Humor Non-Fiction posted October 4, 2014


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A Bee-hoven symphony in just a tad over 1812 words.

Much Talk about Bees

by tfawcus


Thomas Mayfield arrived in South Australia in 1839 with his wife, Rebecca, and a family of nine children. The voyage from England took nearly four months in a ship which, much to the relief of the crew, was scarce large enough to swing a cat. Of the 199 passengers, 23 died on board.

141 years later, Wendy and I flew here in a little over twenty-four hours with two young children. Our cattle-class journey was, by comparison, perhaps not quite as diabolic as theirs.

Fast forwarding through the next few years, largely filled with an unsuccessful farming venture in the state's south-east, we find mention of the Mayfields in the diary of a fellow passenger, the policeman in charge at Port Elliot. An entry dated 13th November 1858 reads, 'Went to T Mayfield's place, very comfortable appearance and good garden'. Ten days later he writes of having walked back to Brooklands again, where he and his erstwhile shipmate had 'much talk about bees'.

In those early days of European settlement, sugar was scarce and expensive. However, the hills behind Port Elliot were alive with the soft drone of bees, and the settlers were able to use honey as a substitute on their porridge, in jams, in puddings, in tea and in coffee. I am also led to believe that it was fermented to make mead, a drink purported to give pizzazz to honeymoon couples although, judging by their previous track record, Thomas and Rebecca Mayfield had scant need for such sweet stimulation. I have sometimes thought to supply a bottle for the newlyweds who occasionally frequent the original cottage, but my dear wife has dissuaded me from being so crass. I do, however, manage to slip small jars of honey into the breakfast supplies to resuscitate the young lovers after their nightly exertions under the crescent horns of Astarte, goddess of the moon and of lust.

There are still many bees on the property, in old pear trees in the paddocks below the house, in the sugar gums that line the driveway and in ancient almond trees along the creek beds and hillside. It is not uncommon for them to swarm in the spring, attempting to take up residence around the houses, in the chimneys, the garage and in the old dairy building. The accompanying picture shows them in the wisteria outside our back door last year. They stayed there for three days before finding more suitable accommodation. At such times we have an uneasy relationship with these wonderful insects that Shakespeare so aptly described as little suckers.

I remember that our tenant, Rebekah, mentioned to me not long after we moved in, that some bees from the sugar gums had migrated to one of the car tyres that surround the horse arena.

"Tony, would you be a dear and get rid of the bees around the horse arena?" she said. "There is quite a swarm of them and they make Cool Bananas shy."

"No problem," I replied gallantly, though having nearly been knocked over by Cool Bananas on several occasions, I would have hesitated to describe him as shy. Horses are not my forte.

Now, as everyone knows, pyrethrum powder is just the right insecticide to use on such occasions. One just has to sprinkle it in the right spot, like salt on a chicken's tail, and all further flight ceases. I decided to go one better and save myself $9.95 into the bargain. Pyrethrum is a naturally occurring substance extracted from the ubiquitous Pyrethrum Daisy that infests our overgrown vegetable patch. Why not, I thought?

Having picked several small bunches and tied them with string, I set out to accomplish my mission. Being a confirmed coward, I drove the ute down to the arena and lobbed them from the driver's side window in passing. I believe the knights of yore engaged in similar manoeuvres when lancing at rings to please fair damsels at the tourney.

On the seventh pass, I realised that I was doing little more than providing a home delivery service of pollen and nectar to the hive. More drastic measures were needed. I therefore drove at half tilt towards the offending tyre, rode up over it with my front wheel and became bogged in the sand. It is important to understand at this point that, ten years ago to engage four-wheel drive on the Toyota Hilux, it was necessary to climb out of the cab and turn small knobs located on the hubs of the front wheels. The aforesaid hubs were a bit of a no-go zone at the time on account of a large black cloud of angry bees in a buzzing frenzy, who were doubtless seeking vengeance on their hapless home-wrecker.

I therefore did what seemed to be the only sensible thing under the circumstances. I wound up the window, reclined the driver's seat to a comfortable angle and turned on the car radio to listen to romantic music until the sun went down, in the assured belief that bees tend to be more subdued in the evenings. I passed the remaining hour until dusk in pleasant reverie, filled with thoughts of Winnie-the-Pooh dangling from a balloon beneath a similar swarm. Meanwhile Wendy, who was gardening in the sunshine that afternoon, eventually began to wonder where I might have gone. Her arrival coincided with my brave decision to fling open the car door and make a mad dash for it across the paddock. It was with relief on both sides that we were reunited but I am somewhat diffident about putting the ensuing mainly one-sided conversation on the public record.

