I’m sitting at my desk. Dark and stormy outside. Juwels, spent after the day's events, is asleep on the futon in the piano room. We both laid there for a while,listening to an audio book, but then I woke up to find her sleeping on my shoulder, and her head felt heavy on me, and I felt a clarity in my head that meant I wouldn’t sleep again for a while. I made coffee and scooped vanilla ice cream on top, and now here I am. Warming up my hands, watching the grey clouds pass through the wall of windows and feeling the breeze from the open window to my left.
The goats are sleeping under the packing table, happy to be out of the rain, chewing their cud, and breathing this indoor air and exhaling their magic. And I imagine the indoor plants soak it up, non-grounded, hanging, potted, but happy to have the out breath of man and beast and sleeping beauty.
Yesterday was a long day. Starting early with a bee swarm catch 50 miles south of here, down from the mountain and in the desert, which was still hot in my bee suit even in mid September. We got a call the day before, just before dinner, while we were still down in Sedona.
“It’s the lady who lives next door to where we used to keep the hives in the desert,” Juwels said to her visiting sister as she answered the phone and walked away from the parked truck.
“You’re kidding?” I heard her say, and I thought the lady might be calling to say that our bees had attacked her dogs or something, but we’d moved our bees up onto the mountain for a feast of wildflowers almost two months ago.
“So they’re just hanging in your tree?” Juwels asked. “How big of a clump would you say it is?”
And I knew it was a swarm. We’d given this woman our number on one of our first visits to the desert, just in case there was ever a problem, but we’d also mentioned that she should share our number with any of her friends if they found a swarm that we could relocate.
It was late, and there was still dinner to make up on the hill in Flagstaff, and we were all a little groggy from sleeping in the heat of the day at Buddha Beach. And Lily was in town all the way from New York. But bees in a cluster at this time of year would never make it on their own. The mesquite had stopped blooming down there, and the Cat Claw, too. They’d never have enough time to follow the scouts to the location, build comb, and fill it with winter stores of honey before the freeze, so we’d have to come save them. We wanted to, of course. But it had already been a long day, and we were tired, and Camp Verde was a good hundred miles of driving, climbing ladders, and shaking bees. And Juwels had chili to make. So I said I’d go alone.
Back up on the mountain, I picked through old frames of honey comb, filled a box, found the straps, and plugged the entrance hole with beeswax to keep everybody inside when I raced back up the hill at seventy five miles an hour.
They hold over in these clusters when their tanks run dry during the swarm, or if there’s a problem with the location for the new hive, and they need to rest and regroup while the scouts find another suitable place.
I was being lazy before. Not wanting to drive and struggle with the swarm and trying to get them off the tree and into the box. But there was a Queen in there, a swarm of chosen workers and nurse bees, and maybe even some babies who’d been invited to make the split. There were all the makings of life, minus the hive and stability of the honey stores and pollen, and I’d be happy to see if I could get them to move in with us, and work the following season and enjoy life under our wing.
But then we got a call, missed a call and got a message. “Hey guys, it’s Karen. I just wanted to mention that the bees aren’t hanging on a branch. They’re actually on the trunk of the tree, up towards the top. So I’m not sure how you’re going to shake them into the box. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know what it looks like. Let me know what I can do. I have a big ladder and a smaller six-foot one. Okay, thanks guys. Bye.”
So that was it. There’d be no way for me to do it on my own, and Juwels said to just to wait for her, and that she’d come the next morning. Early. And that we’d do it before she headed off with everybody to the Grand Canyon.
That sounded good to me, and I took a shower, put away the tools, and sat in my padded rocking chair with little Chia on my lap and a hot water bottle behind my poor neck, which I’d thrown out sleeping the night before last.
The chili was slow coming, and we ate late with the shredded cheese sticking to the spoons, and pads of butter melting on the blue corn cakes with honey. Night sucked us under, and we woke an hour later than we wanted to, but hit the road with the feeling of adventure as the sweetener to our thermos of strong dandelion root tea.
