Wild storms came to Middle Tennessee this week, right on schedule for a region on the edge of Tornado Alley. Many branches fell out of our seventy-year-old maple trees, and many others were left dangling, torn but not broken—a scenario that is always a trigger at our house for a conversation that goes like this:
He says, “We need to call a tree surgeon.”
I say, “But soon those branches will be crawling with insects, and think of the birds that will come to eat the bugs.”
He says, “Tree surgeons call those limbs Widow Makers.”
I say, “Maybe you could wear your bike helmet when you mow?”
He says, “I’m calling the tree surgeon.”
The first round of storms hit Monday afternoon. Three doors down, at an immaculate house with a perfectly landscaped yard, the trunk of an old hackberry tree snapped off right in the middle. The crown of the tree came down hard and would in fact have killed a human being had any human been fool enough to stand outside in seventy-mile-an-hour winds. Instead, the hackberry took out a maple and several large cypresses, and it crashed completely through a length of cedar fencing, barely missing the next-door neighbors’ car, which was parked in their driveway just past the fence.
Monday night the local news was full of trees that did in fact smash into cars parked in driveways, but the scene three doors down from us was even more dramatic. The tragic hackberry, it turns out, was completely hollow. And in the hollow of that tree lived approximately 45,000 wild honeybees, who were pouring out of the broken trunk like that scene in Little House in the Big Woods where Pa chases a bear away from a bee tree so he can take the honey for himself.
In Garth Williams’s illustration for the book, the bear looks sublimely cheerful surrounded by the angry bees, but here in first-ring suburbia the homeowners were keeping a wary distance. Who knows how long those bees had been living in our midst, three steps from the street where we’ve pushed our strollers and walked our dogs and trained for our marathons—well, their marathons: I myself am not one for marathons—and without a single sting. But for some of my neighbors, the sight of 45,000 distraught honeybees pouring into the sky at once was deeply unnerving.
Someone called the Nashville Area Beekeepers Association, and the next morning an expert arrived. He’s the one who estimated the size of the hive—y’all know I didn’t pull that figure out of the blue sky; I am also not one for numbers—and captured the queen bee from the fallen part of tree.
The queen was not hard to find, actually: she was surrounded by an entire army of worker bees who really did not want to share her, but the beeman in his thin shirtsleeves was not alarmed. He just reached in, scooped her up, and installed her in a professional bee hive that he had set on the ground next to the fallen tree. Then he scooped up several honeycombs dripping with honey, and smeared them in and around the hollow of the fallen tree to give the bees something to eat while they were looking for their queen.
It was a good plan, a nature-friendly plan to preserve a surprisingly healthy population of a crucial pollinator that’s long been in trouble. Some guys with chainsaws arrived later in the day to clear my neighbor’s driveway and carry off the demolished fencing, but they left the honey tree untouched.
Every time I took our old dog for a walk, I noticed the bees still pouring out of the standing part of the hackberry trunk, but they were also buzzing around the honey on the ground-level part of the tree and investigating the hivebox next to it, too. Everything seemed to be going according to the brave beeman’s plan.
But the wild honeybees, hidden safely from human eyes for so long, had devised their own plan according to an ancient logic that clearly did not involve that hivebox on the ground. By Thursday morning they had gathered in one of the remaining cypress trees: a great ball of bees clinging to each other and crawling on top of each other in a giant, roiling, ice-cream-cone-shaped swarm. The whole cypress was humming.
Then one of the scout bees must have returned with word of an acceptable site for a new hive—when I checked again at lunchtime, they were gone. The wind-ruined tree, the hackberry that had kept those honeybees a secret for at least a generation, was silent again.