Great furry bumblebees combed the tangle of blossoms in the garden, ignoring our presence inches away as we read our newspapers and books on leisurely warm weekends.
Several years earlier, we'd started digging up the uninspired lawn in the backyard of our new town house. My son and I first attacked the hardpan clay with a gas-powered post-hole digger, barely chipping out dusty dents to accommodate a row of spindly, two-foot-high privet bushes that would someday be a hedge.
Now bees labored long hours in the flowers and herbs and vines that crowded around a brick patio and along stone walkways. The dense privet hedge, now 10 feet high and joined by Japanese maples, holly, and pussy willows, hid this garden - with bees and books and newspapers - from the outside world.
Then events began to mar this idyll. Twice we discovered a bee had blundered through an open patio door into our living room. The first one tried to escape by buzzing up to one of the windows near the 18-foot-high cathedral ceiling, there to be trapped and expire on the ledge.
Even had we seen that event unfolding, we'd have been sore pressed to come up with a rescue scenario, even one that included a tall stepladder (which we didn't have). It weighed on me that these marvelous creatures seemed unable to find the escape route.
One day, while a patio door was open, another humble bee dashed past me into the living room and up to the cathedral ceiling, where it started flailing against the windowpanes.
Even as the bee weakened in the hot sun, the glimmer of an idea came to me for a poor-man's (a poor bee's?) hook-and-ladder firetruck rescue. Scavenging five tubular wands from a pair of canister vacuum cleaners and a rug shampooer, I joined them into a column about 15 feet long, then attached one vacuum's hose to the end of it.
My hope was to capture the bee in the suction from this jury rig while leaning over the balcony rail at the dining-room level. From this perch I stood at the same height as the cathedral windows on the opposite wall. I had to extend the tube column across and above the living room to the window ledge where the bee was settling. It was a long reach.
A proposal to rescue this creature by vacuuming him up would probably not have passed muster at the bee desk of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, but I saw no alternative. The plan hinged on the shaky likelihood that the bee would be trapped, unharmed, in the right-angle vacuum brush I'd attached to the end of my megatube.
But the assembly was too short to reach the window from the balcony. So I went back down to the living-room level and found that, from there, the column did reach high enough for the right-angle brush to sweep the ledge. From down here, however, I could not see the ledge top. I had to probe blindly for the bee - which had by now stopped flying and was presumably resting somewhere along the ledge.
I finally put down the column and - with the vacuum still running - climbed back up the stairs for another look at the top of the ledge.
My hope of success rapidly dwindling, I was startled to see no bee. Rushing back down to the vacuum, I then carried the whole contraption outside and started to pull the tubes apart. After the first separation, the bee staggered out of the end of one tube and onto the patio. Then it flew off.
This was my favorite kind of victory: quiet, largely undeserved, and perhaps more than a little goofy. I cheerfully filed away the experience, my elation obscuring the fact that this clumsy solution must have prompted little thanks from the bee.
And, indeed, the book on bumblebees was not closed yet. A few months later, another bee zipped through the patio door and up to the same high window.
Starting up the stairs from the living room to the dining room - with a heavy step - I mentally began to inventory the props required for the old vacuum-cleaner trick. A repeat performance seemed to be required, a performance I didn't relish.
As i reached the landing next to the front door, however, I was prompted to turn my head. The bumblebee silently hovered just above my shoulder. It had stopped thrashing about on the windows and flown across the living room and down to me.
"You know," the bee seemed to suggest, "there is a simpler way to deal with this situation than the harebrained scheme of yours I heard about from one of my colleagues last spring."
Resisting the impulse to bicker with the bee, I opened the front door. Out it flew. Since that day, our house has seen no more yellow visitors.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor