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Give credit where it's due and hug a bee today

The buzzing swarms may seem scary, but we humans—and our vegetables and flowers—couldn't get along without them

May 07, 2011|Sandy Banks
  • Bees partly loaded with pollen return to their hive.
Bees partly loaded with pollen return to their hive. (Frank Rumpenhorst, AFP/Getty…)

I've grown accustomed to the bugs that flit around my desk at home while I write. They're the buddies of my office mate, a puppy who naps straddling the doggy door, with his head propping open the plastic flap to outside.

That's an open invitation to insects sweltering in our Valley backyard. Rio spends entire afternoons chasing down the flies that venture inside.

But Rio didn't know what to make of the buzzing that greeted us on the hottest afternoon of the year last week.

Bees. Lots of bees. In the hallway, the bathroom, the office; moving as if they were in a stupor, hovering in the air while I swatted them down.

They milled against the windows and patio doors, and for each one I killed, two more seemed to show up.

I flung open the door to the garage, bent on getting the insect spray, and felt like I'd stumbled into a horror movie: swarms of bees, hundreds it seemed, buzzed frantically just above my head, in the corner near my water heater.

I did what any reasonable person would do: slammed the door shut, ran to computer and Googled "bee removal San Fernando Valley."

::

I'm an animal lover and a green-leaning gal, but still I was surprised by what I saw online. There were a couple of "extermination" offers, but most listings sounded like the work of "Wild Kingdom" supporters.

"Saving bees is our business," said one. "Don't kill those bees!" urged another. "Bee removal and relocation," most promised. "We save and remove hives."

I wasn't trying to relocate the little buggers. I just wanted them out of my garage.

I called the outfit that offered "emergency service at no extra charge." A bee removal expert would be at my door at sunrise, he promised. In the meantime, he warned, don't open that door. (As if!)

I expected an oddball guy in bee-keeping garb — a hood, long sleeves, some sort of Ghostbuster equipment to smoke them out. Instead I got Max, a chatty young man in a tank top and shorts, who'd been running from call to call.

Bee removal firms are working overtime now, because bees are as busy as … well, bees. Pollination demands soar in the spring, so bee colonies split up and spread out, searching en masse for new homes.

Seeking refuge from the heat — high temperatures melt the honey they make — bees love building inside of chimneys and walls. They'll find a quarter-inch hole and make a beeline for it. Once they mark a space in your home with their pheromones, you might as well hand them the deed to your property.

Getting rid of the family apidae isn't easy or cheap. It can run into the thousands of dollars if walls have to come down and hives pulled out.

But why all the obsession with keeping bees safe?

Because humans couldn't exist without bees. Those vegetables at the farmers' market, the lemons on my backyard tree, the roses ringing my front lawn … all courtesy of pollination by bees.

"They kind of have a bad image," said Al Edrisi, whose company Bee Friendly is one of the largest in California. They donate the hives they remove to local beekeeping operations.

"Anything that can sting you, hurt you, send you to the hospital, maybe possibly kill you … you can think of that as the enemy," he said.

But when they swarm — like those bees in my garage — they're not about to attack us, he said. They're just protecting the queen inside. "They twirl around her, keeping her safe. Because if she's damaged or injured or dies, the whole colony dissipates and fails."

The queen is the colony's mother. And the most crucial mission in bee removal is to save the queen from harm. "When we take a swarm we don't get all the bees. Some are out collecting pollen or water." When they come back and realize the hive is gone, they cluster up in the size of a baseball, attach themselves to a wall and stay there together until they die off.

"They can't join another colony because they won't be accepted," Edrisi said. "There's nothing we can do to save them. That's the natural cycle of life"—and the collateral damage of ridding ourselves of something that's both a necessity and a nuisance in human lives.

::

My garage apparently didn't make the cut as a suitable place for a hive to set up. When Max walked in, there were no bees around. He peered inside the walls, poked through boxes, scoured the floor around the water heater where I'd spotted them.

I was beginning to wonder if I'd dreamed it all when he spotted a clump of dead and dying bees plastered against the windows on my garage door.

The bees I had seen probably were scouts, looking for a place to set up shop. They were buzzing around the top of my water heater because it offered shade, seclusion and water.

Some had made their way inside through tiny holes around the pipes. Then their instincts drew them toward the light; they'd popped out inside my home through gaps in my recessed lighting. He found no hive, no hidden bees. They'd probably moved on not long after I called.

The dozens of tiny bodies we found were bees that died trying to find a way out. "They flew toward the windows," he said, "and exhausted themselves trying to get out."

He reached down and plucked one from the floor. His voice took on that tone I use with my puppy. "C'mon, little guy." It stirred, barely alive.

And I know that it's irrational, but I felt guilty for wanting them gone.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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