The Furious Gazelle

Literary as hell.

“A Swarm of My Own,” an essay by Leslie Hall

O, the bee drama.

Yesterday I took the day off work. It was supposed to be the day I painted my beehive in preparation for a swarm. Last month, when I was taking a beekeeping class, I had put my name on a swarm list. The swarm list is a list of local beekeepers who want to take custody of a colony that’s gone rogue.

“Gone rogue” is my paraphrase. There are a variety of reasons that bees might up and depart from a hive—this group of bees on the move is called a swarm—to seek a new home.

One reason is that the queen has gotten old and is laying fewer eggs. In this case, her entourage of workers, who up until now have been caring for her like indulgent ladies in waiting, who up until now have been petting her and feeding her, start mistreating the queen. They withhold food. They shake her. This meanness has a purpose: the queen slims down. Soon she is in flying trim, and when she goes, she takes half the colony with her. Still, the queen is not a strong flier, and the whole swarm of bees often stops to rest—in a tree or in the eaves of a building—while they’re looking for a permanent residence.

I know this because of the aforementioned beekeeping class. You might ask why I took a beekeeping class and my answer is: I don’t know. I saw a notice on Facebook and I felt strangely and mysteriously drawn to the class, though I have never once in my life considered beekeeping as something I might ever want to do.

Until the second class, I was sure I was taking the class just for fun, just to increase my store of general but not always useful knowledge. But then the instructor asked me if I had a hive and if I was going to get a swarm.

“I’m planning on it,” I was surprised to hear myself say. Truly it was as if someone other than me had spoken.

“You better hurry,” he said. “It’s late in the season. Call and get on the swarm list.”

That class was on my birthday. Later that night, I went online and bought myself a birthday present: a beekeeping kit from a beekeepers supply store. The kit included a full bee suit complete with helmet and veil, gloves, five hive boxes with frames, a bee brush, and some other necessary gear.

The beekeeping class ended with a presentation on planting a bee-friendly garden. I was happy to learn that bees like cosmos, lavender, and sage.

And then I waited for my swarm.

The last time I checked, I was still number three or four on the swarm list. I had almost given up on a swarm of my own because, as the instructor said, it’s so late; bees usually swarm in April and May. This is why, instead of painting my hive, I spent yesterday doing about a million errands and, with my nineteen-year-old daughter Erin, sorting and disposing of pieces of paper that had become an overbearing stack of nigh unto two feet high. This stack pained me each time I gazed upon it and so I paid Erin $10 an hour to work with me. I reasoned that Erin would keep me on task.

She did. Sorting and disposing of the papers in the stack—a stupid letter from the IRS in which they claimed I owed $8000 extra for 2015 (I don’t really, but now I have to unearth the documentation to show why I don’t), health insurance claim letters, bills, receipts, property tax notifications—was so unpleasant that at 4:30 I started talking about wine and at 5:30 I poured my first glass. When my phone rang at 8:00, I’d had two glasses and had just poured another half.

When the phone rang, I said to Erin, “That’s probably someone calling to tell me there’s a swarm.”

And it was.

On the phone was Dan, a beekeeper with the Santa Barbara beekeepers guild. He said the bees were in Santa Barbara and I needed to pick up the bees ASAP.

I did not want to pick up the bees ASAP because A) as woefully inexperienced with beekeeping as I am, I didn’t want to collect my swarm in the dark because if you have absolutely no idea of what you’re doing, how can doing it in the dark make it easier?; and because B) the aforementioned ingestion of two glasses of wine meant that driving to Santa Barbara was about the second dumbest possible thing I could do, the dumbest thing being driving to Santa Barbara at night to handle a swarm of live bees whose behavior might be unpredictable at best and aggressive at worst.

However, there was no help for it; the older woman in whose yard the bees had swarmed wouldn’t hear of my coming in the morning.

All right. I decided that one dumbest thing I could do was enough for one night. I would get someone to drive me to Santa Barbara. Erin doesn’t drive. I had to enlist Naomi, her twin, who was busy practicing cello and whom I was only able to persuade to drive me to pick up the bees by promising that she could use my car on another occasion of her choosing.

I put on my bee suit, zipped all the zippers, snapped all the snaps, secured the pant cuffs to my boots with duct tape (bees are crafty and might sneakily crawl up your leg unless you take such precautions), got my gloves, helmet, and veil, and we all piled into the car. Off we went into the night.

The drive took forever. I don’t think I was a pleasant companion. While Naomi and Erin chatted, I looked out the window into the darkness and worried.

I worried that I didn’t know what to expect. I worried that we would not find the house. I worried I would not know what to do when we found it. I worried I might drop the box of bees. I worried the bees would kick up a fuss about going home with us. I worried that in kicking up a fuss, the bees would escape from the box. Most of all, I worried they would wait until we were in the car and on Highway 101 before escaping from the box. I worried Naomi would be distracted by the bees buzzing about her head and would shriek and bat them away and get stung and drive off a cliff or crash into another car. I worried the escaped bees would sting each one of us until we went into anaphylactic shock and died together on the freeway.

I kept all my worries to myself.