Jack rabbits ran in our path on the last line of dirt roads, and we slowed to a crawl beside the chain-link pens of the neighbor’s yard. Juwels squealed and called all sorts of things at the three bearded dwarf goats and big black Nubian. She sounded like a child begging for something, or finally receiving something which tickled her, and then we crossed the bridge and found the house at the bottom of a steep dirt road that caused the front-heavy truck to slide out and kick up rocks.
Karen flagged us down the drive, and pointed to a tall skinny pine with a small dark lump near its tip. We talked as she showed me where the ladder was, and I tucked it into the resistance of the lower branches, crawled around and shimmed a floating leg, and climbed up to take a look. They were in two clusters, with the higher one being much smaller. Why two clusters, I wondered. Could the Queen be in the upper? Shrouded by security, but kept cooler than she’d be within the bigger ball below? Should I try to sweep that one into the box first?
I put on my suit and tall leather boots, but soon after changed them for my open-ankle hiking sneakers when the wooden heal of my boot slipped on the upper step, almost sending me eight feet down through branches and onto a small but fully-functional metal windmill.
Juwels steadied the ladder below, wearing a suit but no gloves, and in just a minute, she’d shed her veil below the cloud of confused and buzzing, but very sweet bees. Karen watched from the sidelines and talked and smoked in her cast iron loveseat.
Normally, you want to shake the bees directly into a hive box with honey comb, this way the bees fall into a familiar situation and more of them stay. But this clump of bees was up high, and incidentally the thickest bunch of them were on the opposite side of the tree, away from me and above a steep embankment where I couldn’t setup the ladder. And I was happy when Juwels came up with the idea of just shaking them into a plastic bucket and then dumping that into the hive.
I hugged my left arm, the one with the bucket, around the narrow trunk of the pine and below the bees. I leaned in, off balance, but Juwels kept the ladder planted below, and I shook the tree violently. The bees dropped and floated and buzzed, and I handed the bucket down to Juwels.
She dumped the remaining bees into the hive on the ground, and many of them flew back into the air and back into the tree. We waited a moment, watching the ball of bees collecting again in that spot on the tree where the Queen had left her pheromone. A good group of the bees stayed on the comb, but I didn’t see any bee butts in the air “fanning”.
Normally, if you get the Queen in the box, you’ll find bees all along the edges fanning their chemical message to the swarm and letting them know that the Queen had changed locations. She was still in the tree, I believed, and not many bees would stay in the box until she was onboard. The clump over my shoulder was almost the same size as when we’d started, and I wondered if this was going to work.
A few minutes later, I hugged the tree again, steady, and then shook a good chunk of bees into the bucket, and Juwels dumped them into the comb. Karen offered us some raw desert honey for the job, and after smearing it on the walls and into the comb like thick marmalade, the bees seemed more inclined to stick around and fill their hungry bellies, but many more bees went back up into the tree.
I walked over into the shade, feeling the beads of sweat rolling down my chest and stomach and wanting breakfast and sugar in my blood, and Juwels set into the frames, searching for her highness.
“Oh !! There she is !!” she said, and I came over to see, and Karen joined.
She was a good looking Queen, small and tapered and natural looking. A fine Queen, and she walked around, looking over empty honey comb and no doubt sending signals to the colony. A few bees started fanning, reporting the location of the Queen, but probably speaking of the gobs of honey and comb, too. And bees started to drift in.
I shook the tree again and again, sending buckets down to Juwels, and finding that more and more bees were staying in the box, but many were still reading the Queen’s message up in the tree, too, so I lit the smoker, and stood there at the top of the ladder and bellowed a cloud of smoke in the breeze, and kept the stragglers at bay. We’d used citrus oil on the branch of another swarm before as a means of covering up the pheromone, and upon hearing this, Karen offered us some organic eucalyptus spray, and I coated the branch. I shook another stubborn bundle down after that, and then smoked some more. We tied the tightly sealed hive down in the back of the truck with the majority of the colony intact, hugged and said our goodbyes.
