Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Bees

Only a few, curious and confused, linger by the opening now. The process has gone more quickly than they predicted. “Don’t be surprised if they’re still around for a few days,” said Gerhard. “When the workers return, they may gather at the opening and form a clump,” said Chris, “but then they’ll calm down and go inside.”

My daughter first noticed the bees: “MOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM! THERE ARE BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES IN MY CLOSET!” I shooed my daughter out of the room and then shooed the dozen bees out the window in her closet. Weird, I thought. Where did those bees come from?

I went outside, checked around, didn’t find anything. Hmmm, very weird.

The next morning, doing whatever it is I randomly do in the morning, I saw them: just a few--but very focused--bees working the corner of the house by the roofline. Some hovered and watched as others went in and out under the fascia between the top of the adobe and the eaves. A few buzzed around the connecting wall.

I knew this wasn’t good. Although there were only maybe 50 bees hanging around at this point, they had to be the first wave, and more were sure to come. Something had to be done.

Next stop, internet. I found out pretty quickly that googling <“bee removal” city> will just take you straight to extermination companies. I wanted something better for my bees. (By now, of course, they were “my bees.” Of course.)

Better was <”bee keepers” city>. That search led me to a local fellow, Pete Holtzen, who was incredibly helpful on the phone, though he said that given my circumstances (adobe house, tile roof), there was no way he could save the bees. He also mentioned that they were almost 100% certain to be Africanized bees.

So he referred me to Gerhard of All Cities Pest Control (the words “pest control” stinging my ears). He said Gerhard was the only person he referred to. After I checked out Gerhard’s credentials, I understood why.

Gerhard Gengelbach has been in the business since 1969. He knows his bees and was the only Southern California bee professional invited to participate in the California Africanized Bee Task Force by the state governor.

Plus, he’s a hell of a nice guy. Each time I talked with him on the phone (there were several calls back and forth), he told me bee stories. Despite other recommendations from dear friends, I knew Gerhard was my guy.

While waiting for Gerhard to call back and confirm our appointment, I did more homework. I suspected that I would receive additional DIY suggestions, so in a preemptive strike, I tried, “how to get rid of bees” (the kind of search I would never ordinarily do). I came across all kinds of crazy stuff (moth balls, bug zappers, fly strip, soapy water), but most of the stories ended with something like, “Well, we tried everything but then had to call in a professional who told us that if we’d waited another week the 500-pound hive would have come through our ceiling.”

Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit. But these stories did help assuage my nagging conscience: As a general rule, I just plain do not kill things. Spiders are left unmolested, decorating my house with their webs; flies are politely escorted outdoors; errant rodents and reptiles are scooped up in coffee cans or toilet paper rolls and gently deposited in a secluded niche outside.

Tarantulas are safe here, as are rattlesnakes. So it was with tremendous cognitive dissonance that I embarked on this whole “bee problem” adventure.

I decide to check on the bees again (which I’ve been doing about every fifteen minutes since I noticed them), and as soon as I approach the front door, I know something is different. The hum is heavy, dense, unmistakable. Rounding the corner of the house, I see them: hundreds, no, thousands of bees coming home. They have gathered in such numbers that their sound makes it hard to think. Simultaneously thrilled and terrified, I watch the growing clump of bees on the roofline, their buzz rousing long-dead instincts . . . to what? I’m not sure, but I go inside to call Gerhard. “Ah,” says the woman who answers the phone, “they’re swarming.” I shouldn’t worry because Gerhard will be out the next day.

I grab my camera and return to the watch the bees. Everywhere, bees swarming, flying, buzzing—happy, it seems. The photographs I take show . . . stuff in the sky around the bees. I call it bee ectoplasm and ask on twitter if it could be bee poop. Yes, someone confirms, they do that when they’re excited.

So the bees are excited but also quite calm as I move in more closely to take additional pictures. I’m fairly certain at this point that they aren’t Africanized. In fact, I’m fairly certain these are the nicest and most intelligent bees that have ever existed. As the sun sets, the bees continue to gather, making their way inside the adobe walls of my home, their home.

Gerhard and his assistant Chris showed up right on time the next day. After a tour of the property—where Gerhard pointed out other areas of the house with signs of previous bee infestation—we returned to the bees. Gerhard confirmed my assessment of them. These were “nice Italian bees.” You can get really close to them. Not so nice are German bees—get within a couple feet, and they’ll notice. Africanized bees, of course, don’t want you in their space at all.

The “kill,” as they call it, was almost disturbingly uneventful: Chris went up the ladder and applied smoke to further calm the bees, then powder to kill them. I watch from a distance, again taking photographs. Gerhard has left by now, his curiosity about the adobe house satisfied. My stomach turns, and I take picture after picture, trying to distract myself from what is happening.

