Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Loveliest Pet I Ever Had

So one day my mom responded to my incessant, childhood demands for Pets by saying, "If you can catch it, you can keep it."

This clearly gender-biased statement banked on the "fact" that my feminine tendencies as a young kid would make it unlikely for me to physically be able to chase down and capture the type of pet a young girl would like (i.e. the fluffier they are, the faster they run).  It also insinuated that the animals I could catch would consist of the less charismatic, slower megafauna (or minifauna?) with such unattractive traits as: multiple legs, segmented thoraxes, tympanic membranes, and slime.

Now, let me make crystal clear the fact that I was never an athletic child.  Alas, despite my comfort in aquatic environments, I was unable to accomplish any of our Walden Elementary School Gym Fitness Goals.  I did not Run the Mile.  I resented it.  I could not do One Chin Up.  I could Climb the Rope as well as your average cashew.  Occasionally, the marriage of Momentum and Terrible Decisions resulted in a forward handspring.  I was Lumpy Nerd Kid.

As you can imagine, my mother believed that this killer combination of Lumpy Kid + Delicate Gender could not a Steve Irwin make.  What a gigantic underestimation of my Desire for Pets!

Despite the massive obstacles I had to overcome to acquire what would eventually become a legendary menagerie, I was not fazed by the idea that I had to collect my own Pets.  I was (and am) so in love most taxa that I was in no way opposed to the slimey or the segmented.  I plunged headfirst into any place that promised Pets! Swamps! Prairies! Algae Blooms! Window Wells! Mud!  Many of these places were too scary for boys, but that is another story entirely.

No, this story is about the loveliest pet I ever had.  I was nine when I found her.

One Sunday morning in early spring, I walked out to the garage of my family's Chicago suburban home to decide what sorts of collection devices I needed for the day's potential harvest of insects.  As I began my search, I noticed a large, fluffy mass of yellow and black struggling on the concrete floor.  This cold-stunned bumblebee had apparently timed poorly its debut from underground and found itself in quite a pickle. 

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I do not generally enjoy the company of any animal with a stinger.  But in the moment I saw little Bumble squirming in the cold, I felt very sorry for her.  "Plus," I reasoned with myself, "this bee is fluffy."

Look at the fur!!!!!!!!!!!!

I grabbed a butterfly net and tenderly scooped her up and placed her in a small bug cage.  I thought it best to let her wait inside the warmer house while I summoned my younger sister Sara to help me create the appropriate habitat.   The bathroom seemed like a reasonable location for Bumblebee Triage.  As the little bee warmed up (undoubtedly weighing the pros and cons of being a cold-blood critter), Sara and I grabbed as much vegetation and flower buds as possible.  I knew enough about the dietary habits of bees to know that they enjoyed nectar and probably needed it to survive.  So we packed in as many flowers as we could find, to the dismay of our neighbors and our own mother, who spent a lot of time planting their annuals in their lawns. 

We carefully placed all of this plant matter into the little bug cage as the bee was still unable to move quickly and therefore could not escape. 

Over a period of an hour, we named the bee Bumble.  Bumble warmed up enough to check out some of the flowers in her new little condo.  Eventually, as she regained most of her mobility, she started eating nectar from the flowers.  She had to do some serious maneuvering to get to the nectar, as the flowers were lying haphazardly about the floor of her new habitat.  Nonetheless, she ate.

My parents were nervous about having Bumble around.  They said, "If she escapes, she will sting you." 
"No she won't," I reasoned.  "We saved her life."
"She can't stay inside the house."
I don't recall what my retort to this statement was.  I can only imagine that my third grade mind formed an Argument No Man Could Rebut, and this resulted in Bumble taking up temporarily residence in our basement for the night.

Bumble survived the night.  Before school, Sara and I collected more flowers and stuffed them into her house in hopes that it would be enough to last her the length of the school day.  But there was a small, nagging feeling in the back of my mind.  I didn't know how often Bumble needed to eat, and I didn't trust any of the adults that would be home while Sara and I were at school to keep Bumble safe and/or alive.  

I made the executive decision to bring Bumble to school with me.  

