The Swarm

My girls and I headed out to Pasadena this weekend for a sleepover at their Auntie Ali's house. When we pulled up in front of my step-sister's 100 year-old Craftsman house on El Molino, she was out on the front lawn, bracketed by her two huge Bull Mastiff's, Grace and Charlotte. All three were whimpering and wore worried looks.
"What's wrong?" I asked, looking forward to the Martini that I hoped was waiting for me inside the house. It had been a long, slow drive and I had been thinking about vodka since the 10/110 interchange.
"Bees!" Ali panted, "They're everywhere!"

Just then, as if on cue, a bee swooped past her head. I looked up at her porch, bees looped dizzily in the air behind her as though they had a head start on happy hour. I walked cautiously up to the porch, which was literally abuzz.
"They're in the house too. Tons of them." I was amazed at Ali's calm. She is a bona fide bee phobic. I have known this woman a long time. One Berkshire spring, nigh on thirty years ago, a single bee wandered into our freshman English class and Ali screamed, threw her copy of The Canterbury Tales in the air and dove under her desk. Eventually she ran sobbing out of the building. The fact she was relatively calm now tells the story of her extraordinary personal growth over the years. But still, she was very much not digging this.

Being good in a crisis and not particularly afraid of bees, I took the situation in hand. "I'm gonna go in and check it out," I said heroically, but really, I was just hoping I could shoo them away and get at the liquor cabinet. There were only a couple of slow, dopey bees in the living room, and a few more in the dining room, but then I walked into the kitchen and it was like I had walked into a B horror movie. Bees were everywhere - flying in through the open back door and the open window over the sink. I ran to the back door and kicked it shut, then slammed the window closed, then grabbed a copy of Bon Appétit and got to work swatting. I had fifteen down before I looked at the corner window, which was blackened with a veritable bee seige. I panicked, shrieked like a girl and high-stepped it out of there fast.
"That's a lot of fucking bees!" I gasped.
"This is what I'm saying," Ali replied.

I skirted the house, looking for a hive, but could not locate the bee source. Ali handed me a can of Black Flag flea spray and sent me back into the kitchen. I made one last stand, randomly fogging bees and the appetizers she had set out for us. I turned the spray on the seething, black hank of insects gathered on the windowpane. Many of them immediately dropped to the sill, overwhelmed, but I knew I was using the wrong chemicals. Aqua Net would have had the same effect. The less-doused bees got angry and started dive-bombing me and we fled back out the front of the house, slamming the door behind us. I herded my excited children back into the car. Simultaneously Ali and I started dialing our husbands on our cell phones with shaking hands. Ali's super capable and cool-headed husband was at The Last Mimzy with his own niece and nephew, and was not answering his phone.
"We need some bee spray," I said, speed dialing my own man and putting the car in gear. "Let's go to the store for supplies."
"Yeah Mom!" Franny my eldest exclaimed, "Let's kick some bee butt! We don't need a man!"
"Yes, of course we can handle this on our own honey... but let's also call daddy."
Luckily Doug picked up on the second ring. "Google us up Pasadena Bee Control, Honey, we've got us a situation here!" I commanded like Jack Bauer dialing up CTU . Doug pulled up numbers for exterminators, all of which were closed at 5pm on a Saturday. City bee services all had notices on their websites informing us that due to budget cutbacks, there would be at least a two day wait before a certified bee man could come rescue us. We were on our own. Why is it that there is never a man around when you're having a real bug crisis? How many times have I been cornered by a water bug or a wasp and my husband has been annoyingly away at work or some such piffle? More disturbingly, why do I go all Annie Hall when there's bugs? Can't I smash them with my own tennis racket? Clearly, I needed to set a better example for my daughters.

We were on the bug aisle at Osh ten minutes later, contemplating insecticides and fondling fly swatters in a rainbow of soothing colors. Georgia picked a blue one, Franny got green and Ali chose yellow. There were insecticides for wasps, yellow jackets, mosquitoes, cockroaches... but not for bees. A salesman in a dingy, curled-up Osh Cap informed us that in fact, it's illegal to kill bees in the state of California.

Of course, as a gardener, I know that bees are beneficial insects. But I never knew I could be cited for Apicide. Bees are the tiny, efficient hinges that our entire agricultural system swings on. Without them our state's farming infrastructure would collapse. In fact, bee keepers have reported a strange disappearance of bees from hives across the country recently and this mysterious die-off is deeply alarming. I thought of the tens of bees that had died at my hands, crushed beneath the glossy pages of a gourmet food magazine and the irony smacked me upside the head. No bees cross-pollinating the almond and fruit trees? Then no almond pear clafouti. It's that simple. I felt a pang of guilt realizing that not only was I endangering our delicate ecosystem, but also the future of desserts everywhere.

Ali, had no such issues. She was on auto pilot - her love of shopping and her fear of bees coalescing into an extravagant purchase of swatters and insecticides, yellow jacket traps and repellents for everyone. Thus armed, we headed back to the house. On the way, Ali left another panicked message on her husband's voice mail. Franny was getting fed up with us, "Look you guys, we don't need a man! We've got bug spray and girl power! We can do this on our own!" Ali hung up her phone in shame, and I drove on, proud to have raised the bar on future womanhood with this courageous, single-minded girl.

We pulled up to the curb and got out of the car and immediately I knew the bees were gone. The air was cool and still. In the kitchen dozens of bees lay dead and wounded, their tiny, pollen-laden legs twitching in the air. There was no hive after all, it was just the edge of a swarm, passing over my sister's house, looking for a long gone orange grove, or a stand of almond trees, or, maybe, a place to die en masse. If it was indeed the latter, they had found deliverance here with us.

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