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Cover Story

Catching Swarms: A Memoir

- December 1, 2018 - John Wilcox - (excerpt)

orange grove

During my early twenties I lived in Strathmore, a little town in the San Juaquin Valley of California next to the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. The main industry in this area was oranges, and if you lived there, you probably earned a living somehow from oranges: picking, packing, growing, transporting or selling. There were orange trees everywhere.

On this particular day, it was springtime, and the scent of the orange blossoms wafted on the air like thick perfume. It was a sweet, pleasant smell enjoyed by most people, but the pollen caused some allergy sufferers a lot of trouble. I was visiting a friend of mine, Foster. His house was situated among the groves of oranges, where his father earned a living as a grove manager. He also ran a trucking business, hauling oranges from the groves to packing houses where they were sorted, cleaned and boxed. Foster and I were sitting at the kitchen table, drinking a cup of coffee and talking about what we were going to do that day. We thought about doing a little fishing at lake Success—a small lake, not too far away in the foothills.

Suddenly, the kitchen door swung open and Foster’s dad entered the room. We sat still, expecting some sort of announcement or command. Foster’s dad was a big man. He didn’t speak much, but when he did, people listened. The door slammed shut behind him. He walked to the stove, his footsteps the only sound in the room, and poured a cup up coffee.

“You know,” he says, “there is a swarm of bees about 10 trees down, from that old outhouse, out there,” he paused as he took a sip. “Right alongside the railroad tracks. Someone should get them and put them in a box. Them bees are valuable.”

I shrugged my shoulders. “I don’t know anything about bees. What would I do? How’re you going to get bees into a box? What kind of box? Don’t they sting?”

“Sting? Nah. It’s pretty simple,” Foster’s dad said. “Just lay a sheet down on the ground beneath the swarm. Cut the branch off, and lay it, gently-like, down on the sheet. Leave it alone for a couple hours. When the bees settle down, bunch up the ends of the sheet and you got ‘em.”

“Well,” Foster said, “that doesn’t sound too bad, but we were just getting ready to go fishing.”

His dad set his coffee cup down on the table and leaned forward on both arms. “That’d be ok if you go fishin’, but I’d sure like to catch that swarm.”

Foster and I looked at each other. There seemed to be an unspoken urgency in his father’s voice. “What do you think?” I said.

“Let’s do it,” Foster replied, glancing first at his father and then back at me.

“Ok. Who is going to do the catching?” I said, half pleading. “I don’t know anything about bees.”

Foster just kind of smiled and looked down at the table. His dad said nothing.

Finally Foster said, “Well, you asked how to do it.”

“I see. Then, if I am going to do it, I sure as hell want some protection.”

Foster’s dad straightened up. There was an impish look about him. He seemed to be grinning as he finished off his coffee and said, “Ok then. I’ll just leave you boys to it. But remember, if you don’t catch them real soon, they will take off. They’re only hanging from that tree ‘cause they just left the main hive and are lookin’ for a place to build a new hive. You need to get movin’.” With that, he walked out the door and left us to decide what to do next.

The first thing to do, as far as I was concerned, was to find something to protect me while I caught the swarm. We looked around the house. We found a big bulky oversized shirt. I was pretty skinny in those days. Just about anything would be oversized for me. I put it on to see if it fit. It was good. We found an old straw hat with a wide brim. I put that on. I still needed something to protect my face. We thought about using pantyhose, but that would be too tight against my face.

Foster’s mother was outside in the garden, so we went out and asked her. She gave us one of her old negligees. It was pink. You could see through it pretty good, but pretty good was really not very good. But it would work.

I tied a knot in one end of the negligee and put the pink thing over the hat. I placed the whole thing over my head and pulled the rest of the negligee down over my chest. I unfolded the collar of the shirt, so it would stick up and tied off the negligee around my neck with a piece of bailing twine. Next, we tied my pants off at the….