Jose’s Swarm

"You knew Jose died, didn't you?" my mother asked. I hadn't. I knew he was old with a face like the cracked plaster and a wide grin over brown teeth, but I didn't know he died.

I once did humanitarian work deep in the mountains of central Mexico, where beekeeping wasn't something you did for a hobby. It wasn't something you did for money. It was something you did so that maybe your children wouldn't starve over the winter.

We were roofing mud buildings that might have come from the previous decade or perhaps the previous century. The house of that day was miles away, and though we set out when the frost was still crisp on our sleeping bags by the time we were working, the sun hung high enough to fill the valley. We worked away the hours, conversation flowing like rain from the workers on the ridge row down the corrugated tin, back and forth through the houses. It was around ten in the morning, the air was warm and filled with the scent of the ancient cedars.  The hive nearest the house changed its tone.

We had encountered bees the day before that chased us down the road for the crime of being twenty yards away and I was terrified of these bees.  One of my team mates delighted in tossing other people's tools into the flight path of the nearest hive.  As I walked over to retrieve once more my hammer, I could not help but interpret their change in tone as "come one step closer and you will regret it." The nails were waiting for me and my hammer lay just a few yards away beneath the constant flow of bees.

With my eyes fixed on the entrance to the hive I edged into the bee stream like it was freezing water.  I turned myself sideways in an effort to present less of a target.  As if on cue the bees began to surge out of the hive like water being poured from a dish.  There were so many bees they couldn't all take off, so many they were colliding with each other, swirling in the air, bouncing off of me. The buzz of ten thousand wings filled the air, rising in volume like the terror that rippled through me.

I was not a beekeeper.

I had never witnessed a swarm.

I was certain this was the beginning of a hideous painful death.

My team mates ran for cover. I stood petrified as my knees quivered, my stomach squirmed and my brain tried to decide which of my ears it most wanted to crawl out of.

I did not know (and would not have believed) that the bees were not after me. The swarm swirled, dove, and filled the air like a cloud, bees streaming after each other till they blended together in streams like flying ribbons.  It came to rest about 100 feet of the ground in a tree.

Calm enveloped the work site. It was quiet.  I could hear the Senora of the family patting blue corn tortillas for the lunch to come. I could hear the goat bells ringing as they brushed against the split log fences, and the sound of my own pulse throbbing in my ears as the fear receded.

I concluded that I was neither dead nor mortally wounded and went back to work. It was hard to hammer and keep an eye on the bees but I found a way.

The villagers were not pleased. The swarm was too far up the tree to climb and there was no convenient place to fell the hundreds of years old mountain cedar. My co-workers came back to work while the men gathered to discuss this with the oldest man in the village, Jose.

Jose had once been a Catholic priest, and he was still the corazon of the village, father in flesh to many, in spirit to all.  Jose squinted and leaned on his cane, then spoke quiet words.  Jose had a plan, and the younger men were dispatched to put it in motion.

Around lunch the activity picked up as his extended family arrived. Women, children, men, all carrying dented and worn pots, cans, even a rusted VW hubcap. Work on the house came to a stop as we watched this carnival. Around the tree the villagers gathered. and Jose began to count in Spanish, loud, strong, as his flock beat their makeshift instruments in time.

It was loud.

It was really, really loud.

I pulled aside the interpreter and asked him what they were doing.

"Move, move them" he yelled. It was amazing how loud the ad-hoc band of drummers were but their beat was impeccable. The air echoed sharply with each syllable and rebounded from the valley walls.  While I could not see the swarm against the high sun, the hive on the ground was definitely reacting. Bees crawled out of the entrance and up to the top, milling back and forth like a carpet of glistening brown.  Bees zoomed from the hives back and forth everywhere.

My team mates fled to less bee infested ground. I heard shouting from the men. The swarm moved. The shouts quickly turned to hisses because the swarm moved from one cedar to another a few yards away and equally tall. They never broke time and I was not in the least surprised to see that marching band surround the next tree, still raising a cacophony like the heartbeat of hell. This time the swarm moved quickly and landed lower on the tree. Again shouts came up.  Again they beat louder, harder.

I am not a bee.

I cannot speak to them.

They do not speak to me.

I cannot say what they were thinking.

However, I _can_ testify that at this point I wanted to relocate to any place further away from that awful noise. I winced with each pulse, grimaced at the echoes. It could not have continued more than half a minute. It could not have been less than an eternity until the clump of bees dissolved and coalesced again on a wooden fence across the field.

Jose’s son triumphantly swept into a burlap bag. As quickly as it arrived the bee banging army dissolved, drifting back to their fields and houses.

Fascinated, I asked our interpreter (who also kept bees) about the tactic. He explained to me that keeping in time was the key to agitating the bees. He also said it was not uncommon to rile the surrounding colonies to the point of leaving the hive.  "The important thing is to beat the pans - if you beat the pans, the swarm will move." When would they move? "Right now, if it's loud enough. Otherwise about a day. Just beat the pans."

So now we arrive where beekeeping, tradition, and superstition intersect. Better beekeepers than I say that beating pots, pans, or farm implements does not affect the behavior of bees. They say that banging a pot was to warn other people that the swarm was claimed by someone following it. I didn't know that at the time. Jose would not have cared. The tradition passed from father to son was a hereditary programming as fixed as the instinct that drives the bees.

It has been nearly two decades since I first set foot in that valley.  I have little reason to believe that things have changed. The mountains that break the approaching storms seemed to stall time itself. Their life moved slowly and changed little. They probably still welcome swarms as a easy way to get more bees. They probably still beat the pans to "move" swarms. They could be wrong to do so, or perhaps ineffective. I cannot say.  I have learned that there are many things I'll never know about bees and many that I might know but perhaps these particular bees did not.

Jose died a few years ago. He lives on at the crossroads of my memories, where the summer day goes on forever. His son now keeps the bees, passing on what he was taught before.  It is a mixture of truth and belief, tradition and superstition. Two decades and a generation of beekeepers later they still count the days to harvest on a worn coca cola calendar. The bees keep their own time on a calendar no man can read.  If they know the years have passed they do not say.