Last year, my family took Passover cleaning to an extreme. Like, cutting holes in walls in multiple rooms, and cleaning behind them extreme. This year, as I prepare to begin the cleaning process anew, I’m reminded that you never quite know what you’re going to find once you start.
But–I’m ahead of myself. Let’s begin with a brief science lesson on the behavior of bees. Each spring, honeybees form new colonies by splitting from their overcrowded home hive with their queen bee, and starting fresh in a new location. (Sort of like the people who go away for Passover, rather than dealing with the hassle of turning their entire house inside out.) This is part of the natural process that spreads bees and keeps their population healthy. Before they leave the original hive, a bunch (hundreds, actually) of scout bees fly around the neighborhood to, well, scout. Once they’ve found what they think to be a good new location for a hive, they convince the queen to leave her throne with a few thousand vespine attendants. They then settle into their new home phenomenally quickly.
It is considered a rare and special opportunity to see a swarm on moving day. Some think it to be quite a good omen, a sign of blessing. If that is the case, then our family was quite blessed…
One warm Sunday afternoon in April of last year, my kids were eating pasta, and I was putting my feet up–I was 6 months pregnant at the time. My husband wasn’t home. My 6-year-old piped up, recommending that we shut the door to our backyard. “Why?” I asked, not looking up from the newspaper. “It’s beautiful out.”
“There are a lot of bees,” she said matter-of-factly. I finished my article and looked up. Then jumped up. Then screamed. We have large bay windows in the dining room, and one was entirely clouded by a dark swarm of what must have been thousands and thousands of bees.
“They like our roof,” my daughter said, and she was right; they seemed to be entering through the corner top of the house and disappearing. We left the noodles on the table and snuck out the garage door–our own hasty exodus from Egypt, my 3-year-old crying at the abandoned pasta. We stayed away all afternoon, terrified to return home. When we did, finally, at the end of the day, the bees were gone, except for a handful circling that spot outside the house. We looked at each other with wonder. Where did they go? Did they disappear? Did they fly somewhere else? After we put the children to bed my husband whispered to me, “I hear humming.”
The exterminator wasn’t helpful. “If you do have bees,” he said, “I can’t do anything about it. It’s illegal to exterminate bees in the state of California. They’re endangered.” “We’re endangered!” I yelled, but to no avail. He recommended I call a “re-locator.” That’s what they do with bees here. They make it into an ethical plea: “Don’t exterminate–relocate!” (Had Moses used that line, perhaps Pharaoh would’ve let the Israelites out sooner.)
Matt the Bee Relocator showed up in full beekeeper attire just three days after we saw the swarm. He guessed they had entered a spot between the roof and the ceiling, and that it would cause less damage to the house to cut a hole in the ceiling than in the roof. Then he used special infrared thermography to detect where the bees might be, but warned me that it wasn’t totally accurate. And he told me to keep the kids out of the house all day, because once he started cutting into the ceiling, the bees would swarm into the house.
Then, as if it were no big deal, he cut a big hole in our dining room ceiling. Lo and behold, the entire downstairs area filled with bees!!! He declared them a very gentle swarm. But he couldn’t get the queen bee from that angle, and so he needed to come upstairs and cut another hole in the wall of my son’s room. At which point, the entire upstairs filled with bees. “You needn’t fret,” he said, for he had a special bee vacuum that sucked up all the bees, so that he could keep them together and relocate them to his farm. I felt like I was hanging out with the Cat and the Hat, with his something called Voom. Matt did a little jig when he found the queen bee and declared her healthy. He also gave me fresh honeycomb, dripping with honey.
By late afternoon, he had almost finished, and, looking a bit tired out, Matt asked me for some sugar water. “Of course, you must be so thirsty,” I said. “I have plain water, seltzer, juice, beer–what can I get you?”
No, no, he laughed, he wanted sugar water for the bees. “They’re tired and thirsty,” he said. They had had a hard day. I was in the Twilight Zone.
In the end, it all worked out. Our home became, once again, bee-free. The hive was saved and relocated. Our kids took the honeycomb to school for show and tell. The holes in the walls and ceilings were sealed, first with garbage bags and tape, then with plaster, and finally painted over, good as new. It even ended up being a valuable experience for our family. We learned a lot about bees. We learned that we were tough and could handle something that felt very frightening. We even got a weekend away together at the beach, while the paint was drying.
But we also learned something very disturbing. It turns out that the reason the bees had been attracted to that spot was because of its smell. What did they smell? An old, abandoned rat’s nest. I didn’t share that part with the kids. But I couldn’t get it out of my head for some time. My mother helped put me at ease by quoting the Book of Judges–“from bitter came sweet. ” Had the bees not come, we never would have found the old disgusting nest. Now, it’s cleaned out, and we ended up with something sweet.
As Pesach approaches, I am reminded of how vulnerable we are, how little we really know of what lurks in the dark corners of our drawers, behind our walls, under our carpets and under our roofs. But my experience last year helped teach me what I think Pesach cleaning, and the entire Pesach experience, is really about: it’s always better to look. Don’t be afraid of what you might find. Because, whatever it is, however disturbing, it doesn’t need to be exterminated. It can be changed, relocated. Something difficult, heavy, upsetting, can become something good. That buzzing swarm, out of the walls and in the green fields, becomes life-affirming and beautiful. The bread of affliction becomes the bread of freedom, and the harsh taste of the bitter herbs, can, ultimately, become overpowered by the sweet, sticky haroset, dripping with honey.