No one in my family was as entertained by honeybees as our dog and our father. Woodstock loved to eat them, chomping them out of midair whenever she was hungry, returning home after an afternoon of snacking with a giant, hog-like nose and eyes swollen shut — completely unrecognizable. Dad was merely an apiarist who spent hours every week tending his hives behind our house, a stranger in the backyard suited up in an all-white bodysuit and puffing smoke at enraged insects. The rest of us just got stung.
It was worse for Mom: She was allergic. Deathly so, according to the hospital, so she kept bee sting kits all over the house and in our cars, casually injecting herself with adrenaline a few times each summer and checking into the ER. Even though I could walk coolly up to the fearsome insect and smack it out of the air, having a hive at our house excluded us as a destination home for any friends. Our nonchalance around stinging insects did not impress anyone but ourselves. Along with our vast array of homemade, honey-flavored health food, the bees were rather off-putting.
But none of these things deterred my father. In fact, merely keeping bees around was not enough — they were also a prized quarry. Dad always maintained a vigilant eye for un-tethered swarms, and he located his first free bees on a hot afternoon at a place called Blueberry Hill.
Blueberry Hill was, as you might expect, a hill in the Vermont countryside that was covered in blueberry bushes. Our family would take to Blueberry Hill late every summer and pick until our fingers bled for Mom’s canning obsession. Usually it was beyond tedious for my reticent brother and me. This particular trip would be an exception.
“Boys!” my father yelled for our attention from a hundred feet away, adding his piercing hand-whistle. We looked up from our pails to see him beckoning to us with both arms. Mom was staring up at a tree behind him. “Hurry now!” he bellowed. “Don’t have all day!”
We left our buckets and obediently plodded and pushed our way through the shoulder-high brush. It took several minutes and numerous blackberry scratches to reach them, but when we got there, Dad started whispering.
“Look up there in the tree!” We followed his finger point, but didn’t see anything.
“Look in the top part of the tree, boys!” my mother chimed in.
Photo by Flickr user DirectDishSure enough, a dark mass towards the top seemed to be humming, and I could just make out some insects flying around it.
“Now, back to the car and into our bee clothes! We’re taking that home.”
“What?” How were we going to get a bee swarm out of a tree and take it home? It seemed crazy to suggest such a thing; however, I did not realize just how prepared for this moment my father truly was.
“Let’s go, no dilly-dallying or we’re gonna be here all night!”
“I don’t have bee clothes,” I said.
“Me neither!” my brother piped up. He threw a stick for Woodstock, who went tearing through the bushes to look for it. Dad laughed his peculiar chuckle that he reserved for moments when he was self-assured of his position as authoritarian.
“I didn’t ask you if you had bee clothes. I also didn’t tell you this was optional, now did I?” He pointed at our orange station wagon, a quarter mile down the hill. “Now get down to that car before I box your ears!”
Dad had never boxed our ears — we didn’t even know what it meant. But he was easily angered and never hesitated to dole out punishment for an infraction.
“I packed bee clothes for you — they’re in the back of the car!” my mother said cheerily, continuing to pick berries.
After sourly threading our way down the hill for 20 minutes, we made it to our massive orange Chevelle ticking away in the sun. Dad was already at the tailgate, his beekeeper outfit spread out while he wrestled with a large ball of rubber bands. Chris and I stood there, unsure of what to do.
“Here you go, boys.” Dad threw a duffle bag onto the dirt.
“Do you think we have our own bee clothes?” Chris looked excited. I tried to imagine us traipsing around the hillside — a small, midsize, and man-sized trio of white-clad beekeepers — but I didn’t find anything like the outfit our father wore. There were just regular clothes in the bag. I pulled out a pair of parachute pants, a bright orange Wheaties sweatshirt I wouldn’t be caught dead in, my little brother’s ski pants, his zip-up vinyl jacket, two full-face ski masks, goggles, and couple pairs of old mittens. Basically, our bee outfits were clothes we thought we had thrown away but our mother had stuck in a box and hidden. Fantastic.
We dressed as our father came from behind the car in his outfit, carrying a chainsaw and a garbage bag. He looked liked a three-way cross between a HAZMAT worker, an asylum patient, and a chef. His little smoke can, used as a sedative for the bees, was already lit, and it puffed out a fragrant piney smell.
“Come on, boys, get your clothes on! I don’t want to miss this swarm or there’ll be hell to pay!” Dad started up the hill, and we struggled into our second layer of clothes. It would not be fun to wear in the afternoon heat, but I was quite familiar with angry bees and tried to cover all exposed skin. I watched Chris try to pull on old mittens in a panic as I put on my own woolen ski mask. It was itchy. I gritted my teeth with annoyance and anxiety and turned to trudge up the hill.
Dad was already trying to climb the tree, a bushel-sized black garbage bag in his hands, and Mom observing him from a safe distance. His jostling had agitated the bees, and they were noticeably more active, whizzing around the crown. There was a pronounced hum.
“Be careful!” Mom was visibly nervous.
“Just make sure you’re dressed by the time I get to the car!” he shouted back at her. Mom began gathering the berry buckets.
“Do as your father tells you.” She was no help at all when she was on his side, apparently believing this difficult and dangerous stunt was worth the effort. We watched Dad, waiting for instruction.
Dad succeeded in getting to the top of the tree, the bees now provoked into a brown cloud. He pulled the garbage bag over the treetop and the angry mass and tied it closed with a rope, effectively sealing the vast majority of the bees inside while they huddled protectively around their queen.
