and the honey "robbed" for the tree hollow. In some cases the queen would be captured and taken to box hives hear the farm house to provide a predictable source of honey to the household.

Wasps

East Texas is home to all sorts of stinging insects.

The most common are paper wasps, which if disturbed will chase you down and inflict a painful sting on any exposed skin. Both red and black wasps build paper nests with a honeycomb structure where the laid their eggs. Wasps build their nests under the eaves of houses, in small outbuildings and anywhere else they can find shelter from the weather. Less commonly wasp nests could be found in the woods hanging from trees. The nests were commonly 2-6 inches in diameter around the house, but nests of 1-2 feet could be found in the woods.

One summer the author hit a baseball onto the roof of an outbuilding, and it was trapped in vines that ran from the ground to the metal roof. To release the ball, the author whacked the edge of the roof with his baseball bat. Unfortunately there was a wasp nest under the roof edge hidden by the vines. A chase ensued, and he was stung several times before the pursuing wasps decided to return to their nest.

Removing wasp nests from around the house was always a priority. Before wasp sprays were available, ee'd use cane fishing poles to poke them and knock them down, but you had to be ready to run as soon as you poked the nest. At other times we'd tie a bundle of newpaper or other paper onto the end of the pole, set it afire and very carefully burn the wasps off the nest.

The sting of a wash really hurts, and we kept a small tin of snuff to treat them. We'd make a paste of the snuff and put in on the sting. That would "draw the sting out" and provide some relief.

A less common wasp was the small yellowjacket. Once while his parents were dipping water from a pond into a barrel to water cows during a dry spell, the author stumbled onto a yellowjacket nest. We all had to jump in the water to avoid the wasps.

Another stinging menace was the bumblebee, which nested in the ground and tended to do so under piles of posts and other debris. Stings were not a common, but they packed a powerful punch when they did sting.

One wasp that did not sting was the slender-bodied mud dauber wasp, or "dirt dobber" as we called it. Mud daubers build mud nests inside houses and outbuildings. Mud daubers are not aggressive and will lazily flutter around you without attacking, even when disturbed. Mud dauber nests are a messy nuisance that have to be knocked down and washed away periodically.

Snakes

There are four poisonous snakes in Texas, and all are found at Burke. They are the rattlesnake, the water moccasin, the copperhead, and the coral snake.

The most dangerous snake at Burke is the western diamondback rattlesnake. Fortunately, rattlesnakes warn intruders by shaking a rattle on the ends of their tails. The author recalls hearing rattles several times and quickly retreating. The rule we followed was never to put your foot or hand any place we could not see. We never stepped over a log without looking, and we very carefully moved brush tops or piles of wood.

The author's uncle Chester Johnson was bitten by a small "ground rattler" while playing under the house when he was a boy. The day before he had dug a hole with a spoon, and he reached into the hole and came out with a small rattlesnake on his finger.

Water moccasins are found in our near water. They are black in color and are good swimmers. On dry land they often raise their heads up into the air and open their mouths menacingly. The white color of the interior of their mouths gives them their alternative name of cottonmouth moccasion. Cottonmouths are territorial and will chase an intruder. The author and friend Johnny Rose once encountered several water moccasins in the bed of a branch, and they charged us and chased us down the creek.

Copperheads, like rattlesakes, are a terrestrial snake. They were fairly rare when the author was a boy at Burke.

The coral snake is the most poisonous but the least likely to inflict a serious bite. They are tiny snakes with red, black, and yellow bands. They look almost identical to the non-poisonous scarlet snake, the only difference being the order of the bands. The phrase "red and yellow kill a fellow, red and black friend of Jack" helps identify the coral, which has red bands enclosed by yellow (yellow-red-yellow) while scarlet snakes have red bands enclosed by black bands (black-red-black. Their mouths are so small that they cannot normally bite even a finger, and the do not have long fangs like other poisonous snakes. To bite they must chew on an area such as the webbing between the fingers. There are many stories about small boys picking them up and putting them in their pockets without being bitten. They are fairly rare and are often found in pine straw under pine trees. Coral snakes are

There were quite a few varieties of non-poisonous snakes, such as king snakes and chicken snakes. Chicken snakes would sneak into the hen house and steal eggs from the nest.

Squirrels

Squirrels are plentiful in East Texas, and they were hunted for food and sport late into the 2oth Century. In the 1930s squirrels were often hunted with single shot .22 caliber rifles. Bullets were expensive, and the rule of the hunt was often "one shot-one squirrel". Squirrel was usually fried like chicken. Even the heads were cooked, and the skulls were broken open and some considered the brains a delicacy.

Piney Woods Rooters

The woods of Angelina County were filled with feral hogs known as "Piney Woods Rooters". These were descendants of domestic hogs that had been lost by the Spanish missionaries two centuries before as well as by early settlers who ran their hogs in the "open range." The boars were aggressive and had long, razor sharp tushes that were very dangerous to humans and their hunting dogs. Stories of hunters having to climb a tree to avoid an angry boar, and many a good dog lost his life aftet being severely cut by a wild boar. Some such as Theodore Graham hunted wild hogs as game well into the 1960s.

Sources:

  1. M. Lee Murrah, Personal Recollections and Observations