Monday, April 2, 2012

To Bee Or Not To Bee

That was the question on Friday night when a fellow beekeeper called at quarter to eight, saying there was a swarm that needed attention. It was beside the pathway into the Visitor’s Bureau in Sonora and it was making people nervous as they went in and out. Could we go and get it?

“How high is it?” I asked. David and I have done some high wire acts to rescue swarms before, but it was already deep dusk and the prospect of a perilous ascent wasn’t appealing. “Oh, the guy says it’s in a bush, so it can’t be too high,” he responded. “Okay,” I said, “I’ll go get it.”

David wasn’t keen on the idea. He had an early morning scheduled, so I decided to go by myself. I’d caught other swarms single-handedly. How hard could it be? Just to be on the safe side, I called my friend Reggie and asked if she would help me. She had never had anything to do with bees before, but she was game. So we agreed to meet at the Visitor’s Bureau in half an hour.

If you’re not familiar with bees, catching a swarm sounds pretty heroic. But the truth is that the bees gorge themselves before they leave the hive, in anticipation of being without food for a considerable time. So once they alight for the night, they’re pretty passive. They hang in a big cluster, about the size of a watermelon, with the queen in the center to protect her. If you can get a box underneath the cluster, then shake the branch, the bees just fall into the box, and that’s that.

So I dashed around the house, gathering my beekeeper’s hat with its veil, leather gloves, a thick jacket, paper tape to seal the box, clippers, in case I needed to cut my way into the bush to the bees, and the big apple box with a fitted lid that is our traditional bee rescuing box. Because the bees really do need to be rescued. The sad statistic is that only 15% of bee swarms survive. Because humans have degraded so much natural habitat and because we tend to cut down the hollow trees where a swarm would prefer to nest, the bees have a hard time finding a new home, once the old one has been left behind. And in this case, a storm was due and unprotected bees would surely die, if out in the rain or snow.

By 8:05 I was at the Visitor’s Bureau. It was now completely dark but by a pale light from the street lamps I searched the bushes that line the walkway for the telltale melon-shaped mass. But no swarm. Then I looked up into a 30-foot redwood tree on the other side of the walk et voil√°! There was my cluster, about 10 feet up. So much for an easy catch! I managed to hook the branch below the bees with a broom borrowed from a nearby gym, and trimmed the foliage back in order to make a clear space for the box.

Reggie arrived and we consulted. Obviously, I couldn’t capture the swarm without a ladder, so she called her husband Anthony to bring his, which he did, an 8-footer. I erected the ladder, put on my jacket, donned my hat and secured the veil, and put on gloves. Then up the ladder I went, box in hand, with Reggie standing by, on my left. I balanced the top of the box on a broad branch, 2 feet below and to my right. I positioned the box directly under the pendant mass of bees. I gave the branch from which they hung a mighty jerk and three quarters of the bees fell into the box, neat as pie. And then all hell broke loose.

The bees, far from being drowsy and passive from both overeating and from cold, were furious! They attacked and, within seconds, had found a way under my face veil – although in truth it seemed that they came straight through it! I was being stung multiple times, on the lips, forehead, chin, cheeks and eyes. I managed to keep my cool and to get the lid on the box, which I left on the ladder’s shelf, and then I descended and ripped off my hat.

Bees where clinging to me and had found their way between my gloves and sleeves, and were stinging my hands and arms, too. Some had crawled up my pant legs and were stinging my legs. Most maddening, some were trapped in my hair and I was bent at the waist, trying to shake them out, doing the Bee In Your Bonnet polka. Instantly I could feel my lips beginning to swell and my eyes starting to puff up.

My little pruning shears were too small to cut the branch to which the remaining bees still clung, so Reggie ran home for her hedge trimmers. I knew I had just a short time to work because of the swelling, so I put my veil back on and went up the ladder to finish the job, with this large implement in hand. Now, it was not only dark but my eyes were in slits. I could barely see to remove the lid, position the box, and to find the branch and lop it off. The end of the branch fell neatly into the box, however, and I slid the lid on and then passed the box down to Reggie. Then down the ladder I came, mission accomplished.