While I worried, I also wished. I wished I had painted the hive soon after its arrival two weeks ago. I wished I had not been so eager to put my name on the swarm list. I wished I had waited until next year so I could have had more time to prepare for life with bees. Most of all, I wished I had not had that second glass of wine because of how I would have been able to drive myself and so experience all of my worrying and wishing in solitude rather than sitting here in this car exerting what felt like superhuman self-control in an effort to keep all my worries and wishes to myself.

We found the house, which might be considered a tiny miracle, because one of my greatest talents is that of getting lost, and in spite of technology and Google maps, I continue to lose my way now and again. But not last night.

I went to the door and rang the bell. It took a while for someone to answer. I waited so long that I started wondering if I had the wrong house or if I should ring the bell again.

I am so glad I did not ring the bell again.

I was expecting an elderly woman, but it was a man about my age who came to the door. The man who came to the door did not speak. He looked at me with a completely blank and hard face. He did not speak, but had he spoken, he would have said, “Who the hell are you and why the hell are you ringing my doorbell after nine o’clock at night?”

I introduced myself and said—unnecessarily, I thought, because I was wearing a bee suit, but he looked at me so blankly!—I’d come for the bees. I held out my hand.

He didn’t take my hand. He stepped past me and walked ahead to lead me into the yard. As he walked, he grumbled about how he’d had an appointment with someone at 8:00 and when he made an appointment, he kept it, he didn’t make people wait around; when he made an appointment, he showed up with all his tools, he showed up ready, he didn’t—he repeated this over and over until it became a predictable refrain of his grumbling song—make people wait. At first I didn’t understand why he was so upset as I’d never seen him before and as I hadn’t been the person who made the appointment with him, but as he went on and on, I understood that he had been under the impression that a beekeeper would appear at 8:00 and then here I showed up a few minutes after 9:00.

While he was grumbling, I looked at the ladder under a tree. On top of the ladder was a cardboard box about the size of three shoe boxes: inside the box were my bees. The box was loosely tied to the ladder with a blue string.

The man kept grumbling.

I apologized once, twice, another time, more times than I could count. I said I lived in Ventura and I came the moment I got the call. I said the beekeeper association was all volunteer; I said this, that, and the other thing, but when he kept repeating his refrain about appointments and making people wait, I realized I was talking to a tipsy person.

I put on my gloves, zipped on my veil, climbed the ladder, loosened the string, and took up the box containing the swarm.

I was just that moment congratulating myself on acting as if I knew what I was doing when I had not the slightest idea what I was doing, and then the man paused his tirade to ask if I had ever done this before.

By then I had stepped down the ladder and was carrying the box containing the swarm—carrying it so gingerly that you might have thought I was the unluckiest member of the bomb squad—to my car.

“No,” I said, which I see now was a mistake. I should have lied. I should have lied, because now the man had a whole new topic to grumble about. He began a whole new aria of how he never agreed to undertake work he didn’t know how to do. He only took jobs within his skill set. It was irresponsible to try to do something you didn’t know how to do, not to mention—and here came the refrain—how when you make an appointment for 8:00!

He was still grumbling when I tucked the box of bees into the back of the car, covered them with a sheet, and shut the hatch.

 

The bees stayed put and were docile in the car. They were so quiet that I worried about their well-being, but then I decided they were probably tired. When we got home, I put the box on a stand in the far corner of my yard under a lemon tree. As far as I can tell, they had a quiet evening.

I, on the other hand, was busy until after midnight, clicking from one website to the next and trying to learn everything there is to know about relocating a swarm.

When I woke before six the next morning I did not feel confident.

I felt the opposite of confident.

In spite of my complete and utter lack of confidence, at 6:03 a.m., I put on my bee suit, pulled on my boots, duct-taped my cuffs, and donned gloves, helmet, and veil before I went out into the backyard. I reminded myself to stay calm. I told myself that no matter what happened, I needed to move slowly. I told myself most strictly that no matter what happened, I must not shriek nor scream nor flap my hands nor run away. I would be quiet I would be still I would be a veritable statue of quietness and stillness and calm.

My confidence was not increased when I saw that the box had a big hole cut out of one side. I had not seen this big hole last night when it was dark, nor did I tape it up for the ride in the car. My mind flitted to What Might Have Been. I felt weak with relief. O God. O God. My mind flitted to a vision of bees angrily buzzing inside my car. O God. O God. What lovely docile bees these bees were. How grateful I felt, how much affection I had for these lovely docile bees that had remained quietly in the box from Santa Barbara to Ventura when they might have emerged en masse and terrified us.

I brought over a wooden hive box and some frames. Although the bees had been lovely and docile last night, this morning they were loud in protest upon sensing the movement of the cardboard box, and they were even louder when I opened the box to relocate them. Bees flew up. Bees buzzed. They flew up and they buzzed and buzzed and buzzed. Bees alighted on me, they alighted on my gloved hands and on my bee-suited arms and legs, and they wiggled with annoyance.

I stood absolutely still. I did not speak. I did not move. I calmed myself by reminding myself that even if the bees stung me, I would not feel it, I was safely protected by helmet, veil, suit, gloves, boots, and duct tape. I tried to be a quiet quiet calm calm me: the quietest and calmest me I have ever been.

