Friday, May 10, 2013


Bee on flower in Loveland, Colorado. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman. 

It was a warm afternoon in Sandoval County, New Mexico and I was doubling up on my dog walking. Buddy, my 100 pound male chocolate lab likes to walk with Baby, the Australian Shepherd/German Shepherd/Bull Terrier mix that found me in the desert because the two are well-paced, brisk walkers, so I took them around the four-block circle first then returned for Buddy's sister, Holly, and Chewy the Chihuahua, who I tucked inside my jacket.

Chewy the chihuahua. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

I checked the mail and stood in front of my neighbor's house looking at my recent issue of Audubon Magazine. Chewy the Chihuahua appeared to be dozing in my jacket, although I did notice his ears twitching, which I thought was odd. Holly sat very still between the toes of my shoes.

Bee on flower in Loveland, Colorado. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

Suddenly, I heard the strangest sound, like a dozen chain saws. A few minutes earlier I passed one of our neighbors working with a saw in his garage, so I assumed he changed tools to something larger and returned my attention to the magazine. Then, out of the corner of my eye I saw a black cloud moving over the house across the street. It was one of those odd moments where something is so completely out of place that you actually have to stop and think for a few seconds about what it could possibly be, even though you know what is coming toward you...and within seconds we were engulfed in a thick cloud of bees swirling around my face, head and body. I could barely see Chewy in my arms and could no longer see Holly at all, though she was still sitting very quietly near my feet.

Bee on sunflower in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

It was such a strange sensation. I wasn't the least bit afraid--perhaps because not one even attempted to land on me--but I was curious. I'd never seen or heard of anything like this, particularly in New Mexico. I sensed that the bees were agitated, but I've been swarmed twice before by red wasps in Texas and they usually start stinging immediately. The red wasps chased me back into my home and slammed their bodies against the glass door. They stung me 15 times when I was first swarmed and 18 the second time. My husband finally found their underground nest and blocked it, hoping they would move on. According to the neighbors, they simply move to the next property, then the next one, and so on.

Bee on flower in Kingsland, Texas. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

Having recently moved from Texas my first thought was killer bees and as they swarmed around me I mentally prepared to run into the neighbor's home as I noticed when I checked the mail that his front door was open. One sting, I told myself, just one sting and the dogs and I will be off like a shot.

Chewy the Chihuahua is a very sensitive dog. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

I felt Chewy move slightly and realized he was awake, but both Chewy and Holly were holding very still. Perhaps they sensed that movement might anger the bees. Animals certainly know more about other animals than we humans. I really have no explanation for why they held still. I knew I should try not to feel fear. I've heard many times before that bees can sense fear, but that didn't seem to be a problem for any of us. It was curiosity, not fear that held us in place.

Holly is also a sensitive dog, and extremely obedient. 
If I stop, she stops. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

So we stood in silence and stillness for at least five minutes, maybe more, maybe less. It was dark and loud and the movement of the bees felt like a slight breeze against my skin. To be honest, I lost all concept of time. I have no idea how long we stood in the middle of the street (there are no sidewalks in my neighborhood so we always walk in the street).

Bee on wildflower in Kingsland, Texas. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

As suddenly as they had swarmed around us, swirling past our faces, between our bodies, never landing, they just as suddenly started moving upward, forming what appeared to be a black tornado rising above our heads. We continued to stand in place, but I did look upward and that is precisely how they appeared, like a tornado. They moved sideways like a cloud, then to the side again forming a second cloud. They appeared to be following a leader, their movements synchronized, like a dance, and I began to feel as if I was experiencing something magical. Then the cloud of bees moved to the front of my neighbor's house, hovered near his door, rose up the front of the house, over the roof and back down the other side, and the majority of the bees disappeared.

Bee on daisy in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

As I watched the last of the bees I raised my camera to take a picture of the tail end of the swarm. There was only about 40 or 50 left at the top of the roof. I knew the majority of the swarm was in my neighbor's yard and I was worried about my neighbor's little dog, then I heard his dog bark from inside the house and realized he had seen the swarm, but was safe.

Bee on flower in Loveland, Colorado. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

I ran home, unloaded and unleashed the dogs, downloaded the pictures, made a copy and jumped into my truck. I first drove to the neighbor who was working in his driveway with the saw, but he said he hadn't seen a thing. He needed to know, though, in case the swarm became angry by the noise. Then I drove to the nearby school bus stops and warned the parents who always park on the sides of the road waiting for their children--they recognized me because I generally walk my dogs when their children are coming home from school. I stopped at a group of teenagers walking home and warned them not to scream or panic if they saw the swarm. Then I returned to the neighbor whose house I was standing in front of when the bees arrived.

You can see the dots above and on the roof tiles. These are the last of the bees as they swarmed over my neighbor's roof. I waited to take a picture until I was certain they were all far away from me and the dogs. I lost the opportunity for a great picture, but at least we were not stung. 

My neighbor once worked with bees and has a family member who still works with bees. He said it was a potentially dangerous situation, that the bees were possibly angry and agitated due to the destruction of their habitat or the loss of their queen. He thought they probably entered his backyard then headed north toward the lake at the golf course since they need water. Unfortunately, the golf course is also near the local elementary school, but by that time the children were already on their way home and on the school buses. I showed him the picture and described the swarm, the largest swarm of any kind I have ever seen or imagined. He suggested I call animal control and report the swarm, which I did.

Bee on Russian Sage in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

When I posted about the swarm on Facebook my friend, Angela England, who writes about homesteading told me that she did not think I was in any real danger, that it sounded as if the bees were simply looking for a new home. Angela recommends raising bees for people who want to farm on an acre of land or less and wrote a chapter about it in her book: Backyard Farming on an Acre (More or Less). The chapter is called "Beekeeping in Your Backyard," and according to Angela beekeeping is "one of the fastest-growing city homesteading trends in the nation." By coincidence, I am also writing a review about one of my favorite shows, Pushing Daisies. The couple in this show bakes pies on the ground floor of a skyscraper and raise bees for the honey on the roof of the building. In the show, they also mention beekeeping as a city trend.

Bee on Russian Sage in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

To be honest, after the magic of the moment wore off I did begin to feel a bit of fear, but it was not for reasons one might think. I knew that if they began to sting I would run into my neighbors house with my dogs--I always highly recommend getting to know your neighbors for your safety and the safety of your animals. I was also close enough to home to run zig zag down the street and into the house.

Bee on flower in Marble Falls, Texas. Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

No, my fear was that there was something more serious behind the swarm. First, I want to be clear that I cannot even begin to adequately describe how large this cloud of bees was when they it approached me. My concern is that the environmental factors are affecting the behavior of the insects. My husband and I have noticed on our walks that many of our neighbors spray their entire front rockscaping with an herbicide so powerful it stains the rocks for weeks.

This photo was taken in April of last year. The desert was filled with purple, white and orange wildflowers, waves of color. Right now, there is not a single flower blooming. 

But it is the drought that concerns me most. New Mexico is in a severe drought, more severe than any other state is experiencing right now and I suspect it will set a dramatic weather record as we did not have any snow whatsoever during the winter and still haven't had any rain this spring. My husband and I visited the desert a few days ago, which is only five minutes from our home, and there wasn't a single wildflower blooming. Not one sagebrush was greening up and the branches of the Cholla trees were gray and hanging limply downward. I don't know how the swarm could have been connected to the drought, but I do know that everyone I spoke to that day said they have never heard of or seen as many bees as I described. I hope the swarm was a normal, natural event. I hope that my fears are unfounded.

Right now, the New Mexico desert is like a tinderbox waiting for a spark.