Uncanny cool

I just had the most uncanny, coolest experience. It’s 6 PM. I’m out on a walk along a road that runs by a swampy river called Birch Creek to a fork in the road. The sky is this glorious blue with brilliant white and gray clouds. I stop and pick some ripe black currents off a little spindly bush growing down off the shoulder in the rocks and continue on.

I take the left fork, south along the hill and enjoy the sight of the mown fields, a scattering of green ton bales standing on the short meadow grass, and the storm clouds gathering over the hills to the west.

A few rabbits spook and run across the road. I reach the mile mark and turn back. I’d already done 30 minutes worth of shred before the walk and needed to get back to practice basketball with my oldest. The whole time I’m listening to Lois McMaster Bujold’s HALLOWED HUNT read by Marguerite Gavin. It’s warm, sunny, lovely. The story is good.

I come back by the fork and hear this sound over the audio. It’s like a single prop airplane in the distance. I continue on another hundred yards. That distant, thin drone grows, but I can’t figure out what it is, so I put the audio book on hold and take off the ear phones.

The air is perfectly still. That muggy stillness that precedes a storm. But all around me is this sound. This thin drone, filling up road. It’s coming from all sides.


I look down off the side of the road at the sloughs and cattails and willows and see nothing. I look back up. Look around. And then I notice a small black body speed past. And another. And another.

Flies? It can’t be flies. When have you ever seen a fly pursue a straight line?

Three more. Half a dozen. Another, another, and they’re everywhere. But they’re not flying thickly. Not mobbing. Not massed in some cartoon clump. They’re all spread out. I strain to see them in this odd light.

Bees. They’re dark. Almost black in their flight, but it has to be bees!

And they’re all around, thirty feet to either side of me. Zooming past. There, there, and there. It’s like dozens and dozens of refugees in flight with single purpose. There’s no looping around. No dalliance. No crazy panic. They’re serious, focused. All of them going the same way. Straight ahead on some urgent goal.

There’s a big fat blue dragonfly in the willows that keeps zipping after individual bees as they fly past, trying to get a meal, but each time, just at the moment when it would attack, it spooks and darts back for cover. Dragonflies are voracious buggers. But these aren’t single bees. It must be thinking the other bees are coming for it. Still it can’t resist and darts out again.

And all around is the humming. It grows. The bees directly in front of me see me as they approach and make course corrections. I keep walking. A half a mile and the thin droning still surrounds me. The bees keep coming, but they’re thinning.

Thunder cracks behind me. The wind begins to pick up. The sky behind me is darkening.

The sound of the drone grows thinner, is almost gone. But there are bees still out there, following. I can hear them. See them. Individuals trailing the others, flying past me toward the storm that’s still about a mile off. And I think they’re too far behind.

Maybe their hive was wrecked. Maybe it’s just time to swarm and there’s a queen up front leading them. And somehow her scent is on the wind. Somehow they know to follow.

I don’t know if they’ll find a new place. They’re going to have to cross a mile of mown meadow before they get to anything that might serve as any type of shelter. I don’t know if the wind will ground them, or the main group will find safety but the stragglers will be blown to their deaths. All I know is that I’m sitting here in awe, electric with life.

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6 Responses to Uncanny cool

  1. TiaNevitt says:

    That sounds very cool, but also terrifying! I think once I realized that the bees weren’t interested in me I might have been OK.

    Once when I was working on the flightline, some bees were swarming over near Hotel Flight. I was outside of Kilo Flight, so I was a safe distance away. Some of the guys got badly stung and they had to shut down the flightline for a while.

  2. John Brown says:

    Thankfully, I’d read up on bees many years ago, and one of the things that stuck out in my mind was that when they were swarming to find a new hive they were quite docile. In fact, some bee farmers could walk up to a branch covered in them and they would remain calm. So I didn’t have any fear. Just to joy and surprise at the good fortune of being in the middle of it all.


  3. John Brown says:

    And from Christine Mehring, someone who actually owns bees. I asked her to confirm this was a relocation swarming.


    Hi, John.

    Sounds like a lovely day. Yes, what you described was a colony on the move. Up where you are there aren’t any Africanized bees, and European bees generally only throw one swarm a year in the spring, so what you saw was probably an absconding hive. For reasons unknown, the queen decided to up-stakes. Could have been disturbed by a predator, or discovered disease starting, or they became honey-bound (meaning the workers brought in too much honey and there was no longer space for the queen to lay), or they didn’t have enough nectar sources, or she just didn’t like the color of the wallpaper. At this point in the year, where you are, I’d guess honey-bound. The fact that they were on the move at all indicates a feral colony or a backyard hobbyist’s. Most beekeepers clip the queen’s wing to keep her at home. You’re right that they posed you no threat whatsoever. It is a fine thing to stand in the middle of a calm, peaceful swarm going about their business. Once, I was out hanging laundry when a swarm decided to move into a stack of empty hive boxes in the corner of the yard. It was very beautiful.

  4. Hezekiah says:

    That reminds me: two weeks ago I was on a road trip through southeast Utah and southwest Colorado. While driving from Mesa Verde to Monument Valley, we passed through Bluff. We were speeding along at 65 beneath the red-rock cliffs, approaching bluff, when I realize that all around there are thousands of butterflies. I check my rear-view to make sure no one else is following me, and slam on the brakes.

    That woke the wife up. The kids looked up from their movie.

    We just sat there for a few seconds, surrounded by thousands of little yellow butterflies. They covered the cut field to our left. Just flitting around, being butterflies. Reminded me of my 7-year-old. I wish that I’d pulled over and gotten out with the kids.

    Later, someone commented that the butterflies migrate down through that area each year. Cool stuff.

  5. John Brown says:

    Ooh, that would have been lovely. When I was a kid I had something similar with a Monarch butterfly migration. It was incredible. Never saw anything like it again and have always wanted to.

  6. Ben says:

    I’ve never had an experience like that. Definitely sounds like good fodder for a scene in one of your books.