Stings

yellow-flower-(4) [1132313]I caught a wasp in the kitchen window with a glass and piece of cardboard, then let it go outside. I’m not much troubled by wasps and bees these days, although when I was a kid we used to be pretty terrified by yellow jackets. They were aggressive, could sting you repeatedly, and were pretty much everywhere we went. We sometimes took retribution against them by whacking the big, black-and-yellow bumble bees with badminton rackets, for some reason that made sense to a kid.

When I worked on the Navajo reservation, I learned first-hand about the relationships between insects and plants in the desert. There aren’t very many flowering desert plants most of the year, and pollination is heavily dependent on bees, wasps and other pollinators for their survival and proliferation. It was very dry, so I had gotten in the habit of using my wife’s lotion instead of after shave. We also shared shampoo and rinse, so like all young, recently married men, I smelled, as my brother would say, like a French whore.

Apparently what I thought would be attractive to women, was even more so to insects. On the job, whenever we stopped the truck, a swarm of bees and wasps and other flying insects would descend in a cloud around me. I tried to keep the truck windows closed (not a good idea at 90º+), but I couldn’t stay in the truck forever.

I learned that the desert flowers are deadly serious in their competition for pollinators, and have an extremely strong scent that can draw pollinators from literally miles away. Apparently, so could I.

Switching to a scentless lotion, deodorant and shampoo/conditioner made all the difference.

We were looking for a spring in the far corner of my Navajo territory in late spring, following one of the wettest winters on record. We drove down a series of plateaus like giant steps toward the Little Colorado River following a seldom-used track. As we neared the river, we came upon a vast field of blue flowers, possibly lupine, that filled the small plateau and almost covered the track, leading us to drive very carefully. The scent was overpowering — suffocating, in fact — and the air was full of slow-moving intoxicated bees. They landed on and in the truck, seemly too covered in pollen to be dangerous. We slowly transected the field and left the flowers behind, though the scent stayed with us for a while, as did the fat bees. They gradually moved off the hood and out the windows, and, finally, we could breathe again. Forewarned, we kept the windows closed on our return trip and could follow our earlier tracks a little faster, collecting fewer bees.

In more recent history, I used to have a similar, but less dramatic, experience on my walks by the college practice football field near my house in Colorado. One edge of the field was sloped to level the field, and the slope was thickly covered with native plum trees over an area about 160 yards long by 15 yards wide. They were maybe six feet tall, really shrubs instead of trees. In the spring when they bloomed, the scent was thick and sweet, and attracted all kinds of bees and other insects. It was a treat to walk along the edge and be bathed in the smell. The fallen fruit attracted all kinds of critters, including a fox that denned nearby.

We also had several bee hives in the hollows of the big, old maple trees around the neighborhood. It was not unusual in the spring to see a swarm covering a branch or nearby tree, when a second queen had escaped the hive to start her own. Hundreds or more bees would follow to protect her and wherever she landed would cover her up in a thick layer of bees resembling yellow velvet. We alerted the local beekeepers, who gladly came and collected the swarm.

A few years ago, we finally had to remove our old maple, but we worked with the tree people to bring in a beekeeper to collect the hive before it went down. They complained about a few stings and some extra trouble, but the hive was successfully removed.

Recently, the school upgraded their practice field and took out the slope and all the plum trees. Between the loss of the hive in our yard and the loss of the plum forest, I seem to be seeing fewer bees these days. We certainly haven’t had a swarm in the neighborhood for a couple of years, and I understand that bees are threatened everywhere by overuse of pesticides.

We seldom, if ever, use pesticides and we’ve consciously planted or encouraged more flowering native plants in our yard as a hopeful small step to help support the bees. They do so much for us, and we humans generally treat them badly, so maybe every little effort helps. I encourage you to do what you can as well.

As, I think, Shakespeare said, “To bee or not to bee, that is the question.”

How will you bee?

See The Xerxes Society for good bee tips.

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