Cultivating an obsession with bees
I awoke to wind. In the faint moon glow, I could see a chain of poplars silhouetted against the sky, the upper branches tossing and thrashing. Individual trees synchronized into a chorus line, bending with the rhythm of each successive gust. The musky essence of sagebrush reminded me I wasn’t home.
Each time I visit the desert, I wonder about the night winds. Why does a barren landscape, still as death during the day, come alive at night? Why do undulating rows of windmills that turn lazily by day, spin like crazed pinwheels under darkened skies?
As I watched the trees, I heard a short yip, a single chirp from a lone coyote. Moments later, a second bark was followed by a protracted howl. The plaintive cry was soon answered by another. And another. Within moments, a frenzy of disparate screams, sounding both cunning and vicious, reverberated from the sage. Feeling like a piece of meat, I shivered and cuddled deeper into my sleeping bag.
Departing on a bee safari
Summer bee safaris are a highlight of my year. All winter long, holed up in the sodden darkness of the 47th parallel, I think about where I will go and what bees I will see. Once Earth warms in spring, I leave home — my pickup laden with nets and tripods, cameras and peanut butter — in search of a bee I’ve never seen and a story I’ve never told.
Of course, the obvious place for bee hunting is the desert. Bees evolved in arid climates and deserts are hot spots of bee biodiversity. The biggest and the smallest, the prettiest and the weirdest all live in the desert, waiting for the ephemeral bloom that will keep them barely alive for another year.
Encircled in the wind
The lonely howl of wind and coyotes reminded me of a previous bee trip. Camped on a desolate wildlife preserve in Oklahoma, the night wind arrived like a freight train, deafening and powerful. My daughter tied our tent to the bumper of her car and hoped the fabric wouldn’t tear itself apart. We ate a quick meal of stale granola bars and cold hot chocolate, then unrolled our bags, shouting to be heard though we were just inches apart.
As twilight fell, a battered pickup appeared in the lonely outpost. Through the dim light and the crash of wind we could see three men in the front seat and twice as many rifles mounted across the rear window. A perimeter road circled the campground, but we were the only tenants. After the truck slowly passed our site and disappeared behind a pile of boulders, we breathed a sigh of relief.
But five minutes later, the menace returned, having circled the entire camping area. Because of the wind, we couldn’t hear the truck approach, so it was only yards from us when its high beams penetrated our nylon walls. This time the truck crept by even more slowly, but all we could hear was our own pumping hearts against the scream of the wind. Ker-thump. Ker-thump.
We took stock of our situation and decided it was bad. With no one else around for miles, we were at their mercy, and because we couldn’t tell if we were being taunted or stalked, we decided to flee. Regardless of their agenda, we decided our campsite wasn’t worth fighting for.
As soon as the truck dipped behind the boulders a second time, we frantically cut the ties to the tent, stuffed everything into the backseat, and hightailed out of there. As we bumped down the gravel road, we could see the lights of the pickup as it slowly began its third circuit.
Although neither of us likes to fold in the face of danger, it seemed like an excellent opportunity to cut bait and run. My daughter, a combat veteran who had just returned from Iraq, said it was one of the scariest moments of her life.
Potholes state park
Potholes State Park in eastern Washington is not named for an unkempt road but for giant potholes that were formed from flooding during the Pleistocene. The sunken saucers vary from 30 to 70 yards across, and from 10 to 60 feet deep. Until the 1950s they remained dry and dusty, but after the completion of the O’Sullivan Dam in 1949, things began to change. As the water table rose, the potholes began to fill from the bottom, eventually becoming little lakes.
The state park is at the southern end of the reservoir and is a popular spot for year-round fishing. Sure enough, as I got close, the scent of aquatic life overwhelmed me. The brackish odor was an odd counterpoint to the aroma of sage — like fish with stuffing. It brought back memories of the crunchy baguettes and cheese we ate when I worked on Cape Cod and thrived on the tang of the sea.
Insects, not mosquitoes
When I first arrived at my campsite I was greeted by great clouds of insects. They hovered around me like mosquitoes, quivered in the air, and whispered in whiny high-pitched frequencies. A couple of times I breathed them in like black flies and swallowed some that wedged in my throat. No amount of water dislodged their creepy skeletons, and I imagined wet insect wings — body still attached and legs kicking — stuck to the back of my tongue. I was chagrined. How could I photograph bees while breathing in mosquitoes, probably blood-laden ones, at that?
Thing is, they didn’t seem to bite. Even after hours in their disconcerting presence, I hadn’t a single welt. It was then I began to take pictures of them. Up close and personal, they didn’t look anything like skitters, but I had no idea what they were.
I have since learned that the insects were non-biting midges, also called lake flies, in the genus Chironomus. The larvae live in lake sediments and thousands of species inhabit diverse parts of the globe. The cloud-like masses of Chironomus I encountered were mating swarms, which provide great feasts for swallows, bats, and other terrestrial beings. Personally, I thought they were a bit too tickly for a snack item, but maybe that’s just me.
