When nature intrudes, let it bee

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 7, 2013

I didn’t set out to operate a catch-and-release program for carpenter bees this spring.
Like many other things in life, it just happened, starting from a single, spontaneous impulse that turned into a longterm commitment, like thinking you’re going to eat just one oatmeal cookie and then realizing you have a moral obligation to finish the whole plateful. In one sitting.
The first bee turned up in the outbuilding a few weeks ago. Initially, it appeared to be a lone interloper that had buzzed in through the open door. It was crawling slowly around the floor, confused and disoriented, behavior I attributed to fumes from the degreaser I was using. Although carpenter bees can be a pest, what with their propensity to excavate wood, I was in a generous mood — sniffing automotive cleaning products tends to have that effect on me — and the bee wasn’t moving very fast. I corraled it under a plastic lid, slid a piece of stiff paper underneath and carried it outside to sunlight and freedom.
“You can thank me by not boring into the house,” I muttered as its lumbering flight carried it up into the trees.
Sometime later, back in the outbuilding, I was surprised to see the bee had returned, once more weaving randomly around the floor. I repeated the rescue process, flinging the bee high into the air and quickly closing the door.

By now, you may have guessed where this is going: A few minutes later, the unmistakeable drone of a carpenter bee penetrated my consciousness, and I spied one weakly circling the shop light. After issuing the bee version of the “May Day! May Day!” distress call, it spiraled down to the floor like a sputtering Sopwith Camel, and I spirited it outside.
At this point, the situation became clear: Either turning 60 recently had made me utterly irresistible to the apian set, or a colony of carpenter bees had overwintered in the outbuilding and, with the advent of warm weather, were now bestirring themselves. The latter seemed more likely, especially when another half dozen bees turned up within a day or so.

There was a time when I might have mindlessly killed the bees or left them to fend for themselves, figuring if they had blundered their way into the shed, they could jolly well find their way out. But my bee consciousness has shifted in recent years, with continued reports from the scientific community about the collapse of honeybee populations around the world — and what that may mean for crop production and the general health of the planet. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently reported that almost a third of U.S. honeybee colonies died over the winter. In Europe, officials deem the situation so serious they recently passed continent-wide restrictions on the use of bee-harming bug sprays, bucking pressure from the pesticide industry.

My appreciation for bees has also gotten a boost thanks to my neighbor, Randy Cox, who took up beekeeping a few years ago and is now president of the Rowan County Beekeepers Association. In an attempt to expand his hives, Randy split off a colony and set up a separate starter hive on the edge of our property last year. Over the summer and fall, bee activity added a new element to our nature watching, as the bees regularly visited the watering pan we keep for the birds. I was also mesmerized by the industrious hum that would sometimes vibrate out from the hive on their more active days. But alas, for reasons unknown, the bees abandoned the expansion project a few weeks ago. I’m trying not to take it personally, telling myself their sudden departure had nothing to do with how irregularly I mow the lawn or my failure to prune the blueberry bushes this spring or that, once again, I’ve waited far too late to put in a few tomato plants.

So I’m left now with the carpenter bees, which have continued to appear in the outbuilding, although the sightings have tapered off in recent days. Still, I’m keeping my rescue materials close at hand. Carpenter bees aren’t the prodigious pollinators that honeybees are, but they frequent a variety of wildflowers and other plants, doing their part to perpetuate nature’s grand scheme of growth, fruition and harvest. Now, whenever I see a carpenter bee hovering around a blossom, I wonder if it’s one that got a reprieve from the dungeon of the outbuilding. No doubt I’ll be wondering the same thing when nesting season cranks up and sawdust starts drizzling out of the window sills.

Chris Verner is editorial page editor of the Salisbury Post