NOT ON MY WATCH

000_1829My morning started out like anybody’s morning: I took out the trash, cleaned up dog poop, filled the bird feeders, and checked on the two ponds to see if the raccoons had partied in them the night before. Then I hauled out my treasured five-dollar, garage-sale Crockpot and put a chicken up to cook. I paid a few bills, cleaned the kitchen sinks, and brushed my hair and teeth. And that was the end of the normal part of my morning.

Carter had gone out fishing for the morning, so I pulled out my bee suit from the closet and put it on. It is a combination white jacket and wide-brim, veiled hat. When my granddaughter sees me in it she bursts out laughing and says, “Gramma-Gramma, you look really silly!” When I tuck my pant legs into my socks, I imagine I look even sillier. In the bathroom, I dug through the drawers until I found an emory board and a nail file. On my way through the kitchen, I stuck my oldest, least-often-used wooden spoon in my back pocket…

Outside, the autumn morning welcomed me with foggy, dripping skies. A few tiny patches of blue peeked through, and the air was sweet and welcoming. I headed for the garden shed and grabbed a hand clipper because I always grab a hand clipper anytime I go into the yard. You never know…

I grabbed a small plastic stool and climbed the few steps to the upper yard where the beehive rests. Plunking down the stool right next to the hive entrance. With the handle of the wooden spoon, I closed off the entrance to the beehive so that it was small enough to only let a few bees pass through at a time. It is a safety precaution for fall. You’ll see why in a moment. Then I sat down and readied myself for war. Yes, that is the term I’ll use for it. War.

Our yard has been invaded with yellow jackets in the past few weeks. Mostly, I could care less about these predators, but they have decided that my hard-working bees make quite the fall buffet. Beneath the hive, the yellow and black, missile-shaped marauders cruise, back and forth. Back and forth. Should a honey bee tire and fall, and not make it quite all the way to the hive entrance, the yellow jackets snatch them up and bite off their heads. I read that they suck the nectar out of their bodies, then  move on to the next and the next and…well, you see where this is going. My bee teacher told us that she has lost entire hives in one afternoon to armies of yellow jackets.

All summer, I watched the yellow jackets cruise beneath the hive, clearing away the dead and dying bees beneath. All summer, the numbers of dead and dying bees were few, and the yellow jacket numbers were smaller, too. I felt we had a sort of uneasy equilibrium going. Nature’s Way, and all that.

Suddenly, the weather turned cold and wet. The blooming flowers died back or fell over. The bee hive is making its last valiant effort to collect as much pollen as it possibly can in these next weeks, because when the pollen stops, the bees must depend on whatever the collected in the summer to get them through the long and dark winter months ahead. Bees are flying in cold and drizzly weather, exhausting themselves on their foraging flights. These forager bees literally work themselves to death to get the pollen back to the hive. It is estimated that once a honey bee reaches the foraging stage of her life, she probably has only two weeks or less of life left. In this time span, she may fly up to 500 collective miles. That’s a long way to go for a creature who flies in spite of all the physical evidence that claims that such a feat should not be possible. In the past week, I’ve watched many, many bees fall down exhausted before they make the last two feet to the hive door.

So I sit with my eyes on the hive entrance watching this fall pageant of winged industriousness and joyous increase. Hundreds of honeybees come and go from the hive, literally tumbling over themselves to get into and out of the hive. I am reminded, humbled, that we humans, too, have our autumn season of harvest. We, too, have to collect as much as we can to make it through our winters. Sometimes, we harvest food. But most of the time, we harvest the end results of our hopes and dreams and efforts, and hope that we have gained enough of these moments—and that they are healthy enough moments—so that we may feed on the wisdom of our soul’s harvest during hard times. Some people never learn, never reflect on what they have harvested from life, and so when hard times come, they cry and wail and blame and suffer. Some do not survive intact.

And so these bees are not just bees to me, but metaphor and mentor for me in my own struggle to become more every year, to harvest experiences that will feed me in those times of inner winter. My own life, in my own mind, imitates a small piece of the valiant struggle I witness before my eyes on the wooden landing board of the hive. Here is effort, dedication, loyalty to a higher calling (the hive itself), selflessness—the good kind, and plain hard work. What person would not benefit from these qualities in any season of any year?

To the right-hand side of the hive I sit, holding tightly to my weapon of choice—the emory board. In the blur of brown and grey bees, I see a flash of yellow, and I spring forward with my emory board and smash a lurking yellow jacket just before he grabs onto the legs of a pollen-loaded honey bee. One down. For the next hour, it is me and the bees and the emory board and my gloved fingers. The bees race past me, the sound of their humming like the rush of wind past my ears. Sitting so close to them, I can feel the vibration of their song in my chest and throat. Many bees land on my arms and legs to rest, and I lift them gently to the hive door.

Every few minutes, scanning around my feet and at the hive entrance, I see that damned flash of yellow, and I leap into action. I kill four of the bastards. Then eight. Maybe a dozen in the full hour. I think of how I must look sitting up there: a gray-haired woman on a green stool, yelping, smashing and calling out, “Take that, you rotten bastard! You won’t get another of MY bees! Not on MY watch!”

Honestly, I can’t help but feel a rush each time I thwart a kill. This is not a feeling I believe Nature knows—this intense dislike for the “enemy.” And I know that what the yellow jackets are doing is what they are made to do. But I made a choice years ago to insert myself into the equation of life in my yard when I feel called to do so. Sometimes, I can watch Darter finish off a small, wounded mouse; or watch fledglings on the ground find their own way into life or death without intervening. Sometimes.

