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Swarmin' 

Just call the bee guys, write a check and all will be as before.

"It says here that killer bees from Brazil are headed for this country. Why, our American bees must be just terrified." -- Charlene, the dumb blonde on Designing Women, circa 1990.

I've never seen It's A Wonderful Life, and would rather have dental work than sit through another production of A Christmas Carol. (To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: Who among us has not laughed at the death of Tiny Tim?) Midwinter, to my mind, is a cold, strange, irritating season, about which the best thing that can be said is that Orion rises as the sun sets. It seemed somehow inevitable, then, that the killer bees showed up for Christmas.

A glob of bees, roughly the size and shape of a big teapot, appeared in the Chilean mesquite out front sometime on Christmas Day. Both the bees' timing and choice of venue seemed deeply perverse: They'd swarmed on one of the coldest days of the year, and landed at head-height, square in the path from the front door to the street. My husband's younger son, Nate, noticed them when he was leaving in the afternoon--he parks under the mesquite--and a darn good thing he did. A couple hours later we would have walked the dogs right under (or through) them in the dark. As it was, we put a step-stool with a couple homemade signs taped to it under the slowly moving blob, both to warn passers-by and to remind us that it was there.

Having lived next to a beekeeper 20 years ago, I naturally knew all, and kept assuring everyone that they might be killers, but they were just coming through the neighborhood--hanging around with a young queen while scouts went out looking for a dry hole in which to set up real apian housekeeping. The bees I'd met before couldn't live hanging out in the open. They'd be gone in a few hours, or by tomorrow, or, anyway, soon. No need to worry.

New Year's came, and they were still there. At night--and there were some really frigid nights over the holidays--they looked dead. (I'm still convinced we could have successfully waged chemical warfare on them ourselves, had we had the nerve, on one of those dark, icy nights. Ed, though, has a well-founded mistrust of my where-angels-fear-to-tread impulses and steadily said, "Mmmmm ... ") On sunny afternoons they started waking up and organizing themselves into a slab-like shape that suggested permanent structure. On January 2, I called the bee people.

"Those are Africanized killer bees, ma'am," the guy told me. "That's the only kind of honey bees there are around here any more, and you don't want to wait to do something about them." He'd have a specialist right over.

The specialist was a cheerful, efficient young guy whose job involves getting stung at least once a day. He'd been doing this for a number of years and seemed to like and know his business, so I asked him why bees would swarm at the rock-bottom of the year. (Morse Holladay's hives only did it in the spring). He said, quite seriously, that swarming in winter, when almost nothing was blooming, was "like committing suicide for them," but that since Africanized bees are improvident (think grasshoppers versus ants), and don't store enough honey to get through winter, they had no choice. Then he put on his veil and gloves and blew the blob away with a detergent that smothers the bees almost instantly. After scooping up the soggy remains with a dustpan, he inspected the house and yard while telling us deliciously creepy tales of block walls crammed with labyrinth-like hives, of old orange trees silently harboring nests the size of breakfast nooks, of honey and wax insidiously melting drywall from inside suburban walls. The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come had nothing on him.

Then we paid him $200 and all was as before.

Any homeowner will recognize the basic shape of this holiday story, and its essential truths:

There's always some weird thing you never anticipated ready to go wrong.

Nothing ever happens to your house that costs less than $100, and every time you have to call somebody, the job will end up costing at least twice what you think it will.

The worst-case scenario is not the worst. For all their drama--their lives swinging wildly between homicide and suicide--the bees were no real trouble. They were gone in five minutes and we know what to do next time: Call the bee guys and write another check. If only we could hand someone a debit card to make the pigeons and mosquitoes and the houses at "Sabino Mountain" go away.

Patience can save you, especially at trying times of the year. If the bees had only waited a little longer to leave their starving hive, they might have been OK. Last week the weather warmed up, the rosemary in the back and the violets in the front started to bloom, and I began to smell sweet acacia when I walked the dog at night. So it's all starting again. Finally.

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