Tuesday, June 19, 2007

What's the Buzz?

An odd, out of place noise roused me from sleep a bit before I was ready to be done sleeping this morning--the sort of sound one associates with an electrical transformer blowing. In my experience, that sound is often followed, at length, by sirens, which would rouse the dogs to barking. But silence ensued...or at least the relative silence of roosters crowing the sunrise and trains bearing their loads along the banks of the Kansas River nearby. So I drifted off again.

At breakfast, I noticed a police officer measuring down the street at the end of the driveway, so my curiousity was piqued. I could also just make out the top of the cab of a white pickup truck over the board fence that separates my front neighbor's yard from mine, and blocks my view of the street. More curiousity. A fender-bender along North Street, perhaps? The sound could have been a minor automobile collision.

I also noticed that I hadn't gotten down to the end of the driveway yesterday to bring the trash can back to the house...the perfect excuse to go see what was up in the neighborhood. Because my house is set so far back from the road, my interactions with neighbors tend to be talking over our common fences, instead of meeting each other on the street. And in this quaint, old-fashioned neighborhood--like many small towns I've been around--you know that you are being watched whenever you set foot on the street, your presence noted, the subject of discussion (a.k.a. gossip) or at least curiousity. It's easiest for everyone if there is an obvious reason of out-of-the-ordinary behaviour, like me walking down to the end of the driveway without a lawn mower. Just in case nothing was going on.

What a mess! I wandered past the police car, the cable company truck, and down the street to the cluster of neighbors surveying the scene. A semi truck had failed to clear the low-hanging wires over the road. The integrity of the electrical supply wires had pulled a corner of one neighbor's house off, where the service went into his house! A spaghetti tangle of phone wires, cable wires, guy wires, and electrical wires gleamed in the morning sun over the street, while utility poles stood askew nearby.

Much head shaking. No phone service for several neighbors--well, many of us have cell phones anyhow. No cable TV--some people's first hint that something was wrong was not being able to view their morning news. Worst, no electricity for the elderly couple whose roof was damaged. But they'll manage OK. At least it's not storm damage affecting a widespread area; the utility companies can get right on it.

Walking back from the street with my trash can, I noticed the morning sun highlighting a number of low-flying insects on the side of the driveway. From the way they were orbiting a particular area, I wondered if there were a dead mole or something atracting flies. Or was the nearby pile of wood chips (for mulch)going through a decomposition process that was attracting some type of beetle to lay eggs? I walked over to discover a natural phenomenon I've long heard about, but never seen: a swarm of honeybees. Rather than being on a branch, they formed a solid, writhing blanket on the ground, bending down and entirely obscuring several small clumps of orchard grass.

Seeing the swarm in the gentle morning sun, on the rain-washed ground, next to the vine covered with green grapes, brought a smile to my face from somewhere deep within. "Welcome, bees!" I said. "Make yourselves at home!" I know that wild bee populations are struggling to survive a wide range of ills these days: fungus, bacterial diseases, parasitic mites, wax moths, and of course the mysterious Colony Collapse Syndrome. This swarm has, whatever their reason for displacement, had the good fortune to land in a place of welcome and relative safety. They might have been met with hysterics, or even Raid, elsewhere. The wood chips nearby are partly from a pear tree that neighbors had cut down "because they had children, and the flowers might attract bees that might sting the children." Later, when I told friends that I'd bound a swarm of bees, they both shuddered and looked terrified on my behalf--a response that both puzzled and amused me, but brought home to me that I really do live in a different world with different values than many of my "town friends".

I called Mason, who keeps his bees at Pinwheel Farm, and he was able to come right over. With a whisk broom and dust pan, he gently scooped up bees and put them in a hive he had brought. It was hard to disentangle the mass of bees from the grass, leaves, and twigs on the ground, but he was slow and patient.

I squatted nearby, taking pictures in the beautiful morning sun. I crept closer and closer, my fascination with the dynamics of the mass of insects gradually erasing my worries about being stung. It helped that Mason was right there in the midst of them, in jeans and a long-sleeve shirt, pushing them into a dust pan, and the bees weren't attacking him. One accidentally bumped into me during the half hour of watching them, but I didn't get stung though they were flying all around me. It reminded me of the bat that buzzed past me several times yesterday evening. They know where they're going, and don't want to bump into anything, so we all want the same thing. All I need to do is be slow so that they can use their amazing spatial perception and flight abilities to avoid me without accident.

After several scoops of bees had been dumped into the open top of the hive, I noticed that the side of the swarm nearest me took on a different appearance in its texture and motion. On closer examination, the bees nearest the hive were pointing towards the hive. More than that--they were moving towards the hive, walking over the ground and any companions that stood in their way. Mason began sweeping the bees toward the hive rather than scooping them up.

After most the bees were in the hive, Mason slowly put the rest of the frames in the hive. Then he brushed the bees off the top edge and put the cover on. Clumps of bees were still massed about the hive entrance, and there were a lot of stragglers making their way through the grass.

We both had places to be, so we left. On returning a couple hours later, there was no sign of the bees on the ground. Bees were coming and going from the hive entrance, just as they do at the established hive out on the pasture, flying off to forage on clover in the lawn and other flowers.

In a day or two, Mason will move the whole new colony in their hive to the area where his first Pinwheel Farm hive is. This will give them time to get established in their new house, as well as time for the lane to the pasture to dry out after about an inch of rain yesterday.

Where did they come from? We'll never know. It's possible that yesterday's rain flooded out a wild swarm living in a hollow tree. But wherever they came from, they are most welcome here.

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