Swarm season always arrived by telephone. The red rotary phone jangled to life every spring with frantic callers reporting honeybees in their walls, or in their chimneys, or in their trees.
I was pouring Grandpa's honey over my corn bread when he came out of the kitchen with that sly smile that said we'd have to let our breakfast go cold again. I was ten, and had been catching swarms with him for almost half my life, so I knew what was coming next. He slugged back his coffee in one gulp and wiped his mustache with the back of his arm.
"Got us another one," he said.
This time the call came from the private tennis ranch about a mile away on Carmel Valley Road. As I climbed into the passenger seat of his rickety pickup, he tapped the gas pedal to coax it to life. The engine finally caught and we screeched out of the driveway, kicking up a spray of gravel behind us. He whizzed past the speed limit signs, which I knew from riding with Granny said to go twenty-five. We had to hurry to catch the swarm because the bees might get an idea to fly off somewhere else.
Grandpa careened into the tennis club and squealed to a stop near a cattle fence. He leaned his shoulder into his jammed door and creaked it open with a grunt. We stepped into a mini-cyclone of bees, a roaring inkblot in the sky, banking left and right like a flock of birds. My heart raced with them, frightened and awestruck at the same time. It seemed like the air was throbbing.
"Why are they doing that?" I shouted over the din. Grandpa bent down on one knee and leaned toward my ear.
"The queen left the hive because it got too crowded inside," he explained. "The bees followed her because they can't live without her. She's the only bee in the colony that lays eggs."
I nodded to show Grandpa that I understood.
The swarm was now hovering near a buckeye tree. Every few seconds, a handful of bees darted out of the pack and disappeared into the leaves. I walked closer, and looked up to see that the bees were gathering on a branch into a ball about the size of an orange. More bees joined the cluster until it swelled to the size of a basketball, pulsating like a heart.
"The queen landed there," Grandpa said. "The bees are protecting her."
When the last few bees found their way to the group, the air became still again.
"Go wait for me back by the truck," Grandpa whispered.
I leaned against the front bumper, and watched as he climbed a stepladder until he was nose-to-nose with the bees. Dozens of them crawled up his bare arms as he sawed the branch with a hacksaw. Just then a groundskeeper started up a lawn mower, startling the bees and sending them back into the air in a panic. Their buzz rose to a piercing whine, and the bees gathered into a tighter, faster circle.
"Dammit all to hell!" I heard Grandpa cuss.
He called out to the groundskeeper, and the mower sputtered off. While Grandpa waited for the swarm to settle back down into the tree, I felt something crawling on my scalp. I reached up and touched fuzz, and then felt wings and tiny legs thrashing in my hair. I tossed my head to dislodge the bee, but it only became more tangled and distressed, its buzz rising to the high pitch of a dentist's drill. I took deep breaths to brace for what I knew was coming.
When the bee buried its stinger in my skin, the burn raced in a line from my scalp to my molars, making me clench my jaw. I frantically searched my hair again, and stifled a scream as I discovered another bee swimming in my hair, then another, my alarm radiating out wider and wider from behind my rib cage as I felt more fuzzy lumps than I could count, a small squadron of honeybees struggling with a terror equal to my own.
Then I smelled bananas—the scent bees emit to call for backup—and I knew that I was under attack. I felt another searing prick at my hairline followed by a sharp pierce behind my ear, and collapsed to my knees. I was fainting, or maybe I was praying. I thought that I might be dying. Within seconds, Grandpa had my head in his hands.