5. Rituals of Uncertainty
With the bees firmly homesteaded at our main entrance, we were faced with a series of limitations. In addition to our front door on lock down, we also had an upstairs window we couldn’t open. Due to its proximity to the hive, opening the window could potentially lead the swarm directly into our bedroom.
Within minutes of my drone discovery, I phoned the company that removed the original hive from our attic three months earlier. Unfortunately, they had a 30 day guarantee, which meant I went into begging and pleading mode.
“Why didn’t you call us sooner,” they asked.
The thought of responding with, “Have you seen what we’re up against here?” did in fact, cross my mind. Instead, I explained we were locked in a three-month escrow during which the bees had converted our front door into a parking lot.
Eventually the company agreed to extend their “guarantee.” The only caveat was we had to wait a week, leaving us with mixed emotions about those troublesome bees.
At our former home, a 1950s farmhouse in Vista, we inherited a hive that produced 20 pounds of honey annually. The previous owner left it with the property, along with the contact info of the bee keeper. She told us he harvested the honey in exchange for keeping half the bounty. As a member of the San Diego Bee Society, he drove over an hour just for our honey, which we found rather interesting.
But, what we learned over time, was the value of our honey in particular. Our yard was full of rosemary and lavender, in addition to a plethora of trees ranging from apple and pepper to orange and lowquat. Those worker bees pollinated their little hearts out, as if born to buzz in the Garden of Eden.
We loved those bees, almost as much as we loved their honey — a rich, complex, sweet-peppery blend as dark as molasses. That’s when we told our beekeeper we had the honey thing under control.
And so, on that first harvest in the dead of summer, we wrapped Benjamin like a mummy in his snowboarding outfit — scarf, goggles, gloves and all. Needless to say, we weren’t quite ready to make a full investment in a pricy bee suit, so naturally, the snowboarding garb seemed like a brilliant idea.
That is, until Benjamin began to overheat in the sweltering sun, overwhelmed by an aggressive swarm of Africanized bees pelting his ski mask. Bending over to smoke the colony, his shirt un-tucked from his pants, his jacket pulled up his back, and suddenly the bees had an access point to attack my brave warrior. That’s when I noticed him walking toward us.
“You okay?” . . . “Should I open the garage?” . . . “We’re proud of you!”
Chucho and I cheered him on from the kitchen window, pushing our noses up against the screen longing for a progress report. Calmly and collectedly, Benjamin passed us by, mumbling something beneath his scarf.
“Love . . . ?” I called.
Again, Benjamin passed us by, not once, but twice, calmly lapping the house with a stream of bees in his wake. Trying to lose them in his journey, he eventually knocked on the garage door, and then pushed his way safely into the house.
“I pissed them off,” he said, ripping off his fogged goggles. “I pissed them off real good.”
His lower back was covered in stings and he was dripping with sweat. It was then and there we decided to do our belated homework, attending bee meetings, reading articles, and investing in every protective bee gear possible. We bought a bee suit and honey spinner, and hosted annual harvesting parties with Benjamin’s closest friends. For brews and brats, the “bros” would drape $8 netting over their bodies from Yardage Town fabric shop down the street.
In this ritual of uncertainty, Chucho and I would get a front row seat to the action, watching from the kitchen window as five grown men in cowboy hats and lace marched toward the angry hive. As master of the swarm, Benjamin called dibs on the bee suit.
The honey-harvesting progress was beautiful to witness, growing wiser with each attempt. In our pursuit to “live off the land,” we stopped using sugar and increased our dessert production like an underground bakery. Pies, jams, cookies, limoncello — anything that called for sugar was substituted with honey. Our specialty was ice cream made with honey, rosemary, and orange —all on-site ingredients that left us wanting to kiss the hive.
Over the course of seven years, those bees taught us a lot about work ethic and gave us an appreciation for the toils of nature. It became my habit to gently place dying bees on flowers to wave goodbye to the world in peace.
I loved those bees.
And now, in Valley Center, we had a new hive, only this one cozied up at our front door. Although we didn’t have a history, I greeted them in the morning on my way down the stairs. I paused to watch them dance in the comb. And at sunset, I observed as their two-lane highway become one-directional as they called it a day.
So, I did what any new home owner might do after back-to-back letdowns. I called the bee-removal company and asked if we could keep the bees. They explained that the hive couldn’t be transplanted elsewhere on our property, for the simple fact the front door was their home. Programmed for that very spot, the bees would return there unless moved five miles away.
Gazing out the window, I shared my internal dilemma with Benjamin. “What if we just agree to never use our front door?” I shrugged.
“—or open our window,” Benjamin sarcastically added.
And that was that. The bee-removal company came, and I drove away with the dogs, for the simple fact I hate goodbyes. . . . unless . . .it comes to rats. Flipping rats! They were still taunting us by the day.
They were officially out of control, especially in the attic, barn, and garage. Our dogs were entertained from sunup to sundown, noses to the ground with visions of the next catch.
With Benjamin pulling eight-hour days at TurboTax, we leaned heavily on my dad and his crew to help lift the daily load — part of that load being our rat militia. He too bought traps by the bag-load, strategically placing them in dark corners and crevices.
When we needed him most, my dad cleared his schedule for two weeks — bringing his team to trim dead oak-and-olive branches, replace broken sprinklers, pull weeds, and everything in between. There were days my dad did nothing but drive back-and-forth to the dump, while his team prepared the next load of garbage and green waste.
In between my freelance writing gigs, I periodically checked on their progress with a batch of outstretched cookies. As much work as they accomplished, it seemed our official “to do” list stayed stagnate. That’s when Benjamin called a time-out with my dad’s crew.
“Hey guys,” he said, one morning before work. “Big project today. I have a project that you can start and finish in one day.”
Even I perked up with intrigue.
“The goal today is to get our two cars into the garage by sunset.”
It was as if Benjamin challenged them to climb Mount Everest. The garage, or “carriage house” as we called it, was packed with boxes and miscellaneous items the previous owner left behind. It was the definition of a disaster.
Benjamin waved goodbye, I turned toward my dad, and then started to laugh. It was my defense mechanism for tears.
From 7:00 AM until 5:00 PM, my dad and his two workers removed every single item from our two-story carriage house. Then, they swept. Then they hit every square inch with a blower, before power-washing the ceilings, walls, and floors.
There was water everywhere, mixed with filth, debris, and rodents — their tiny limbs flailing like kids at a waterpark. My dad coughed and wheezed, waving off my pleas to wear an outstretched mask.
Benjamin came home from work and we did the unfathomable. We parked our cars in the carriage house that had been utilized as a massive storage unit for over a decade. I doubt my dad ever knew, that single act of order was our rainbow in the storm.
That is, of course, until we received our first utility bills. After just three weeks at the property, our first electric bill topped $500 and our water bill $400.
Benjamin and I have always believed in smart living, in sustainable living—a way of habitation that, in Vista, led us to recycle rainwater, line-dry our clothes, cut out central heating and air, and edit creature comforts like TVs and microwaves. We did it before, and we would do it again. First, we needed to determine the source of our uber-wattage.
After calling the electric company, we learned that most of our power usage was in a six-day window: the days leading up to our antique show, and the weekend of the show.
That night when Benjamin came home from work, I told him the unfortunate news about our electric bill, that had taken us from $40 a month in Vista to $500 in Valley Center.
Together, we walked under the moonlight toward the barn, pulling open the massive white doors. I flipped on the switch and stared at the 12 ornate chandeliers illuminating the historic building. There were cobwebs and wires dangling from the rafters, like an abandoned training center for trapeze artists.
Sighing with despair, I gazed at the 35-foot ceilings and asked, “So, what do we do now?
He turned toward me with certainty. “We take down every single chandelier, every single wire, every single cobweb, and then, we put up strands of market lights.”
Flipping the switch, the barn went black. “That,” he said, “is what we do.”
Next story on "Channeling Betty" coming soon.