I was sitting outside on a sunny spring afternoon when a roaring sound filled the sky, as if twenty revving lawn mowers were flying overhead. I looked up to see a big black cloud of bees cruising down the boulevard at tree height, about the size of a small car tipped on end. The swarm sped past neighbors’ houses, and turned on a dime toward my house. I ran around back to see where they were heading, but they were gone! Disappeared. With a sense of dread and excitement I looked up, and there they were: 20,000 honeybees, hovering over my chimney.
What does a girl do when 20,000 bees swarm into her chimney at four o’clock on a Saturday afternoon? (Thankfully, my fireplace opening was blocked.) I called the city police, and they were great. Evidently there are beekeepers who will capture your swarm. Their fee is ownership of the bees, the honey, comb and profit. The officer called down the list of beekeepers, and 45 minutes later Tom Butts the beekeeper showed up at my door. That was my introduction to the bizarre, fascinating subculture of bees and their keepers.
Before I go into our many Rube Goldberg-esque efforts to drive the bees out, I have a confession. I love honeybees. My name, Deborah, is Greek for queen bee. I’ve heard about the worrisome drop in honeybees. Honeybees pollinate over 100 different fruits and vegetables, and in many cases are the only insects that can do the job, yet bees are disappearing, and no one is totally sure why. I’d even thought about getting honeybees (just not 20,000 of them). Saving as many as possible was critical.
The first thing Tom and I did was light a smoky fire in my fireplace. After a few minutes, a loud thump sounded and two thousand bees swarmed into my living room. The sound was deafening, intoxicating: like two hundred dentists drills all whirring at once. In Chinese medicine, to promote lung health you tap lightly on the skin just below your collarbones and make a buzzing noise. I now understand why: the sound of the bees made my heart pound, my breathing quicken. I felt electrified. It took us 45 minutes to gently urge them out the windows: no one was stung, but we were exhausted, and called it a day.
The next day, Mother’s Day, we tried all sorts of gimmicks to lure the bees out. We hung a ball of rags saturated with ammonia down the chimney, we pumped smoke through a tube up the chimney, we lowered a rock the size of a Nurf football until the rope broke and it landed with a bang at the bottom on the fireplace. Yep: six hours of antics and all we managed to do was irritate, not dislodge, the bees.
I started to worry. I read that bees are bad news for houses – they eat through plaster, wood, even brick. If and after bees move out, their comb is a permanent structure that future swarms will find and happily inhabit.
Yet exterminating them was inconceivable. In between our efforts, Tom the beekeeper talked. Most of the bees are female, the Queen is their mama, and they are devoted to the queen: they can’t live without her. Honeybees have a hierarchy of duties that start when they are young. They begin as housecleaners, graduating to care for the young, then feed the queen. Eventually they grow to be guards of the hive, and only a select few are chosen to be “scouts”: retrieving food and checking out new places and potential threats.
When a bee colony swarms, it is usually because they have outgrown the hive (in the springtime, when food is plentiful) so a new baby queen is born, and the older queen leaves, taking half the bees with her, leaving the other half for the new queen. As they leave, everyone takes a bit of “building materials” – bits of comb, etc – to quickly reestablish their home.
Quickly reestablish their home. Gulp. That meant in my home. We had to figure out how to get them out of my house!
Tom set up a bee box with sweet things at the base of my fireplace, hoping to lure them in, and for the next two days, my living room was filled with the sounds of busy bees – a soothing hum, as though twenty large men were contentedly murmuring Mmmm. Still, only a few hundred bees chose Tom’s box over my chimney. It was time to bring in reinforcements.
That’s when Jeff the beekeeper arrived. Jeff is the Bruce Willis of beekeeping. Whereas Tom reasonably suited up with white coveralls, masked helmet and long leather gloves before provoking the bees, Jeff just hopped onto the roof, dropped his flashlight-on-a-string down the chimney, and stuck his head in to take a look, a cloud of bees buzzing around his bare head. He told me he is also a firefighter.
“Yeah, putting on the suit’s a pain, but it’s fun when you find a fire worth fighting,” Jeff said. I felt in good hands.
Tom and Jeff came by early the next morning, before the bees were active, and used a “bee-vac” to gently suck the bees into a bee box and knock the comb down. The bees were saved.
After they left, I felt a range of emotions. We’d saved the bees.
As a mom, I wanted to protect the mama-centric bee colony, particularly on Mother’s Day. Yet we hadn’t saved all the bees: some died when we used smoke and ammonia. When Jeff knocked the comb down, it fell into a bucket of ammonia I’d left in the fireplace, killing tiny baby eggs curled into each cell of the comb.
I also felt oddly honored by the bees choosing my house. Me, Deborah: Queen of the Bees. By removing them, was I turning my back on my distant kin?
I may one day yet become a beekeeper, harvesting honey, helping in a modest way the world’s need for more bees. If I do, I will be sure to cover my chimney, and hope they find their home in my hive, living as content, humming honeybees.