“Don’t pull down on that branch! It’ll spring back up and shake ‘em off.” Erin had handled swarms of bees before, and I was following her instructions as closely as I could.
“I’m not pulling on it, I’m just holding it.” And I thought I was doing just fine. I should have listened to Erin. As I stood atop a six-foot ladder, I was holding the end of a branch above my head and preparing to cut it away with my clippers. It was just the empty end of the branch; a few inches further up though was a swarm of bees that had clustered together into a mass about the size of a ham. Bees, when they’re swarming, are not defensive and I was wearing a veil to cover my head and face, a jacket, and leather gloves. I wasn’t worried about being stung by the 20,000 or so bees hanging above my head, I was worried about getting those bees out of the tree and into a big grey plastic box I had brought along for the job.
What Erin understood perfectly, I didn’t understand before that moment: The bees weren’t anything like the solid mass they appeared to be. Only a few bees were hanging onto the branch; most of them were hanging off each other. The cluster had slightly less structure than a jello mold hanging in a tree on a hot summer day. And Erin was right; I had pulled the branch down ever so slightly. When I clipped away the remaining branch it sprung and about half the bees fell, mostly on my head, many in my box at the foot of the ladder, and lots on the sheet we’d laid out on the lawn.
Erin reacted calmly. She always reacts calmly. “Okay, let’s move on to Plan B.”
Plan A was to just cut off the branch with the bees on it, put the whole thing in the plastic box, put it in the car and drive off like a hero. Plan B was the more dramatic way.
• • • •
It had been that kind of day. Earlier that morning my cell phone had decided to die. The phone would ring all right, but I’d pick it up and couldn’t hear anyone on the line. I was at the grocery store and the useless phone in my pocket phone rang. “Hello?” Nothing. It rang again in the car. Still nothing. It rang to tell me I had a voice message. I couldn’t retrieve it. The phone did however receive text messages; My wife said simply, “Swarm!” I pulled over and tried to call her. Nothing. I drove home in a hurry.
“Rob called. His wife says they have a big swarm of bees in their tree and he wants you to go collect them.” My wife, Meghan, was as excited as a kid on Christmas morning.
I picked up the cordless phone in the kitchen. “What’s his number?” Meghan handed me a slip of paper.
“Crap!” The phone number had a three in it. A couple months before the phone in the kitchen had stopped dialing threes. I ran upstairs to get the other phone and called Rob.
“My wife hates bees, Phil. And I’m at work. Even if I wasn’t at work though, I would be calling you. I’m not dealing with a bunch of bees. She said it’s bigger than a football.”
Rob was at work at the fire house. He’s a firefighter – a guy whose chosen profession is to run into burning buildings. I think he was giving me more credit than I deserve. But I felt I could handle this. A couple months before, I had taken a class from Erin on how to handle swarms of bees. But until now it had just been on a slideshow at the library. This was the real thing. I tried not to act nervous, but I called Erin just to say hi. I got her answering machine, “Hi, Erin. It’s Phil. Just got a call about a swarm in a tree and I’m going to collect it. If that sounds like fun, you could come, but my cell phone’s busted, so you can’t really get back to me.” I left the address just in case. “Meghan! Let me borrow your cell phone!”
“It doesn’t hold a charge for more than a minute. That’s why I only use it in the office.”
I turned to my daughter, “Maura, where’s your phone?”
“Um. It’s in my backpack. But I don’t think it’s charged up.”
I pulled the pink phone from the backpack. She was right. Dead.
Meghan took it from me. “I’ll give this a charge for a few minutes while you get your gear together.”
In a few minutes I had collected the things I needed and was in the car headed across town, bright pink sparkly cell phone in hand. It rang. “Phil, it’s Erin. You need some help?”
Again, pretending to be calm, “I know what I’m supposed to do. I don’t really need help. Still, if you wanted to come by I probably wouldn’t turn help away.” I can be so cool sometimes.
Erin didn’t call me on it. “I’m going not far from there on my way home from work right now, so I’ll swing by. . . .” Maura’s cell phone quit.
A few minutes later while I was driving down a hill a pickup truck almost rear-ended me.
• • • •
Erin was standing at the bottom of the ladder holding a rope we’d tossed over the branch with the bees on it. She pulled the branch down so I could reach it from the ladder. “Plan B is the more dramatic way, Phil.”
When we’d arrived, in addition to the bunch of bees in the tree, bees were coming (from where we don’t know) and going from the cluster by the scores. When I knocked a lot of bees off the branch many of them fell as I described. I also should have mentioned they were now flying around the yard by the hundreds. I would have described it as pretty dramatic already.
Plan B was me on the ladder with the big plastic box spraying the cluster of bees with sugar syrup, then holding the box under the bees while Erin pulled the rope and gave the branch a mighty shake. At that point almost all the bees would fall into the box. Except those extra hundreds that decided to also start flying around the yard.
It was indeed dramatic. When I got back down again from the ladder Erin said, “Wow, you have a lot of bees on your hat.” She brushed them into the box. We shook bees from the ladder onto the sheet. We shook bees from the sheet into the box. Erin looked for the queen among the thousands of bees but didn’t spot her. After a while we noticed most of the bees were marching across the grass, across the sheet, and up the side of the box. Bees at the edge of the top of the box had turned their butts high in the air and were fanning their wings to send the “everybody together over here” scent to their sisters. We could only assume the queen was in there among the majority. After about a half hour, most of the bees were in the box.
It was past suppertime, so Erin laid out the end of the plan: “We gather up the sheet around the box and we put it in the back of the car and you drive home.”
There were still about a few hundred or so bees who hadn’t gone in the box yet. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah, if they’re in the car they won’t bother you. Something about being in the car – if they come out from the sheet they’ll just pay attention to trying to get out of the windows. They’ll leave you alone completely.”
I had to take this on faith, but Erin hadn’t lied to me yet. So I drove home thinking, “Now I really don’t want to be rear-ended.” And the bees left me alone.