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Bee Wise

What's the buzz about spring's flower and fruit-tree visitors?

 

Making the trek from our house to the gas grill out back lately has felt like a walk through some 1950s horror movie — Attack of the Bees. Not that the bees actually attack; they just buzz around the flowers on our fruit trees. So I guess this spring has been more like Invasion of the Bees or Really a Lot of Scary Buzzing and Close Calls with Bees, which I doubt would have played as well at drive-ins.

blossoms
Careful, that tree might be loaded!

In any case, for much of last month we could hear the bees in the backyard all the way from the house. Their busy buzzing was a sort of white-noise background to whatever we might be doing: "Do you (buzz) want any (buzz) more coffee (buzz)?" And, as I say, going from the kitchen out to the grill (thankfully, screened in by my oh-so-handy wife) meant running a buzzing gauntlet. I know, the bees had plenty on their little minds — harvesting pollen from our fruit blossoms — besides bothering me. But still, the chances of a chance encounter such as smacking face-first into a bevy of distracted bees en route to the grill (me, I mean, since obviously bees can't hold grilling tongs) seemed too high for comfort. Would the smoke from the grill calm them, like beekeepers do, or just make them mad?

It did not make me feel better, besides, to read about an attack of Africanized killer bees the other day over in Sahuarita, near Tucson. Something like 50,000 bees were found inside a 250-pound honeycomb in this house after they attacked the family's two dogs, killing one. (Seriously, how could you not notice 50,000 bees in the attic of your house? "What's that buzzing, dear?" "It must be the fridge making funny noises again." I actually did a newspaper story, years ago, on a house in Wisconsin similarly infested with bees — ordinary ones, thank goodness — and still recall how the honey literally dripped into the windowsills.)

I know our bees are not Africanized killer bees — probably — but how is one to know, exactly? Demand to see their tiny passports? Make them stop their buzzing and flitting to and fro long enough for a DNA test?

Having spoken of our bounty of bees to folks in town, moreover, we realized we should be grateful. In this era of "colony collapse disorder," apparently not everybody hereabouts is enjoying an adequate supply of bees doing their buzz-y work. Like so much in nature, we take bees for granted until suddenly they're gone. What do we do then — go out and pollinate 10 kazillion fruit-tree blossoms by hand? I wouldn't even know enough about fruit trees' sex lives to get it right. ("I'm so sorry, sir, I thought you were a ma'am! Is that a stamen or a pistil or are you just glad to see me?")

 

So, for the record, I am NOT complaining about our springtime bee invasion, however much excitement it may add to the chore of grilling kabobs for dinner. (In case of duress, I figure I can duel the little buggers, matching my pointy kabobs with their stingers.)

Nonetheless, bees and I do have a complicated history. While not exactly terrified of bees, I've had what you might call a "healthy respect" for them ever since early childhood. I managed to escape those years un-stung, thanks in part to the vivid lesson provided by the kid next door, a slightly older and thus more reckless (or, let's be honest, simply stupid) boy named Jeff. We weren't exactly friends, but were thrown together by gender and neighborhood proximity.

Apparently possessed of a brain smaller than that of a bee, Jeff decided it would be a good idea to catch bees in a jar. Despite his overall ineptitude, he finally succeeded at this and showed off the result to me, his agog acolyte freshly off my tricycle. And then of course he opened the jar for some reason — probably to torture his bee prisoner in some twisted boy-brained way — and inevitably the bee stung Jeff in the hand.

This taught me several valuable lessons, among which was that I didn't want to hang around with Jeff anymore.

 

Despite the usual boyhood close calls of being swarmed (well, if two bees make a "swarm") at swimming pools, picnics and other outdoor activities, I managed to grow up without being stung myself. The closest I came was actually from wasps, not bees, hanging around a fruit market when my parents took me on a summer trip to France. (All those years studying French finally paid off!) The whole market was like a spread-out wasps' nest, or so it seemed to me. Even today, when I hear "Paris," instead of the Eiffel Tower I think of wasps. (And wine, of course. My parents were quite surprised at how I guzzled the wine that came with the steak frites — I'd finish off my mom's carafe, too. The wine-loving has stuck with me far better than all those semesters of conjugating verbs….)

Then, when we were living in Pittsburgh and had a magnolia-type tree that dominated the front yard (and kept any sort of meaningful grass from growing in the lumpy shade), a bee strayed from the tree blossoms into our car, parked in the driveway with a window down. The bee made itself at home on the back of my seat in the car, and did not take kindly to my blindly leaning back into it. I got stung, right in the middle of the back. The bee probably did not survive our encounter, but I was in no mood to offer condolences back at the hive.

Oddly, that very same summer was also the first time our daughter got stung. We were visiting friends who had a cabin in the woods, and she traipsed past a hive in the ground. An occupant took exception to this intrusion and stung her right on the knuckle. Fortunately, neither she nor I proved allergic to bee stings. (How does one find that out, anyway, until it's too late?)

So don't tell me "bees won't bother you if you don't bother them" — although I guess being sat back upon might count as "bothering." Nobody invited that bee into my car, though! And it's not as if our daughter went and kicked at the ground bees, or tried to catch them in a jar.

Bees, even the friendly, necessary, non-Africanized ones, can have a temper. They can get riled up at slights that you or I would react to simply by posting a rant on Facebook or sending out a Twitter message ("This big oaf stumbled all over our hive. Can U bee-lieve it?"). Lacking such outlets, apparently bees feel they must lash out. To the best of my knowledge, no amount of anger-management therapy has been shown to ameliorate this behavior in bees.

 

So, yes, I remain wary around bees, even as I appreciate their pollinating efforts. As spring turns into summer and bees begin swarming around the feeders clearly intended for hummingbirds (what do they need, a sign? "Hummingbirds Only"?), I will even get a tad annoyed at them. Don't make my chore of cleaning and refilling the hummingbird feeders any worse than it is! It's bad enough having the pesky little birds zoom at the window as if to signal, "Feeder's empty, stupid!"

Last summer, in fact, I unwittingly carried a sugar-water-besotted bee right into the house on board a hummingbird feeder taken in for cleaning and replenishing. Here's the thing: Once you realize you have brought a bee into the house, there's no turning back. You can try to reverse course and release the bee outside, but it's just as likely it will buzz free while still indoors, and then what? Ruthlessly, I continued toward the sink, plotting to drown my groggy little passenger.

Just as I reached the faucet, however, the bee woke up or wised up and made a run for it (well, a fly for it). Fortunately (for me, not it), it was confused by our small bay window behind the sink, flying into it instead of into the rest of the house. Trapping it there, I cruelly sprayed it with Windex until it was soggy and flightless enough for me to murder.

Yes, I felt bad. That's one fewer bee to pollinate the planet.

Let's just hope that none of its family is out there on our fruit trees this spring, sporting a stinger with my name on it. I think it's probably too late to pin the crime on Jeff, the long-ago neighbor boy.

 

 

David A. Fryxell edits Desert Exposure with his ears cocked for suspicious buzzing.

 



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