Mrs. Harris was a third grade teacher that had a passion for science, especially biology.  She was excited to see me carry my bug cage in the door.  She had a difficult time ascertaining what critter was inside, mostly because Sara and I crammed flowers from six blocks into the tiny habitat.  The only way to know that Bumble was still alive was to watch the mass of petals and leaves move about from an unknown lifeform.

"What did you bring to show the class today, Cat?" Mrs. Harris asked.
"Uh," I paused, nervous about what the consequences of revealing the truth would be.  Mrs. Harris might tell me I have to Let It Go, or Leave It Outside.  Teachers Pulling Rank meant absolutely no disobedience, no arguments, just complete compliance.  The fate of Bumble's life laid delicately in my carefully chosen words.  

"It's a surprise."

This was satisfying enough to Mrs. Harris.  As my fellow pupils and I sat down for our first academic task at hand, I placed Bumble's abode on the ground next to my feet.  Occasionally, she'd buzz her wings, but she was enveloped so thoroughly in flowers that she could not (or did not need to) move her wings as she crawled through her jungle of nectar.

Before I knew it, it was time to introduce the class to the bumblebee.  I brought little Bumble up to the front of the class and placed her on a table.

"This is my new pet, Bumble." 
The class craned their necks to see through the mess of vegetation cloaking the Mystery Pet. 

"Well, what is Bumble?" Mrs. Harris asked, slightly perturbed.

I balked.  The only way to gain acceptance on behalf of Bumble's already tumultuous life was to appeal to the Humanity in my teacher and students.

With the skill of an auctioneer, I rattled off the story of how IfoundthefragilebumblebeeonmygaragefloorandImanagedtokeepmyparentsfromsquishingherand mysisterandIhavebeenfeedingherandsheneverever ever ever ever would sting.

Mrs. Harris' face turned ashen.  "There's a bee in there?"
"Well yeah, a bumblebee.  But she has fur. So she isn't dangerous."
"Is that cage secure?" Mrs. Harris started to walk to the front of the room.  Oh god, oh god.

I grabbed the cage.  "Yes, it's very secure.  Her name is Bumble and at recess I'm going to collect flowers to put in her cage so she can eat."

Mrs. Harris eyed the bug carrier.  She touched the door and found it was firmly in place.  She gently touched the fine wire mesh that kept Bumble sealed in her apartment.  
"Cat, we can't have a bee in the classroom-" Mrs. Harris began.  I felt a lump grow in my throat.  The students were still silent.

But before Mrs. Harris could deliver her next sentence, Bumble pulled herself from her flowerly bed.  She moved purposefully to a flower near the top of her enclosure and began to collect its nectar.

"" Mrs. Harris said.  She took the cage from my hands and peered inside. She gently placed the habitat back onto the table.  "I'd like everyone to form a line, single-file.  Everyone can have a chance to quietly look at the bumblebee."

A flood of relief rushed over me.  I watched joyfully as all of my classmates looked at Bumble getting her fill of nature's Kool Aid.

Mrs. Harris said that we could all collect flowers for Bumble at recess, as long as all activities involving opening the cage door were outside, that I was the only person opening the cage, and that it was all supervised by Mrs. Harris.

We fed Bumble in a manner that resembled feeding the velociraptors in Jurassic Park  .  Once we had collected what we deemed an appropriate amount of flowers, I told everyone to place their collection near the cage and stand far away from the opening of the habitat.  Bumble was contentedly moving about the back of her cage.  I took the moment to deliver a final warning to anyone wanting to get a closer look at the flower delivery.


I opened the door with one hand and shoved the handful of flowers collected into the opening, then quickly swung close the door and secured it.   "SAFE."

We all crowded around the now hopelessly buried bee in her packed habitat.  The gentle jostling beneath the floral blanket was the only evidence we had that Bumble remained secure in her place.

One of my favorite extinct animals.

At the end of the day, we had collected flowers two more times, filling the habitat almost two-thirds full of food.  Mrs. Harris also informed me that Bumble could not return to school for any other show-and-tell days, but to keep the class updated on her progress.

