A Swarm in May

by

Bruce’s cell phone rang. He usually looks at the display and sends the call to voicemail when we’re at the dinner table. Instead, he flipped the phone open and said, “What’s up?”  It could only be his mama. 

 His parents are seventy-seven and eighty-four. They are both active and fairly healthy for their age, but Bruce’s daddy had a heart attack ten years ago, triple bypass surgery soon after, and most recently, he’s had a pacemaker implant.  We used to worry when the phone rang in the middle of the night. Now, we hold our breath even if it rings during the day.

 He breathed out audibly. “I don’t even know if I have a decent box,” he said.  “OK, I’ll see what I can put together and I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

 “You want to go with me?” He asked.

 “Not really. I’ve got a lot to do,” I said, as I gathered up the dirty dishes.

 “You might want to bring your camera. My daddy’s found a swarm of honey bees. It could be interesting. The last time he was stung by a bee, he swelled up and had trouble breathing, remember?” Bruce said.

 The men in Bruce’s family are farmers and bee keepers.  They don’t do either for a living, but as hobbyists, they’re serious. Over the past few years, mites have invaded honeybee hives and populations have declined. When the last of Bruce’s parent’s bees died out, they didn’t replace them. We breathed a sigh of relief since his allergic reaction scared us.

 My worry set in. Swelling and closed airways don’t frighten my father-in-law away from honey.  I grabbed some Benedryl, and an epi-pen, along with my camera. We headed to the truck.

 Bruce’s parents live on a nine acre farm that sits at the foothill of Ragged Mountain.  Even in later retirement they continue to grow a big garden every summer, keep several head of beef cattle and work part time doing odd jobs for neighbors. Two weeks ago, Bruce’s daddy was cutting twelve foot pine logs and loading them onto a wagon without help.

 We pulled up, and parked. Bruce and his daddy went to work building a bee box from the scraps Bruce had collected and put on the back of the truck.  They sawed a board into fifteen inch lengths, replaced rotten pieces, tacked edges, and in twenty minutes had a hive box ready for the swarm.

 The bees had collected into a buzzing clot on one small low branch in the dogwood tree to the side of the garden. Bruce’s mama and I had scoped out the swarm to make sure it was still there while the box was being assembled. The branch still hung with their weight. Other honey bees flew back and forth like scouts, collecting and disseminating information to the mass.

 The two men came toward the tree with the box, a burlap sack, and a pair of clippers.  Bruce’s mama frowned.  “You don’t have your bonnet,” she said to his father.

 The bonnet is a hat with mesh attached. It covers the face and cinches under the collar at the neck.

 “I’m not using that. I don’t need it,” he said.

 Having been married to the man for sixty years, she didn’t argue, just shrugged.

 I’m brazen. “Are you sure? You know the last time you got stung, you had difficulty breathing.”

 He looked at me and smiled. “They won’t sting me,” he said.

 I lacked his confidence, standing there with an antidote in my pocket.  If he wasn’t going to listen, at least I’d be prepared.

 Three of us stood a good distance back from the tree.  Bruce’s Daddy walked right up to the branch of bees, held it in his hand close to the limb, and clipped it.  He was left holding the swarm at the end of a stick.  The buzzing mass started a mere two inches from his fingers.

 The bees didn’t fly off, they stuck tight, like they were glued onto the dogwood branch and to each other. The ones that were airborne continued coming to the place where the branch had been and others began surrounding my father-in-law, landing on his shirt, pants, shoes, hat and exposed skin. They lit, crawled on him, and flew again. He didn’t flinch.

  He bent down, holding the branch in front of the opening in the box, and lightly tapped the top of the bee box with his clippers.  He held the branch there for a full minute before he gently shook it, causing a layer of bees to drop onto the burlap at the front of the box. He continued to tap the top making a hollow, echoing sound. Every now and then, he’d shake off another layer of bees. They began crawling into the opening.

 “We’ve got to watch for the queen. She’s somewhere in the middle of the swarm,” he said.  “If she doesn’t go in, the rest won’t go either.  If she flies away, there goes the hive.”

 Bruce moved up closer to the box and watched as layer after layer of bees slid from branch to burlap and then crawled into the box opening.  “There she is,” he said pointing. 

 His daddy bent closer to the humming knot on the branch and pointed to the same bee, a little longer than the rest.  They both watched as she marched into the bee box.  Not long afterward, the rest of the bees disappeared after her.  Bruce’s daddy brushed the remaining bees from his shirt, pants and hat, and smiled.

 “Guess I’ll have to move the bed down here tonight so he can keep an eye on them,” my mother-in-law  said with a laugh, “and maybe the kitchen table. He’ll be down on this hill every extra minute.”

 He walked over to us, storing his clippers in a back pocket. Not a drop of sweat  moistened his brow. “Should be a good hive of bees,” he said. “My Daddy always told us, ‘A hive of bees in May is worth a load of hay.’  He was right you know. We’ve found some in June, but they’re more likely to take off on you and go somewhere else.”

 “How did you know those bees weren’t going to sting you?” I asked, fingering the epi-pen in my pocket.

 “Swarming bees don’t sting.  They’re tired, and more interested in staying close to their queen and finding a place to keep her safe than worrying about attacking someone.”

 “So you gave them a place to rest, and a home for their queen. What more could they ask?” I said.

 “Yep,” he said, turning and walking back up the hill to put his tools away.  “and maybe they’ll repay me with some honey later.”

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2 Responses to “A Swarm in May”

  1. curly Says:

    Great story, Train. I love those elders who still hold so many of the old skills.

  2. train-whistle Says:

    Thank you Curly,
    Hopefully we listen and learn. Once they’re gone, so are their stories and wisdom.

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