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.