I relive my encounter with the bees so many times over the next few months that it becomes a sort of motif. For my birthday, a friend gives me a ring featuring a realistic illustration of a bee. In metals class, I make a pendant and earrings telling the story of the bees.

photo credit Anne Wolf

Another friend gives me a yoga mat with cartoonish bees on it, and after that first exhausting power yoga class, as I lie prone, eyes closed, relaxing for Savasana, the bees visit me. I can feel them in my hair, quietly, calmly buzzing. So real is the sensation, my throat catches. You are forgiven, their hum says. You are forgiven.
Months later, I will help friend Kim tend her bees as she checks the combs for harvest. Still later, we will head over to Cheryl’s ranch to work her long-neglected hives. I am happy—close in, sweating in the hot bee suit, relishing the buzz around my head, the bee bodies lightly tapping here and there, and I feel that we’re on the same side, the bees and I, as it should be, at last.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Twitter Scream: Plagiarism, Oh My!

this is original
Note: Although this post has absolutely nothing to do with chickens, it does relate to the other half of my sabbatical project, which is on "plagiarism." So it's goin' here.

One thread of my plagiarism project concerns the weirdness around notions of "originality," "individuality," and "ownership." We (westerners) have, I think, a tendency to see our actions and their results as gloriously unique.

Without belaboring the whole western-cult-of-the-individual concept, suffice it to say that we can hardly be blamed for this tendency--it's as "natural" to us as allowing 18 inches of speaking space per person in casual conversation (and just as arbitrary).

In actual practice, people come up with similar ideas all the time; we're in a similar environment, subject to similar influences, so why wouldn't we? And yet we remain convinced that "our" idea is our property.

I was first struck by this phenomenon several years ago while reading a thread on a Writing Center listserv (primarily used by college writing center coordinators, tutors, and composition teachers). One participant, a comp instructor, was outraged because another instructor had "stolen" her personal quote that she always put at the bottom of her handouts. The instructor was asking other listserv participants how she should broach this obvious lack of professional etiquette if not downright illegal behavior.

The quote? Something along the lines of "Writing is never done; it is just due."

Now, I'd heard that quote in many different versions over the course of my career, and I was pretty sure it wasn't from one of this instructor's handouts. So I did a Google search and found references to the same sentiment going back to at least the 1940s. Possibly the instructor had come across one of these versions, forgotten it, and then remembered it later as her own. Or maybe she came up with the idea "independently." Every writer knows the feeling of not having enough time to "finish" a piece; every writer knows that the deadline is often what determines "finished." It makes sense, then, that among thousands of individuals having this same experience, wanting to express it succinctly, a few would come up with something like "writing is never done; it is just due."

Recent case: Today (now yesterday, 26 May), Twitter (and subsequently, the rest of the 'net) went nuts with corporate hate when Etsy artist Stevie Koerner claimed her design of silver state pendants with a heart cut-out was stolen by Urban Outfitters. On her blog, i make shiny things, Koerner says that Urban Outfitters not only stole the design, but the name, and some of her copy.

Comparing the designs on Koerner's blog (the Urban Outfitters page is no longer up), you can see that the designs are almost identical. But is one so unique that the other can be called a rip-off? State charms have been around for ages. The outline of a state is not a work of art (at least not anymore). And the "I heart X" sentiment (or product name) can hardly be claimed to be original to Koerner. In fact I ♥ New York and I ♥ Vermont have been cliches for as long as I can remember.

As for Koerner's claims about the lifted copy, I was baffled until the Huffington Post enlightened me. Apparently "wear your locale love" (Urban Outfitters) is a blatant rip-off of "wear your love" (Koerner). A Google search of "wear your love," though, brings up over 13 million hits (many in reference to jewelry and clothing). Maybe not so original after all.

To support her claim that Urban Outfitters "have stolen designs from plenty of other artists," Koerner includes a link to a Village Voice blog piece, ironically itself a patchwork of other source material (linked, but mostly unnamed): The Brooklyn Paper points to a ribcage pendant, a shark jaw necklace--these objects are even more generic. Stylelist highlights a "legalize it" maple-leaf design . . . hmm, maybe they both ripped off the marijuana leaf guy? The Consumerist presents perhaps the best case against Urban Outfitters, a rip-off of Johnny Cupcake's cupcake-dropping-bomber t-shirt design (especially as he had submitted a similar design to Urban Outfitters). Then again, even this article points out "the whole 'dropping a bomb of x' concept isn't really new."

I think that as artists/writers/designers, we can be more aware of the cultural conditioning that casts us as "individuals" and denies our common ties. We can be more honest with ourselves about how "original" our stuff is. And we can be willing to acknowledge that even if we never thought of it before, it doesn't mean someone else hasn't. Jumping to conclusions about being ripped-off, whether it's plagiarism or design-stealing, diminishes the seriousness of these offenses. It also makes a lot of well-meaning people look pretty foolish.

Post-script: Just came across this wonderful post on the blog Regretsy, which goes into more detail on the "originality" question. Go read it right now!