Other times, I say to myself, “Not on my watch” and I step in and do whatever I can to take one small life out of the mouth of another life. Some days, I decide who will live, and who may need to go hungry that day. And I do not question my decisions.

I am far past the days of serious activism. But I think that tiny interventions—taken when we feel called to them—are a big deal. At least a big enough deal. So while I am not stopping Monsanto in its tracks today, I did stop a dozen yellow jackets from making autumn a lot harder for an earnest bunch of bees. And I helped a banana slug out of the street this morning. In small steps, the world is healed. I really believe that.

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15 Responses to NOT ON MY WATCH

  1. Cindy says:

    Love you, Susan! I know it wasn’t meant to be funny, but picturing you sitting there yelling, “Take that you rotten bastard”, made me laugh out loud! You go, girl!

  2. Bett Weston says:

    Elegantly spoken. Again, Susan, thank you for your words. I used to want to rescue ALL the homeless kitties in the world. 6 decades later I have a clear understanding of why I can’t fulfill that childhood dream. I ask Source to only show me situations where I can make a difference. I get it that you sit out there with your emory board to protect the precious bees. Those small acts are equivalent to the greatest act ever performed. I assisted two goldfinch youngsters who got caught in the screen porch to find their way out. Ripples. Your kindness to bees gives me strength to help our songbirds. Blessed Be.

  3. Jennifer Stadum says:

    Ditto Cindy’s vision! Hee hee hee. I think this might rank as one of my top 5 favorite pieces of your writing! Loved it!

  4. I felt so fortunate one early summer morning while walking in the Arizona desert, to save a baby quail, still a fledgling with pin feathers, from a certain slow and brutal death in the hot desert sun. I heard a tiny cry as I walked along and saw this tiny tiny bird impaled by a thin spike of cholla cactus – the spike was only needle thick, nothing really to us, but it had that little bird stuck on the ground unable to free itself from the spine of the cactus. I had my house key with me, and I took a small rock and held the cactus in place on the ground and gently, oh so gently, took the key and with no effort at all, I used the key to nudge the bird off and away from the spike. That little bird scuttled away on all fours to reunite hopefully with his covey, seemingly none the worse for wear. Such a small thing, but I will never forget the moment.

  5. Richard says:

    Love it!! The worker bees serving on guard duty must love having ‘big sister’ around to serve as an outer defense ring!!

  6. Nancy Stinson says:

    Just wonderful! Much like sitting there right beside you; emory board in hand …your writing so draws one in. I eagerly await your e-publishing! I resonate with so much you say. In small steps, the world is healed. You words heal also, Susan. Your heart and decency are balms against the harsher side of life. I’m with Cindy and Jennifer!! Much love, many thanks, Nancy Stinson

    • Susan McElroy says:

      Thanks so much to you all. Armed with our metaphoric emory boards, we heal our small corners of the Earth. I am finding that doing small, good things gives me as much satisfaction as speaking at a large conference, trying to move a piece of legislation through the quagmire, attending humane conventions, or all those other bigger things I did years ago. It’s like that starfish story: A man is walking on a beach littered with thousands of stranded starfish, picking them up as he walks and throwing them back into the water. An observer says, “There are too many. What you are doing makes no difference.” The man stoops and picks up a starfish and tosses it far into the surf and says, “It makes a difference to THIS one.”

  7. kathey says:

    Susan, you are always there for Mother’s weaker ones, whether they be possums, bees, frogs, no matter. You take care of your own, of whatever needs assistance in your surrounding. Full speed ahead! That is you!

  8. aletheia mystea says:

    So here’s a thought… for 6 years I lived in harmony with yellow jacket families at my last house. We struck an agreement of live and let live early on, and

    we did…that would be a first for me EVER! We shared the shed…their hives, my stuff. They never bothered me, ever, until one year I got buzzed a few times with no harm yet it had not happened before.. I look up wasp medicine, and it is wonderful…couldn’t be more perfect for me then. No more buzzes. This year I moved from my treasured house to an apt. tree house…a beautiful, sleek wasp flies in one day with the most benevolent energy..I could feel it, landed on a pillow with a blessing..flew in and out a couple times..my friends came to bless the new abode!

    Point being Susan, they were my family of sorts as your bees are…not the same, but I felt the same about them as you do about the bees! I get what you had to do…I wouldn’t let anyone touch the wasps! I love hearing the bee stories! A

    • Susan McElroy says:

      My bee teacher reminds me that “protection” energy is better to project than “revenge” energy. I must protect my bees, yet keep my heart peaceful in my role as “helper.” While I Loved smashing the yellow jackets, I also felt “spent” afterward. Today I am aware that they also carry away the sick bees the workers drop outside the hive. What a delicate balancing act life is!

  9. Colette says:

    This sounds so much like my life….wild animals, domestic animals, insects and birds. Trying to compromise with one not to kill or injure the other on THIS property, Sending the hawk (as she glides by) love but telling her I’d prefer that she doesn’t catch here and giving her boundries, my slug and earthworm graveyard and ICU. and Doing reiki on the slugs. Then I decide…Who am I to try and control nature!!!!!!!! Next thing you know…I’m doing it again! XO

  10. Colette says:

    PS…You know what’s even more HILARIOUS? Whe you said you “bee suit” , I pictured you in a bee costume with little tights and yellow stripes ! :))))) Then I figured it out..lol

  11. I just love your writing! It always makes me feel good. Thank you for sharing! Rebecca Avery

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