“Now, son,” he panted, pointing at me, “grab the chainsaw and bring it here.”
I suddenly flushed with dread, realizing I was about to be stung multiple times as I climbed into the center of Dad’s bee tornado. The sooner we got this over, the better. I grabbed the old chainsaw and began climbing. But the tree wavered sickeningly, and my father was swung several feet side to side as my weight taxed the pliable trunk.
“Hold up! Hang on son, climb back down!” There was a note of fear in his voice, and he grunted as he clung to the crown. “I’ll have to come down and get it myself!”
I climbed back down as fast as I could, put the chainsaw at the base of the tree, and ran 30 feet away to avoid my father, who was clearly the object of the bees’ wrath. An angry high-pitched buzz accompanied him as he clamored to get his chainsaw and re-climb the shaky white pine. Chris and I stood silently watching the events unfold, unsure of our role, but covered in old clothes and ski garments just in case. Bees were circling up to 30 or 40 feet from their queen at that point, looking for anything they could sting. I smacked one off my brother’s shoulder.
Dad sawed over his head and was through the trunk in no time. The top five feet of the tree, with the bag covering it, tilted and fell through the branches, leaving a vortex of bees circling the void. Bees suddenly seemed to be everywhere as they searched for their comrades. The bagged swarm at the foot of the tree was now making a fearsome, wailing hum. If those bees ever got out of their prison, it was clear they would kill every living creature for miles.
“I’m going back to the car!” My brother turned and began to run.
I smacked a bee off my leg, felt a sting on my head, and realized they were getting through the mask. I turned to run as well.
“Boys!” My father yelled for us, but it was too late. There was nothing he could threaten us with now that would make us get anywhere near him. We ran to the car where Mom was waiting, wearing her own extra layer of bee clothes and my Dad’s old bee mask — an ancient canvas cowboy hat with mosquito netting knitted into the brim.
“How is your father doing with that swarm?” she sounded uneasy.
“The bees are really mad!” my brother blurted. “They’re everywhere!!” He made a swirling motion with his arms.
“Do we HAVE to bring this home? It’s so stupid!” I dreaded the thought of being in the car with bees.
“Your father thinks they must be a very strong hive if he wants to go through all this trouble,” was all she would say. She looked concerned, but apparently she had no interest in confronting Dad over the bees.
“Here I come!” Dad yelled from somewhere nearby, and we saw his white suit bobbing through the brush.
“OK, help your father — I’m going to be at the turnaround point!” Mom hurried off towards a pond that was up the road. We watched our father pull his quarry out of the berry bushes and leave it at the side of the road.
“Well, you two were no help!” He pointed at me, then back up the hill. “Go and get my chainsaw and bring it down here this instant!” He started walking to the car. “And Christopher, get back up there and find my rope!”
Dad got into the car and started backing it slowly down the road towards his prize and we ran to fulfill our obligations.
By the time we got back to our car, the bees were loaded into the back and the tailgate was closed. Dad was sitting in the driver’s seat with his entire costume still on.
“Get in the damn car! We need to get this home right away!”
The car was surrounded by bees, all circling and looking for worthy places to inject stingers. Chris and I quickly got into the front seat with Dad and he took off at an unusually high speed. He switched the heat on full blast and shouted at us over the noise.
“Keep the windows down and the heat on, we need to get the loose insects out of the car for your mother!”
We drove up the road at high speed until we reached Mom, who was sitting on a rock with Woodstock, reading a paperback waiting for us. Dad honked and swung the wagon right up to her.
“Get in, Judy! Hurry! We don’t want the bees to catch up!”
Mom let Woodstock into the back seat and jumped into the front bench next to us, squeezing us in next to our father. Dad floored the accelerator and off we went.
The way home was a treacherous journey filled with buffeting winds, searing heat and lots of stings. My mother, brother, and I smacked bees off each other while my father whistled and drove as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening. As if he weren’t dressed in a full beekeeper outfit with two children in ski goggles sitting between him and his wife, herself in a cowboy hat with netting. As if thousands of infuriated bees were not flying around inside our car with a large black dog gleefully snapping at them in the back seat. As if none of this were the least bit unusual.
“John, I got stung again. Just drive me right to the hospital.” My mother didn’t sound panicked, just routine. Her days as an emergency room nurse had taught her a level of calm in these situations that would have normal people fainting from anxiety.
“Right-o!” my father said cheerily. His mood seemed particularly elevated since we had left Blueberry Hill. The new acquisition was cheering him up. We drove slowly through town, bees pouring out the back of our car and windows, and pulled right into the hospital ER driveway. Dad stopped the car and my mother hopped out.
“Kids, do as your Dad tells you.” Mom began taking off her gloves and walked stiffly towards the hospital doors.
“See you later, Judy!” Dad happily clunked the car back into gear and we tore off. Mom waved to us from the ER doorway, then suddenly bent and smacked her leg. Another sting. We saw her go inside as we left the parking lot and drove to our home in town.
My father would get help from neither Chris nor me. As soon as we got to the driveway and stopped, both of us vaulted out of the car and ran into the house with our hands flapping around our heads. Bees chased us inside and we dodged through doors and rooms to evade them, eventually finding bathrooms deep inside the second floor of the house and safely away from the backyard. We started long, hot showers.
Our father never said a word. He happily set to work putting his new hive together: Rolling out freshly painted boxes, new slats of wax, and lovingly slathering honey to create a new home for his new insects; enjoying the pastime as much as anyone might enjoy a normal, safe hobby like stamp collecting, building model train sets, or perhaps skydiving.