Changing the subject, as one does on these occasions, the upstairs rooms of the Brooklands farmhouse have splendid fireplaces, although our predecessors had boarded them up. In those early days our bed was placed hard up against one of them. It is a pleasant bedroom with views across the farm to the Great Southern Ocean.

During the winter months when the dams are full, wood ducks take up residence. However, they have the annoying habit of crash-landing on the farmhouse roof at dawn to enjoy the sunrise and magnificent views, and to whisper their dreams to one another. Whisper is not perhaps quite the right word, for as the sun rises higher, so does their chatter. Several sometimes foregather on the tall chimneys to dispute their points of difference. Their frantic quacking echoes down the chimney, and gives the disconcerting impression that the arguments are taking place in the fireplace directly behind the bed.

However, on one particular spring morning the ducks were silent. Instead, we were awakened by a soft buzzing, not unlike the persistent vibration of an impertinent mobile phone. Clearly, in a vindictive act of revenge, the bees had decided to retaliate by organising their own home invasion. There was not much alternative but to flip through the Yellow Pages and summon the services of Bonneys Pest Control in Victor Harbor, who pride themselves in providing prompt eradication of belligerent bees.

Bonneys were as good as their advertisement and an exterminator turned up around about lunchtime, just as we were enjoying a glass or two of the good stuff on the front lawn with family and friends. He looked a mild-mannered man not in the least suited to the task, but it occurred to me that the same has been said of many of history's more renowned killers.

I rose to welcome him and escorted him to the bedroom where he donned a formidable outfit, well-suited to one about to engage in a fencing duel, which, in a sense, I suppose he was. We rolled back the bed and removed the pasteboard covering the fireplace, to reveal an old fence post rammed up the chimney holding an ancient horsehair mattress in place. Its removal caused a small avalanche of soot, bits of old bird's nest, caramelized honeycomb and assorted skeletal remains, followed shortly afterwards by one small and insignificant native bee.

"Quick!" he said. "Open the window!"

I rushed as directed and pushed up the lower sash, but was then thwarted by the fly screen screwed firmly to window frame outside. In desperation, I looked around to see that the one small bee was just the advance guard of battalion ranks flowing in behind.

"You're on your own, mate!" I said as I dashed for the door. The assembled company down below heard the echo as it slammed shut behind me.

"What news?" they said as I re-joined them, taking up my glass again with a shaky hand.

"No problem," I said. "He seems to be dealing with them just fine without my help."

Later that afternoon, I was tasked, somewhat peremptorily in my view, with the removal of several hundreds of small corpses that had fallen in battle upon our unmade bed, open suitcases, carpets, bookshelves and scattered shoes. The mild-mannered exterminator had subjected them to a chemical attack just as lethal as those experienced by poor, unfortunate soldiers in the trenches during the 1914-18 war.

That night, the marital bedroom still smelled deliciously of burnt honey. However, preliminary skirmishes on my part confirmed that this does not have the aphrodisiac qualities of good mead; quite the reverse, in fact. I should perhaps have learnt from the pyrethrum daisy episode that there is no substitute for the real thing.

Whilst the stories I might tell are legion if not exactly legendary, I shall end with just one more apian adventure. I wrote this as a Petrarchan sonnet four years ago, the octet of which will give you a general impression of the situation as Wendy weeded the garden:

'The rising sap brought forth its crop of weeds
To mar the neat designs she'd planned at ease.
To combat them she sank upon her knees
To separate the sinners from the seeds
Of her imagined blossoming of needs.
So set was she upon necessities
She failed to see the swarm, the mass of bees,
Or hear their drone, discordant in the trees.'

I was in the sunroom at the time, making pretence of doing something useful, when I glanced up and saw the ominous cloud above her head. Sadly, she can no longer hear low noises, as I can no longer hear high ones, a situation that brings a degree of danger when we are separated and unable to complement each other's aural deficiencies. On the other hand, it does make for a relatively peaceful marriage, as neither of us can hear a word the other says, so our mutual mutterings seldom cause festering wounds.

In order to avert impending disaster, I rapped loudly on the window and pointed skyward. The response was quizzical at first but then immediate. In all my years of military service, I have not witnessed such an accomplished commando crawl as hers while she made her escape across the front lawn. I soon joined her, having run around the back of the house, and we watched, clasped in each other's arms, as the swarm slowly drifted away towards the hillside paddocks.

It was a precious moment, for these days I am not often cast in the role of a hero.


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