Field notes from the front steps

 

Back in early spring, when just a few buds had cracked open, the world was constrained by a strip of pavement, a lawn, the driveway with the basketball hoop at the end, the dusty colors of sidewalk chalk. The Mission Mountains, Sapphires, Bitterroots - sheltering bears, mountain lions, and elk - were visible from various spots in the neighborhood; they and their inhabitants floated out of reach. 

Because I spend so much time here on the porch, keeping an eye on my 3-year-old twins, checking that the boy doesn't run into the street, that the girl doesn't taste all the flowers, it was hard to miss the odd bees that swooped and dove one warm afternoon. 

All kinds of wild bees come to glean pollen from the tiny patches of Montana wildflowers in our front yard, just a smattering of the 4,000 bee species native to North America. Many days, the air is thick with buzzing. Small ones with green stripes; big bumblebees that look clumsy until you watch their precise gestures; some striped like honeybees but more streamlined, as if they had been crossed with miniature military planes. A neighbor with a more ambitious prairie garden showed me the soil-dwelling bees living next to the peeling red paint of her steps. Large and black, daubed with yellow mid-back, these ones hummed just by my face as they headed to the porch swing. 

Crawling underneath the swing, I looked up to see the tiny screw holes tamped with mud. One of the mud cells was empty, a hole punched in the middle, leaving hard dirt around the edges. Excavation with a pencil tip revealed bright yellow pollen packed at the back of the cavity. All the construction loosened the screws - one was almost out - and I fixed them before sitting back on the swing and wondering what was going on down there. All summer I checked back, but the holes remain sealed. 

Now, fall has arrived with still no change. Weather reports suggest not just frost but snow. Prickly and brittle blanketflowers drop everything but the round seed heads at their center. Fringed sage, faint green to start with, loses even more color. We harvest our first pumpkin and put it on the front steps. The bees must be dead. The tightening of the screws and wrenching of the wood probably disturbed their wooden cells. Or maybe it was all the swaying. The kids are out, and I pick up a skewer to investigate. 

As I break through the mud seal of one cell, a shower of dirt and bits of pollen rains down. A grey casing, swathed in rough threads, like some monk's rough-hewn garment, is tucked at the back of the hole. I rip one end open, expecting a pale, desiccated husk, but it's black inside. Then the black resolves itself into a thread-thin antenna that straightens as it pokes out. A leg, just at the edge of the tear, extends out, too. 

I take it into the house to the kitchen table where it's warmer. At one point, antennae waving, two legs free now, the bee starts across the table, dragging the cocoon like a hermit crab. Talking to myself to calm my hasty hands - "don't crush it" - I use tweezers to pull it out. Like its parents, it is all black except the bronze film of wings, and tuft of gold behind the head. The face is black, too, with two gold arrows that point up like eyebrows of cartoon evil. It must overwinter in that perfect state and emerge in the spring to harvest pollen, mine mud, and look for a good cavity to lay in. 

The kids thunder in and I sweep the cocoon and bee on a book and put it high out of harm's way. Hours later when I check back, the casing is alone, looking more empty than ever. The bee must have found its wings and zoomed off, into the wrong habitat, into the wrong season. 

It leaves behind, in the broken bits and dust, a sense of wildness close at hand. More bees are in the porch swing, ready to be rocked through the cold. The surface of house, street, distant hills appears so calm and smooth, waiting for snow, but everything is, so subtly, shaking. 

Kim Todd's most recent book, Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis, will be out in paperback next month.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • FEATURES DIRECTOR - HIGH COUNTRY NEWS
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Features Director to join our editorial...
  • GENERAL MANAGER
    The Board of UYWCD seeks a new GM to manage operations & to implement our robust strategic plan. Details at www.upperyampawater.com. EOE
  • IN TUCSON, FOR SALE: A BEAUTIFUL, CLASSIC MID-CENTURY MODERN HOME
    designed by architect David Swanson in 1966. Located a block from Saguaro National Forest, yet minutes to Downtown and the UofA campus, 3706 sqft, 6...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Friends of the San Juans is seeking a new leader guide our efforts to protect and restore the San Juan Islands and the Salish...
  • 80 ACRES
    straddles North Platte Fishery, Wyoming. Legal access 2 miles off 1-80. Call 720-440-7633.
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • OWN A THRIVING MOUNTAIN GUIDE SERVICE.
    Eastern Sierra guide service for sale to person with vision & expertise to take it onwards. Since 1995 with USFS & NPS permits. Ideal for...
  • IMPROVED LOT
    Private road, hillside, views. Well, pad, septic, 99 sq.ft. hut. Dryland permaculture orchard. Wildlife. San Diego--long growing season
  • UNIQUE INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITY
    Profitable off-the-grid business located 2 miles from Glacier National Park. Owner has 6 years operating experience. Seeking investor or partner for business expansion and enhancement....
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...