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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Being with Bees

Air Date: Week of

Producer DMae (DEE-MAY) Roberts is used to buzzing around a lot to cover stories, but one recent day the buzz came to her -- and landed right in her front yard in Portland, Oregon. She tells us what happened when nature paid a house call.


CURWOOD: When nature pays a house call, everything stops. It doesn't matter if you live in the city and you don't feel particularly in touch with living things. Natural events have a way of making you put down that coffee just to take stock. Producer Dmae Roberts is used to buzzing around to odd and wonderful places to cover stories. But, one day, the buzz came to her and landed in her front yard in Portland, Oregon.

ROBERTS: A bright sunny day. I'm sitting at my computer typing away on a story. My husband, Richard, is outside working in the vegetable garden when he opens the door and tells me to look out the window. I grab my microphone and recorder.


D. ROBERTS (to Richard): Here, just take it. Ahhh! Ahhh!

ROBERTS: Outside in my front yard, brown and yellow objects flit by my nose and ears. Honey bees. Thousands and thousands. A swarm. Like you see in killer bee movies. In the past, when other people might panic and swat, I always knew that honeybees rarely attack because when a honeybee loses its stinger, it also loses its life. So I never felt threatened by a few cute little bees buzzing around my garden.

(Buzzing continues)

ROBERTS: But this is different. I let Richard take the recording equipment, swimming through the sea of bees to make his way to the camellia bush where the queen and about 40 thousand of her followers have landed on a branch. Cars stop to look at the two-foot clump of buzzing, moving bees. This is not an everyday site in Portland. In Oregon, wildlife often finds its way into the city. Not long ago a bear made its way across Portland and crossed the Willamette River before getting caught and returned to woods. But looking cross-eyed at a bunch of bees trying to land on your nose in your own front yard? That's a bit freaky. But not so for Richard. Did I mention my husband is the sensible one? He called a beekeeper.

(Buzzing continues)

RULE: Well, in a swarm situation like this, they won't sting you unless you pinch one or something like that.

ROBERTS: Bill Rule is 80 years old and has been keeping bees since he was in the 8th grade.

RULE: In a swarm situation, they have actually gorged themselves on honey before they left their home. And they're so full of honey that it actually would pain them to put down their tail to sting you. And so a swarm normally won't bother you at all.

ROBERTS: Mr. Rule explains that when a new queen is born into a bee colony, the old queen takes about half the worker bees (which are also female, by the way) to start a new hive. I thought that was very gracious of the old queen.

RULE: ‘Cause that's what they're doing. They're looking for a home. Some place to get inside. They would not have stayed out there in the tree like that. They would go inside in a crack into your wall of your house or your attic or an out building. Anywhere they can get inside is where they're going.

ROBERTS: So we're lucky that they landed on the bush, then, instead of inside our house?

RULE: They would normally land on the bush anyhow until they found a place to go inside. Yes, this is when you want a beekeeper to get them, when they're out like this.

ROBERTS: In fact, the honey bees might have taken up residence inside the walls of our house. When bees swarm in the city, they're looking for a dead hollow tree, which is a bee's ideal home. But often they find cracks and holes inside buildings and houses. I heard later, it's best to call an exterminator within the first few days. After that, the hive will start making honeycombs that could stain and melt through the walls inside the house. We're very lucky indeed that Richard knew to call Bill Rule, the beekeeper. And the bees were doubly lucky that it wasn't an exterminator but a beekeeper who came to get them -- a beekeeper who is now fearlessly standing in our yard with a saw in his hands. Quickly, Mr. Rule cuts the branch with the clump of bees, drops the clump into the box and starts banging on it with a stick.

(Banging stick)

ROBERTS: The queen and most of her workers are now inside this box that will soon become the bee hive. The cloud of bees still swarming around seem even more excited now. They're looking for their queen. Mr. Rule keeps beating on the box to attract the confused bees inside. He does this for about ten minutes. It doesn't seem like many are going into the box. But after a while, the cloud does thin out a little.

(Banging, buzzing)

ROBERTS: Mr. Rule stops, walks over to us, and casually mentions he's just been stung about five or six times. He laughs at my pained expression and says he's probably been stung thousands of times since he was kid. But he doesn't mind at all.

RULE: I think it's good for me. I know it's good for me. It's good for my arthritis. It takes care of my arthritis. I've known that for years. I've got severe, advanced arthritis in my neck, but I get enough bee stings and it don’t bother me.

ROBERTS: It's true that apitherapy, or bee venom therapy, is gaining in popularity as a treatment for advanced arthritis and even multiple sclerosis. It's been a bona fide medical treatment in Germany since the 1800's. And I hear there are actual bee venom clubs where people gather together to stick their hands into bee-filled jars. I shake off that image. Shots at the doctor's office are hard enough. And considering how many bees were just in our yard, I am amazed I haven't been stung. I look at the bees still buzzing around aimlessly. I ask Mr. Rule what will happen to them.

RULE: They will die. They will either go back where they come from -- if they come from somewhere close here, they will go back where they come from. If not, they will hang around here and just will die in time. There's no hope for them. They can't survive.

ROBERTS: But the bees Mr. Rule coaxed into the box will survive. He's taking take them to a field where a farmer lets him keep about 50 other hives in exchange for pollinating the crops. After Richard and I say goodbye to Bill Rule the beekeeper, we pause a while staring at the several hundred leftover bees buzzing around in circles. We stand and watch them on this summer day, a day when everything just had to stop because nature came to our house for a visit.


ROBERTS: For Living on Earth, I'm Dmae Roberts in Portland, Oregon.



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