Ed Colby: The little darlings vs. little bastards
July 16, 2002
Su Lum wrote that she noticed a “plethora of bees” in Aspen this summer. She assumed they’re mine, and she compared them to rats.
But wild honeybees suckled sweet clover on the green hills of Aspen long before I arrived. They still do. I could show you a bee tree or two.
I actually meant to sidestep this, but then Krumm called. He said it’s a plethora of yellow jackets.
Yellow jackets look a little like honeybees, but they’re bigger. They fly faster. They like to sting. They make trouble, not honey. Yellow jackets are omnivorous. If a “bee” lands on your hamburger, it’s a yellow jacket. Yellow jackets like watermelon and Mountain Dew. Did you ever get stung on the lip? That was a yellow jacket.
The gentle honeybee never sucks melted ice cream from your paper plate. She sips sweet nectar from the throats of wildflowers. God put these little darlings on the Earth to make honey for our tea and to pollinate our crops. Without them, there would be no cherries, no strawberries, no succulent Colorado peaches, no mead to make us merry.
No one calls yellow jackets “little darlings.” We call them “little bastards.” Yet time and again people crucify the saintly honeybee for the sins of the yellow jacket.
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When the Methodists asked me to get some nasty “bees” out of the church roof, Paul and I took out not killer bees, but a colony of peaceful innocents. Yet good Christians still kept getting stung every Sunday as they marched into church, because you see, we removed the honeybees from the roof, not the yellow jackets from the front steps.
Yellow jackets like to nest in the sheave-wheel assemblies of ski lift towers. They never bother you on the chair. But if you climb around on the tower, watch out. When I worked at Snowmass in the summer, I took Kelly up on the lift cable to teach her how to ride those little trolleys that patrollers use to evacuate the lifts if they break.
The trolley wheels ride on top of the cable. You hang in a harness below. Your weight engages a brake. To slide down the cable, you pull back on the brake handle. Swallows fly around you. Once you get the hang of it, you fly, too.
Kelly didn’t fly. She carefully followed instructions on this, maybe her second or third cable ride.
To get past each tower, you step onto a rope ladder, pull yourself up onto a slippery bar next to the sheave wheels, move a couple of safety harnesses, then reach back down and lift a 20- to 30-pound trolley from the cable.
I got off first – right into a maelstrom of yellow jackets. Clearly they had a nest, and yellow jackets aggressively defend their home. I moved quickly, but remember, I’m the teacher. I’ve done this a hundred times. I retreated to the opposite side of the tower.
Hanging in her harness from the trolley, Kelly’s bare brown legs dangled beneath her. She could scarcely have been more vulnerable. She shouted, “Will the yellow jackets get me?”
I said, “Just self-evacuate. It’s simple.” I explained how, and she zipped to the ground on the end of a rope. She follows directions perfectly.
The trolley remained on the cable, however – right next to the tower. I knew that yellow jackets are less likely to sting if you’re not in their space or eating their hot dog, so I retrieved the trolley by climbing around the yellow jacket space. They defend a pretty small area – I’d guess maybe a seven- or eight-foot radius. There was room to maneuver up there, and I escaped unscathed – that time.
Personally, I don’t know a thing about any kind of plethora in Aspen. But go ahead and call it a plethora of bees, if you want, or call it a plethora of yellow jackets. Just don’t call it a plethora of Ed’s bees, because my bees don’t live in Aspen. They live way out in the country, and they never go to town, even though it would be practically a straight shot.
[ Beekeeper and ski patroller Ed Colby’s column runs on Tuesdays. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.]