Except the by then I had developed epicanthic eye folds and lips that were pushing past the perfectly bee-stung variety exhibited by Angelina Jolie, outwards toward what Anthony described as plastic surgery gone wrong, and my cheeks were swelling upward to meet my eyelids as they puffed downward. I stuck the bee box in the trunk, along with its flying trail of loose bees, and off we went to my friends’ house for Benadryl and Ibuprofen.

When we got to the house, Reggie started to laugh and, even though it felt like my lower lip would split in half if it stretched any further, I couldn’t help but laugh, too. We staggered around in the dim street outside the house and laughed until we cried. Then, decorum restored, we went in and I ingested drugs. Reggie and Anthony suggested that I rightfully belonged in the emergency room, but I resisted. I was fairly sure, by then, that I wasn’t going to go into anaphylactic shock. All I wanted to do was get back up the mountain and regale David with the night’s doings. As I drove through town, I noted that it was only 9:15. All that had transpired in just a little over an hour!

Driving up the mountain with Chopin études playing, I had a sense of deepest serenity and peace. Despite the storm clouds massing on the horizon, the bees were safe. And despite having just spent vertiginous moments on an eight foot ladder, groping in the dark, and having been attacked and despite of my rapidly worsening physical condition, I was safe, too. All several thousand of us fellow beings had made it through a traumatic time, relatively unscathed.

By the time I arrived home, my eyes were surrounded by gelatinous bulges where once my eyelids had been. My lips were contorted so monstrously that I couldn’t close them and had to keep wiping away drool. My cheeks looked like they’d been inflated with a bicycle pump and my hands and forearms were too swollen to make a fist. David was deeply alarmed but I was in great spirits. I insisted that he take photos for posterity. (You see, dear reader, how you are always foremost in my mind!)  Then we spent a few intimate minutes with him picking stingers out of my forehead and cheeks, while I rummaged in my hair to find the ones still stuck in my scalp. Then I went to bed and slept through the night and most of Saturday, zonked on Benadryl, Ibuprofen and bee venom.

It’s hard to say why this particular capture went so wrong. For one thing, I clearly didn’t close all the gaps in my protective gear, because of suiting up in darkness. Another factor may have been Anthony’s basic fear of bees: the smell of fear-generated adrenaline drives bees mad. Or this may just be an particularly aggressive strain of bees. Or maybe they hadn’t been able to gorge before leaving the hive, because supplies were short at the end of winter. Probably, it was some combination of the above.

In spite of the fact that it still hurts to type because of the swelling in my hands and arms, I have to say, however, that this capture will live in memory as one of great success. On Saturday morning, David put the swarm into a fresh new hive, just minutes ahead of a snow storm that the bees never would have survived if out in the open. And I had experienced the love and devotion of my friends, who were with me every step of the way, despite their inexperience and their fear. And David has been wonderfully solicitous. He’s cooked and done dishes and hovered over me with Benadryl, cold packs and tea. 

And despite the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, I managed to stay the course and do the job I went to do, damn the torpedoes! What’s more, I had faced one of the deep fears that lurks in the collective unconscious. They make horror films about this kind of thing. And yet, I had come through it, if not unscathed, then at least unafraid. It seemed to be one small step forward for humankind.

Keep in mind when you view the mug, below, that after this photo was taken –and not with a fish eye lens or of the reflection in a fun house mirror – the situation got worse: my cheeks and jaws swelled until there was a watery bag hanging beneath my chin, my eyes swelled shut and my arms and hands were almost unusable. Nevertheless, I remained in an unusually jolly mood, like the April Fool I appear to be. Maybe my brain was swelling, too! And that’s a big, triumphant smile on my face -- just in case you can’t tell!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

OMG, Suzan! You look exactly like me when I fell asleep in the sun in combination with a sulfa drug. Surprised you didn't go to the ER but I think your positive attitude shows your character strength. Be well. Susan C.