She spent the night in my sister and my room.  And the next day.
I updated the class the next day that Bumble had survived another night, but it was really hard to see her now because her house was filled to the brim with flowers. Mrs. Harris warned me that I would need to eventually remove all of the flowers, or Bumble would go hungry looking for fresh flowers if she wasn't accidentally smushed by her hourly food delivery.  By the end of the day, I was convinced Bumble needed a bigger place to live.

When I got home from school, Sara and I got right to work.  We placed soil at the bottom of a terrarium, and laid down grass strands, leaves, and branches (complete with budding blossoms) from our apple trees in our backyard.  The branches were easy enough to replace, so we opted against planting flowers (and further decimating my mom's landscaping endeavors).  Sara and I made a beautiful home for Bumble and were excited for the transfer.  All we had to do was leave a small opening in the lid of the terrarium and gently shake Bumble in from the top.

We grabbed Bumble's now shabby-looking home and realized we had to remove a lot of the vegetation inside before we could hope to safely get her into her new home.  I opened the door and began to methodically and gingerly remove the plants, careful to not let Bumble out or cause any injury to her.  

Sara and I couldn't see her even as we removed about a third of crushed flowers from that little bug carrier, but that hadn't bothered us.  I decided it was better to just dump the contents of the carrier, Bumble and all, into the terrarium to ensure Bumble didn't escape. 

As we watched the cascade of Stuff fall into the terrarium, we eagerly watched for Bumble's heavenly descent into her new digs.

Bumble was no where to be found.

Sara and I frantically investigated the bug carrier; totally empty.  We looked through the terrarium and watched for telltale movement beneath the vegetation.  Nothing.

I feared Bumble was dead.  Sara and I somberly discussed the possibility that she had been crushed under the weight of her own food.  We decided to carefully sift through the contents of the terrarium to find the little body.

We picked up every individual leaf, petal, intact flower, branch, rock.  We sifted through the soil, but Bumble had vanished.

Sara and I sat defeated, heartbroken, and silent next to the two now-empty bug habitats.  

"Maybe she escaped," Sara offered, breaking the solemnity.

Yes, she had.  There was no other explanation.  I had been careless in the way I removed her flowers, or we were so distracted by the tumbling vegetation spilling into the terrarium, that Bumble crawled easily on the wire mesh on the side of her cage to the wooden wall that attached to her door.  Her grasping feet could have easily found purchase on the unfinished wood and allowed her to crawl to the outside of the habitat (the side facing away from my sister and I), and simply flown off.

I had to tell my class the next day that Bumble had escaped.   "She didn't sting you?!" they cried out.  "Bees sting when they are mad!" they reasoned.  An angry little bee buzzing in a tiny compartment being violently dislodged to be moved into more days in captivity would certainly be reason enough to Sting With Ire the captor!   Alas, I had dodged a Bullet of the Third Grade Kind.

Mrs. Harris said, "Well, maybe she was grateful.  She would've frozen and died in your garage.  Now she can pollinate and do what she was meant to."

I have no romantic notions of Bumble's life thereafter; who knows what fate befell her in the following hours of her escape.  Who knows why she didn't sting me, but bumblebees (and most bees, wasps, and hornets) are not aggressive animals and will sting for two reasons: defending their queen (Bumble had none) or preserving their life.  She had no reason to turn around and sacrifice her life just to teach me a mildly painful lesson.

Bumble has obviously passed from this world at this point in time, but I often think about that little bee.  In roughly 72 hours, she changed the way I look at bees*.  She inspired me over a decade later to get involved with beekeeping.  Now, almost twenty years later, I am still inspired by our lives briefly intersecting and giving me a respect for bees that has remained with me since the day I found her in the garage.

It's twenty years late, but thanks, little frozen Bumblebee. 

*Bees do not include yellow jackets, which are actually Imps from Hades sent to earth to terrorize the innocent

1 comment:

  1. Firstly, I love your new background picture.
    Second, Bees are cute, indeed. I caught one once, when I was a kid, in a jar and he wasn't too happy with me about that.
    And lastly, you've inspired me to write a little about my history with animals. This was a nicely done post and I enjoyed reading it.
    Agreed with the yellow jacket statement, by the way.
    My favorite dinosaurs are the Ankylosaurs. Raptors scare the pants off me with their high intelligence and amazing hunting tactics (kind of like Orcas!)