May 2, 2005
Philip and I had quite the Gene Stratton Porter experience today. We’ve been troubled about the recent tenants that have taken up residence in our prize black walnut, namely, a swarm of honeybees. We actually saw them swarm a few weeks ago, and were pretty frightened by the sheer numbers—literally thousands of bees filling the air with a grayish living cloud, gradually settling on the trunk and marching upwards in an amazing semblance of rank and file. We knew that we had to get them out of the tree so that we could treat the problem that had lured them there in the first place, but as the days went by and we saw what peaceable neighbors they were, we were loathe to do anything to harm them.
I found a beekeeper in the Market Bulletin this morning, and called him to see if he would like to come and take our hive away. I could tell by his voice what sort of man he was, a mild, gentlemanly old black man who knew everything worth knowing about life in general and bees in particular. In slow, gentle tones he explained that he would do what he could to get the queen to come out, for without her the hive would not budge. I didn’t have to ask him when he could come—“Just let me finish my coffee here, and I’ll come on out.”
I called Philip immediately. “You’ve got to come home right now,” I told him. “I couldn’t bear for you to miss this!”
As it turned out, both he and Kevan, who had come to finish our barn job, were here. Mr. Scott was as mellow and placid as I expected him to be, and spoke in an almost continual low sweet murmur, like the humming of the bees themselves. He messed about with some paraphernalia in his car, drew out a white wooden hive, a bag of pine straw and an old-fashioned smoker. I was waiting to see his beekeepers garb, but in vain. He had filled his smoker with lit straw and mounted the ladder he had propped against the tree before I realized that he had no intention of covering himself in any way. When I thought how scared we were of the bees when they were swarming I had to marvel.
“Aren’t you afraid of being stung?” Kevan had to ask.
“Oh, no,” he grinned down at us. “These are friendly bees. They’re such nice little Italian ones—Law, how I wish they were still swarming, or in a branch or something! Then I could show you how easy it is—I’d just pick up the queen,” he demonstrated with a gently cupped hand, “slip her in the hive, and tap, tap, tap, they’d all file in.”
To say that we were astonished by his methods and demeanor is putting it mildly. He assured us that they wouldn’t sting—that the smoke would soothe them and that they only stung when they sensed fear by the vibrations of a rapidly beating heart. I smiled to myself as I watched Mr. Scott pumping smoke right into the hole in the tree without ceasing his lecture on their habits, and thought that there wasn’t any danger of a rapidly beating heart in that quarter.
We began by watching from a safe distance on the ground, but an overpowering sense of curiosity combined with a longing not to miss a honeyed syllable that dropped from this learned, simple man, drew us ever nearer until we all found ourselves standing at the base of the trunk gazing up with shaded eyes. He said that they wouldn’t sting, and for some reason, with bees swinging dizzily about our heads and tangling in our hair and landing on our clothing, we believed him.
“Oh, I wish she would come out!” he said, peering in through the smoke. “I just love ‘em so much! But she’s a young queen, young and naïve. I may not even see her among the others.”
He told us about the intricacies of hive life, held us fascinated with tales of the hierarchies of the bee guards and police and nurses and drones. He enlightened us on the mysterious secrets of royal jelly, which is fed by the nurse bees to a nymph that will develop into a queen. He plucked a larger bee from the trunk and held him out by his wings for us to see. “This one’s a king. You can tell because he’s larger and more filled out."
As the swarm exiting the tree became denser he pressed his face close to the trunk to see if the queen was among them. Strange, barely perceptible humming sounds broke from his slightly parted lips, and the bees began to assemble near where his hand lay propped on the rough bark, gradually clambering over his fingers and under his palm. He motioned with his other hand for us to notice their peculiar behavior. All of the little stingers were pointed up and a thousand tiny wings whirred and fanned in unison.
“They’re telling me where the queen is—or they’re sending me a false signal,” he chuckled softly, rotating the bee covered hand with easy unconcern. Catching my fascinated gaze, he leaned toward me, confiding, “You see, I’m a bee charmer. Yes,” he continued, as if to himself, “a bee charmer.”
This was too much for the boys. Soon Kevan’s hand was on the trunk as well, where a laborer stumbled over his fingers from time to time.
Philip scampered up the second ladder, which Mr. Scott had placed nearby to investigate marching action farther up the tree. Nursing the one sting he sustained, Philip craned to peer into the hole where Mr. Scott was listening with a stethoscope.
“The more I hear about bees, the more I wonder how anyone could know much about them and not believe in God,” he said.
Mr. Scott concurred with a leisurely nod and a wide smile.
“I mean, I guess you believe in God, being so close to the bees and all.”
Our queen was elusive. Even the thirty-foot ladd
er would not reach the congregation where Mr. Scott believed she was hiding, and with dwindling numbers still buzzing about the hole, he sealed it and patched it with dark brown caulk. I was rather sorry. I so wanted them all to go away together in his trim white box. But Mr. Scott reassured me about the scattered hive.
“They’ll always follow her to a new home. And if any bees get separated from their own hive, they’ll go and find another. But they have to knock at the door, and the guards come out, and they say, ‘Please can I join your hive?’ And if they promise to work hard, the guards will let them in. But they’ll watch ‘em and make sure. This is a young hive, and they’re good workers.” I remembered the scores of bees with their little legs loaded down with ‘baskets’ of pollen we had seen. “They’ll be alright.”
After enjoying the yard a bit, breathing deep of the ‘oxygenated air’, laughing over Caspian’s attempts to impress, and getting acquainted with the biddies—“Ohhh, I’d just sit out here and watch ‘em all day long!”—he packed his equipment back in the car with an almost nostalgic look around. He passed Philip his card and we both gasped.
“D.R.,” he corrected. “That just stands for drive—like drivin’ a car.”
With that enigmatic comment he was gone.
And although a search engine turned up absolutely nothing on “Dr. Milton Scott”, I know exactly who we are going to call when we’re ready to set up our own hives. How could we not now, after spending a charmed afternoon getting to know these miraculous little witnesses of God’s order and wisdom? And who better to impart the needed lore than a real, honest-to-goodness bee charmer?