Excerpt: Biodesign Out For A Walk, Chap. 11, Matthew II
“Who can comprehend a submicroscopic, life-enabling molecule of information that can guide an ant or bee or elephant into making millions of yes/no, life/death decisions? Every one has its miracle story, none of which is humanly comprehensible.”
Although 2020 is officially the Chinese “Year Of The Rat,” in the Young homestead it has become the year of the bee. It began with a big spike in the Mason Bee population in our garden. Mason bees are mostly female who lead an almost totally solitary life with the only contact made while mating with males who typically die shortly thereafter. The males do not have a stinger, and the females will only sting if trapped or squeezed. This makes them an ideal neighbor for the home garden, since they pose little to no threat of stinging.
In many ways, honeybees are starkly different. They are highly social and a healthy colony may include 50,000 bees. They depend on each other and if bothered can be easily provoked. Giving up their lives, female “worker bees” can insert a stinger, usually attached to a venom sac, that injects venom into human skin. The sting is often painful and the effects of the venom can last for days.
None of the aforementioned information was of much importance before a tree-service crew arrived to fell one of our huge oak trees that was posing a threat to our neighbor’s property. The tree was safely lowered and it became my task to clean up the brush and saw the trunk and limbs into rounds. That’s when I discovered a honeybee hive hidden in the hollow of the tree.
While I consider myself a devout Naturalist, the prospect of being stung by 100s of angry bees was quite scary. I quickly invoked Charles Darwin (survival-of-the-fittest) and decided the hive had to be eliminated. When I shared this view with my wife Christie, she was shocked by the possibility of losing so many of her bee friends. Of course, I should have known that she would channel St. Francis of Assisi and her concern conjured up the words of one of the hymns that our family enjoyed singing in church:
“All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful
The Lord God made them all.”
“All Things Bright and Beautiful” is an Anglican hymn, also sung in many other Christian denominations. The words are by Cecil Frances Alexander and were first published in her Hymns for Little Children.
Having no idea what to do, I consulted a local apiarist for advice. She quickly discerned that, due to the size of the trunk, relocating the hive intact would not be feasible. She mentioned another option, but indicated it may take two weeks to remove the bees. Meanwhile, she was keenly concerned about the newly horizontal position of the hive and indicated that even one hot day could alter the structural integrity of the hive and possibly cause irreparable damage.
“Whatever you do,” she said, “ better do it at night to minimize risk to you and trauma to the bees.” Having no beekeeper equipment I had to improvise and prepare for an after-dark mission. My chainsaw would be needed to make crosscuts above and below the hive in order to return the trunk to the vertical position. Because of evening noise regulations I notified our neighbors and the local police about my pending soiree with the bees. The police dispatcher seemed amused with my request, probably because it had nothing to do with Covid-19.
A long-sleeved shirt and Levis would be covered by mechanic’s coveralls, wrapped with duct tape at the ankles. A rain parka with hood that could be cinched down tightly around my face that would be covered with a facemask. A hiker’s headlight was at the ready. Leather work gloves would hopefully protect my hands. Christie mused that I looked like medical personnel working in a Covid hospital. I double-checked the chainsaw and procured bubble-wrap to seal the entrance. I had never embarked on an operation like this and the fear of possible attack by a swarm of angry bees was palpable. As nightfall approached we both felt like we might lose our dinner.
Everything was in place and the bubble-wrap was quickly inserted. And then I was cursed by a double whammy of quotes: Whether Murphy’s Law, “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong,” or Robert Burn’s; “The best laid plans of mice and men;” the chainsaw refused to start. However, after using a couple of farmhand expletives, the motor roared to life.
I made the first crosscut 18 in. below the hive opening and rolled the round out of the way. Then I quickly made the top cut, 18 in. above the opening. The hardest part was repositioning the 300 lb. stump into the vertical position. As I wrapped my arms around the stump section, the frenetic buzzing of thousands of angry bees resonated throughout my body. I tried not to think of what would become of me if they escaped their temporary prison and attacked the source of the alien noise and shocking vibrations.
The section of trunk was secured in the vertical position and I fled the scene. I had brought along a 15 ft. pole saw that I used to retrieve the bubble-wrap, and then quickly retreated to the safety of our home. Meanwhile, Christie was texting every stage of the drama with two of our daughters. All three were cheering me on from at least six feet away from the hive.
As I write this, life in the hive seems to be returning to normal. The bees are busy flying to and fro on their busy errands.
We hope that the hive did not sustain any permanent damage.
I would not describe the experience as “bee’s knees,” but an adrenaline-inducing event that was hopefully once-in-a-lifetime.