Friday, May 11, 2012

Swarmy Weather

I stepped out onto the deck, yesterday, just in time to hear a swarm ascending from our bee hives. It took me a moment to spot it, as it circled up into the blue sky. I didn’t want to believe that I knew what I knew. I wanted to pretend that it was just a training flight of new bees or an aerial combat between two hives. But the sound of a swarm is distinctive; there’s no mistaking its deep, mysterious drone. We definitely had a swarm and that means . . . ACTION!

I called David, who came running. We watched as the swarm spiraled through the air, an expansive, swirling, spiraling ball of bees that slowly coalesced around an oak branch and, within minutes, formed the distinctive melon-shaped mass of a quiescent swarm. The only problem was, the mass hung over twenty feet off the ground, surrounded by densely protective leaves and branches. David made his pronouncement: too high; too hard to get; have to let them go.

At that very moment, our neighbor to the south, Mark, arrived and David pointed out the swarm to him, telling some old war stores of other swarm captures, in the process. Something in those tellings must have galvanized his will because, suddenly, David was heading to the shed for his 25-foot extension ladder and was jabbing it into the branches of the swarm tree, looking for firm anchorage.

Now, David’s mother, Frances, God rest her soul, once told me “never stifle a noble impulse,” and this seemed apt advice for this apparent suicide mission. So I raced to get the bee box out of the trunk of my car, where it’s lived ever since the last ill-fated swarm capture (see blog post “To Bee or Not to Bee,” April 2, 2012) and to collect our hats with bee veils and other protective gear and, most important, a roll of duct tape.

A couple of years ago, we had a swarm in this same tree, at about the same height. On that occasion, too, David used the extension ladder to get within range of the bees, who cleverly depend themselves near the ends of branches, where no ladder can be leaned. Using loppers, that time and this, he began clearing the field of action.

Meanwhile, I set about constructing, with neighbor Mark’s help, a repeat of the device we invented on that first occasion, which I christened the Chinese bee box. This consists of four 8-foot bamboo poles, duct taped to the corners of the cardboard box. Hoisted on these shaky extensions, the box can be placed directly under the swarm. David then shakes the branch, the bees fall into the box, et voilá! The swarm is captured.

Yesterday’s mission required that I ascend the extension ladder, too, as, even with extensions on the box it was impossible to reach the swarm without mounting at least four steps. As I was now wearing the bee veil, which is roughly similar to wearing dark glasses in a movie theater, and had duct taped my gloves to the cuffs of my coat, and my pants hems to the tops of my shoes, I was moving with somewhat less than fluid grace, and performed this maneuver, shaky apparatus in hand, with some difficulty.

So there David and I were, lined up on the ladder, the swarm mass tantalizingly out of reach to our left. I held the box up and out, positioning it as closely as possible under the bees. David gave the branch a mighty jerk. The bees obligingly fell into the box, en masse. And all seemed right with the world, except for my little part of it.

This requires your imagination: you’re about four feet above the ground – uneven ground that makes the ladder slightly shaky, to begin with; you’re half-blind, and bound in duct tape like a hostage; you’re holding up this ridiculous contraption that threatens to fall apart just from being hoisted; and SUDDENLY, about ten pounds of bees land smack dab on top of the whole outrageous contrivance, with a few hundred left over to cascade all over yourself. Even under your imaginary bee veil you can clearly see that this is a recipe for disaster!

Since I was holding the box out to my left, gravity was having its way with it,  and the box’s trajectory continued southward until, as my mother, God rest her soul, used to say, it was “listing towards Fisher’s.” Radically. The entire box was a hair’s breadth from going smash when I got my four sticks collected against my stomach, steeled my muscles and – as it hung wavering, minutely above the point of no return – slowly, by main strength, brought the box upright, again.

David was able to grab its top edge and stabilize it and down we came: me, sticks, box, bees and David, one perilous step at a time until all of us were on terra firma. We put the top on the box, took the bees immediately to the bee yard, and dumped them into a nice new hive. Then waited, on edge, while the bees decided if they would accept their new lodgings or not. And that, of course, depended upon whether or not we had captured the queen, because whither goeth the queen, thereunto goeth the workers, also.

It appears that we did get the queen. The bees who were outside the hive began docilely sauntering into the hive opening. Bees remaining in the box bottom and top eventually followed suit. And, through the combined efforts of bees and humans, a new bee colony was born.

Of course, this is not without consequences. Both David and I are limping a bit from the exertion. Southern neighbor Mark declared the entire event “complete madness,” and went home and invented and then manufactured a swarm catching device, consisting of a  5-gallon bucket on a pole, that far exceeds in utility the Chinese bee box (but may lack somewhat the latter’s louche charm). Some bees lost their lives in the melee, but not many. David was stung on the thumb, right through his glove. And we went through about 6 dollars worth of duct tape.

We sat on the deck and admired our new hive over glasses of ice water. My hair was plastered, soaked with sweat, to my head, as were David’s and my shirts to our torsos. Swarmy weather is hot weather. We were as moist and resistless as boiled potatoes. When you’re imagining yourself up on that ladder with the sun beating down, wearing a jacket and gloves, Chinese bee box in hand, add copious sweat, especially in the eyes, to your imaginings. You’ll get the picture.

"Well, that was kind of fun," David ventured. "It was fun! Better than a night on the town," I responded. " "Good, because I just got a call that there's a swarm up in the clock tower, at the courthouse . . ." 

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