Ticks and snakes
Like all my recent excursions, the trip to the central Washington desert was all about the bees. I was alone this time, and the first night, as I listened to an assortment of desert sounds, I begin to itch. The sensation was psychological, occasioned by the two dog ticks I pried from my neck just before dinner. Neither had embedded, so I was lucky. Nevertheless, I was unnerved by their presence and kept scratching and peering inside my clothes with a flashlight.
Teardrop shaped, flat as a leaf, and equipped with more legs than necessary, ticks are nasty creatures. Like mites, ticks have a predilection for biting, sucking, and spreading disease. They remind me of varroa mites and I began to wonder if honey bees itch when mites latch on. I imagine they do, since they try so hard to dislodge them.
All day long I had knowingly traipsed through tick territory. Sage brush is full of ticks and rattlers, but when I’m on a bee hunt, I forget all that. My eyes stray to the next flower; my ears concentrate on the hum of wings. Chasing the bee that momentarily alights on a spiny desert plant is so much more compelling than a chance encounter with the evil empire — at least until it finds you. As with most addictions, you can never get enough, and finding the next bee is paramount.
I haven’t encountered a rattlesnake in many years, although I have vivid memories of them coiled beneath cattle guards as I bicycled on America’s byways. Now I remain wary, but undeterred. I have no delusions about shooting one with a .38 revolver, although I manage to convince myself that at least the holster makes one ankle harder to bite.
The hum of wires without wires
That evening, I made the acquaintance of the campers next door, a father, son, and grandson who seemed enchanted by a woman camping alone and chasing bugs. As we chatted about fish and bees, the insects-not-mosquitoes got louder and more persistent, and they seemed to have settled into the trees directly overhead. I asked if they heard the high-pitched whine, and the middle one explained that what I heard was the hum of high-tension wires. “Oh,” I said, perplexed. “Good to know.”
For the next three days, I craned my neck, scanning the firmament for any such wires, anywhere, but the sky was blank. Then too, once the evening winds appeared, the bugs and the sound both vanished. Although I didn’t say so, I remained unconvinced. Call me a skeptic, but I really need to see to believe it.
The one that got away
The next morning I broke camp early to follow the trail along Frenchman’s Creek. I meandered through dusty sagebrush and brilliant balsamroot the color of caution tape. The trail itself went from gravel to sand to missing, and I ended up thrashing through prickly things I couldn’t identify and thinking about those snakes. The crash of water through its channel quashed any hope of hearing a rattle in advance, so I just concentrated on looking for bees, which I also couldn’t hear.
The balsamroot had passed its prime, but dainty wild blue flax blossoms provided a feast for tiny sweat bees. For twenty minutes I chased a frenetic digger bee from plant to plant. She wore a boldly-striped, skin-tight outfit, but I never got a photo. Bee stories are like fish stories: The biggest, most colorful, most perfectly proportioned creatures are the ones you never capture, a situation which only enhances their mystique.
Parking lot trees
On the way back to camp, I stopped at an empty parking lot that featured a gigantic trash compactor. The area was fringed on two sides by banks of willows in full bloom. Each bloom was laden with honey bees and several types of Andrena mining bees. One Andrena I had never seen before sported a strawberry-red abdomen that glinted in the sunshine. Behind the compactor was a stand of wild roses that hosted a frenzy of bumbles, honey bees, mining bees, and sweat bees.
I could have stayed in the parking lot for hours, but the scent of charcoal lighter and fried onions summoned me back to the camping area. Having forgotten to pack a bottle opener and something to drink from, I excavated the cork from a bottle of Pinot Grigio with a screwdriver and tipped up, further amusing my new friends. Camping is so much more fun when you forget things — at least some of the time.
Anatomy of an obsession
As a child, I thought bird watchers were strange folks. I couldn’t imagine driving for hours, then hiking in the hot sun laden with binoculars and cameras and notebooks, just for a glimpse of something soon to fly away. So you saw it. So what? I was confused by those who treasured ragged field guides, annotated and bookmarked, tattered and dirty.
But did I turn out any differently? My bee identification guides are losing their pages. In my tent, I hastily riffled through one until pictures of Halictidae unbound themselves and fluttered through the air like the bees themselves. My cameras and notebooks are accompanied by catch cups and vials, magnifiers and nets. Truly, I make some of those bird watchers look like dilettantes.
I was taught that obsession was a bad thing — a life misdirected. Certainly, there are types of obsession that are best left to the books that name them. But now I see that obsession can be a gift, one that provides direction and purpose. It can give you joy at each success and motivation at every failure. It can open your mind to learning and your heart to teaching.
So whether it’s golf or beekeeping, car racing or fishing, go ahead and cultivate your obsession. Feed it. Pamper it. It’s okay to be a little bit crazy, possessed by a desire to turn over every figurative rock. Chasing bees has changed my life, and I get untold joy from finding a bee in a keyhole, a light socket, or a wheel well. I will never tire of catching a swarm or, failing that, watching a swarm take off to unknown places and untold adventure.
My obsession with bees has taken me to new places, taught me new skills, and introduced me to other equally obsessed people, which is one of the greatest pleasures of life. So join me in your own obsession and learn what unbridled curiosity can teach.
Honey Bee Suite