When I was eleven I was stung by a yellow jacket. The attack seemed malicious and without provocation. I was helping carry a Ping-Pong table out of the neighbor’s garage at the time and couldn’t imagine why it considered me a threat.
I can’t remember if I was afraid of bees before that day but I was after. For years I retreated in the fastest way possible at the sound of buzzing. I left a wake of flung sodas and dumped picnic plates fleeing from wasps, yellow jackets and hornets.
After college I lived on my own. In one apartment after another I was plagued by insects that sting. In the third-floor apartment of an old house, wasps could get in through the skylight in the living room. When I got home from work in the evening they would dive bomb me as if I was the usurper. In a townhouse I would come home to find a string of paper wasp nests hanging from jam over my front door every evening all summer. In one very temporary rental I woke one morning to the sound of two-inch long carpenter bees bashing themselves against the inside of the windows.
For the first few years I lived alone, Raid was my friend. I could kill the insects from a distance and was therefore willing to live with the chemical consequences. Around the time I gave up a few unhealthy habits from my youth, I decided that the chemical warfare might be doing some damage to me as well. So I summoned what courage I could and switched to using water from a spray bottle or the hose. It took longer but I never got stung.
I took up gardening. Over the long hours of weeding and planting I became acquainted with a new type of bee. There were little black ones who quietly passed by me on their way to some bloom or their nest. Initially I was afraid of them as well but they ignored me no matter how close I got to them. Getting to know mason bees, bumble bees and leaf cutters I began to lose the panicked reaction to bees.
Finally, one cool summer night, I decided to deal with a yellow jacket nest forming on one of my deck chairs the way my father would. Grabbing a broom I stalked outside. Thrusting the handled end out in front of me, I advanced on the chair. Then retreated when one cold-groggy bee emitted a slurry buzz from beneath the chair.
I could have fenced with the chair all night except it occurred to me that no less than four neighbors had front row seats to my demonstration should they care to look. I lunged again and knocked the nest off the chair and then jumped on it before any angry defenders could emerge. All those years of sticking my balance beam dismounts paid off in that moment. I felt brave despite the shot of scotch I had when I went back inside.
Since then I have made even made more progress. The last time a bee got caught in the house I captured it in a box and released it out the back door. A local bee keeper has two honeybee hives in my yard and I have monitored swarms for them.
This year I installed a little nesting box for mason bees outside my backdoor. These bees are at risk because of habitat loss and pesticide use. It seems only fair to help them out when they taught me so much about facing my fears.