Sprawled on the steps beneath the state Department of Health's office building at 13th and Governor streets, a block from state Capitol, Tom Fifer looks like he could be sunbathing, or meditating. Except the 71-year-old is covered in bees.
About a dozen honey bees crawl on his back and a network of several dozen more pulse over his head while he maintains a placid calm.
State entomologist — bug expert — David Gaines discovered the swarm the morning of May 20 in the bushes next to the building's stairs. He called the state apiarist — bee expert — Keith Tignor. Tignor directed him to Fifer — a bee catcher.
When Tignor called, Fifer was headed to look in on his Varina bee field, which buzzes with 60 of his own colonies. He turned around and headed downtown instead. The morning emergency meant he had to forego the beekeeper's traditional white suit and veil in favor of a faded blue cotton shirt and work pants.
“If they let you work 'em in my shirtsleeves, I will,” he says, sweeping the lazy bugs off the concrete stoop with a yellow push brush.
Fifer speaks with that regal, rural dialect with flat “O's” that sound nearly Canadian. “You just need to be slow and deliberate about your movements,” he says.
When he arrived the bees were balled up inside the bush. He shook the clot loose into a large tea strainer and dumped them in a box along with a queen. She had been attraction enough for most of them, but some bees were still bobbing around free. Fifer buried his head in the shrub again and tried to shake the last few loose.
“I hate to leave 'em,” he says. “They're social insects and they can't survive alone.” One stings his forearm. It doesn't survive.
After Fifer has done his best, he loads the box onto a dolly and gingerly hauls it to his truck.
“I'm going to put them on a farm to pollinate vegetables,” he says. “Mr. Gaines is happy because he doesn't have any bees in the bush. The bees even win. There'll be plenty to eat.”