 

What I was supposed to do: turn the cardboard box upside down and give it a thump, and then the bees would land in the wooden hive box. Then I was supposed to scoop out any stragglers and make sure I’d transferred the queen to the hive box. Once the queen and all the other bees were in the hive box, I could close it up. My final task was to stash the cardboard box where the bees couldn’t get to it, just in case they preferred the familiar scent of that cardboard box (which still held old frames with scraps of honeycomb) to the new pristine wooden hive box.

However. So many of the bees became so agitated that I ceased and desisted midway through. Not every single bee became agitated but enough so that I stood still amid the buzzing bees and despaired.

Worries plagued me. I worried I would never be able to move the bees. I worried they would die all at once or one by one. I worried they would fly away. I worried that before they flew away, they would devise a way to sting me. I worried they would not fly away but would remain, buzzing furiously, and none of us humans would never ever be able to enter the backyard again.

Leaving half the buzzing bees in the wooden hive box and half still in the cardboard box, I went inside. I took off my helmet, veil, gloves, and boots. I unzipped my bee suit. I called Dan, the beekeeper who’d alerted me yesterday to pick up the swarm.

I told him of my troubles.

Dan listened, and then he told me to suit up, get back out there, and move the bees. “Be quick,” he said. “You have to move them soon so they accept their new home.”

But he also said, “Be very Zen. Don’t be anxious. If you’re anxious, they’ll be anxious.”

I knew this was the best advice anyone could give me at this particular moment, but I also knew it was the most ridiculous advice I’d ever heard. When has a human ever once stopped being anxious because another human said, “Don’t be anxious”?

Regardless. I got back into my bee suit, zipped all the zippers, snapped all the snaps, pulled on my boots, taped my cuffs, pulled on my gloves, and secured my veil. I had taken several steps into the yard when a bee appeared in front of my eyes. This sneaky little bee had somehow gotten into my helmet when I’d taken it off, and now the bee was zipped in with me and flying an inch from my face.

I took it as a good sign that the bee seemed very calm, so calm that it seemed almost merry as it flew in the small space between the skin of my face and the mesh veil. The bee was not buzzing angrily; instead it hovered before my eyes in a leisurely fashion.

I pretended to be very calm too as I unzipped the veil, and with gloved fingers gently picked up the bee and set it near the hive.

Once again I secured the veil and waded into the buzzing fray. I picked up handfuls of buzzing bees and set them gently in the wooden hive box. I used the wooden bee brush with the long soft bright yellow bristles to gently nudge the bees from the frames to which they clung so they would drop into the hive. I turned the cardboard box upside down and gave it a thump so that the stray bees would drop into the hive. All the while, agitated bees registered loud protests, flying up suddenly, darting at me, circling my head, landing on me, and wiggling with annoyance.

And yet, not one tried to sting me.

Once most of them were inside the hive, I set the lid on top. I took away the old frames and the cardboard box and hid them in the garage. I stopped by the hive. There was still quite a bit of buzzing.

A few hours later, I went out to check on the bees. Although the buzzing was still audible, it was much, much softer. Almost all of the bees must have been inside the hive, but there was no way for me to tell unless I took off the lid, and no chance of me doing that in my civilian clothes. There were half a dozen bees patrolling the entrance, and another half a dozen or so flying above the hive. A stray bee would fly down and crawl into the entrance and another bee would crawl out and fly off. And then I noticed that throughout the yard, a bee scouted here or there. One bee gathered pollen in the yellow center of a pink cosmos. Another bee inspected a lavender blossom. Yet another hovered over the blooming thyme. And then I noticed a ladybug on a leaf of the pineapple sage and another in the nasturtium. And the butterflies: a very large pale yellow and black butterfly, two or three little white ones, and a monarch. And slowly winding its way back and forth in front of the purple Mexican sage was a furry black carpenter bee.

Now I was standing in my backyard only a few feet from the hive. I was watching the bees and the butterflies and the ladybugs and the carpenter bee and I was listening to the birds and in that moment I had no worries. I had no worries, I had no wishes, I had no regrets: not one, not about anything.

 


Leslie Hall graduated from the College of Creative Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara, and has a master’s degree in English with an emphasis in creative writing from Sonoma State University. Her collection of short fiction, Bad Girl, was published by Capra Press, and her stories have been published in The Bellingham Review, Spectrum, Quarry West, The Sonoma Mandala, The Village Idiot, and other literary journals. She lives with her family in Ventura, where she works as a freelance writer and editor, teaches classes that combine dance and somatic awareness, and is a backyard beekeeper.

4 Comments

  1. Susan Richardson

    August 26, 2017 at 4:31 pm

    This piece has humor and beauty; I love it and I can’t wait to read more of Leslie’s work.

  2. I like your writting style. Also, congratulations with the new hobby!

  3. Excellent, exciting piece. It makes me happy.

  4. Stephanie Westphal

    September 6, 2017 at 2:11 pm

    Wonderful essay–funny, insightful, and inspiring. Those lucky bees!

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