It was a good catch, and we couldn’t have asked for sweeter bees, and now it was time to race back up the hill to make food and drink for the day’s trip to the Canyon. I stayed back that day, and let Juwels visit with Lily and Anthony solo. A few days earlier, I’d taken a new friend up on a last minute invite to a private camp and hot spring just before Lily had arrived, and it was longer in the car and hotter in the camp and louder in my mind those couple of days than I’d anticipated, and with Sedona and now the swarm catch, I was ready to stay home and unwind.
I woke up from a daydream in the hammock chair with the breeze turning me slowly and the tree house creaking overhead like an old ship, and I found that it was almost time for me to meet with a craigslist buyer who was coming to take away the camper shell of the old truck.
Juwels was already staring into the abyss by now, listening to the many voices and dialects on the rim of the canyon with the sound of shutters and camera phones miniaturizing the Grand Canyon all around.
Clay, a young guy who reminded me of the kid from Donny Darko and also my dearly departed best friend, Brian, showed up right at three thirty, and we began our dance of unbolting the shell from my old truck and discussing the options for attaching it to his. He’d bought the wrong clamps and brought no help, so I became the volunteer foreman, with him acting as buyer and assistant. I told him that we could just drill and bolt the shell to his truck and skip the clamps, and he jumped at the opportunity to get it done and over with while he had use of my tools and help, and I made it clear that I was no professional, and that things could go haywire, but that I was happy to help.
He didn’t leave for three hours, and we just barely finished before dark.
For the old me, this might have been maddening. And if I was alone or with somebody who really knew me, I might have howled and growled and hated every re-do, every permanently misplaced hole in the truck bed and readjustment. But he had a great disposition for it, even commenting on how he excelled at obnoxious situations, so I had him on the more awkward end of the wrench, sprawled in the truck bed, straining for a grip on the bolt, and he was laughing and swearing near the end, and I just sat with it, taking the next rational step, forward or back, and I watched the cloud shapes above the peaks as I cranked the ratchet and kept an eye on the goats across the yard, standing on two legs and eating the ripe leaves off the neighbor’s tree, but never did I get upset or unpleasant, just more Zen and humored by the never-ending nature of it.
We finished, after drilling way too many holes into his new truck. And after I'd already put the drill away and come back to count the payment still to come, I looked at the tailgate lying open and realized that we’d never even made sure that everything closed right, and I said, “I just had a not-so-funny thought, but we’ll see in a second.”
He looked confused as I closed the bed of his truck, and then tried to close the door on the camper shell only to find that we’d installed it too far forward, and that it wouldn’t seal, so we did it again, faster this time, and I joked about how we should go into business together, and he said, “Yeah, right? But we’ll charge by the hour.”
“We’ll make a fortune.”
And in the end, he threw all his climbing gear back into the truck, and paid me an extra twenty dollars on the purchase price, for my “troubles.”
I walked up the hill and down the hill, returning the extra tools I’d borrowed from the neighbors when we’d hit a hard bolt that never broke lose, but rather had to be drilled out, and then I rounded up the goats, set them up in their nap spot under the packing table in the Hive, took a shower, and felt about as good as I’ve felt in a long while, the master of my own madness. Toying with that install, wrenches and hot drilled metal shavings. I’d won in a way I’d never won before. There was a kind of ecstasy in watching that situation unfold again and again and not letting it bother me for a second. It was as if I’d sucked its power rather than the other way around, and I looked forward to the next opportunity I’d have for a three-hour Zen practice of futility.
Juwels returned home shortly after, with stories of lightning over the canyon, and pictures and a fresh pair of native suede moccasins which her sister had made a present of on a roadside stopover, and we ate another late dinner of potato Indian curry by the light of many beeswax candles and said goodnight.
It was a long day, and a good day, and the bees are now setup on the hill, so far so good : )