Sooner or later, any journalist who has ever wielded a pen and notepad gets an assignment that involves close interaction with an animal that can be cute, scary, cuddly, smelly and occasionally dangerous.
Dozens of reporters who have worked in The Billings Gazette newsroom over the past 20 years have written stories about the tigers, eagles, otters and other critters living at ZooMontana.
Whenever a bear or a mountain lion wanders into Billings, it’s news that’s guaranteed to start a conversation between neighbors leaning over the fence.
Covering Yellowstone National Park requires churning out thousands of words about controversies involving wolves, bison, bears, eagles and invasive lake trout.
A few years ago, my colleague Ed Kemmick experienced the ultimate hands-on animal story when he agreed to play donkey basketball in a benefit that raised money for the Joliet Future Farmers of America.
The rules in donkey basketball are somewhat similar to the traditional game, except that you don’t have to dribble to advance the ball down the court, and the referees pretty much ignore lane violations. Participants must be seated on the back of a donkey in order for a basket to count.
I added to my personal animal-related clip file a few weeks ago. While reporting the cover story for this month’s issue of Billings Business, photographer Bob Zellar, videographer Lloyd Blunk and I all were invited to visit a bee yard managed by Drange Apiary of Laurel. Beekeepers Ehrin Stevens and Shawn Shifley were our hosts.
Montana’s honey-making season was just getting under way, and the bees had just returned to the state after pulling duty pollinating apple and cherry orchards in Washington, and California almond groves before that.
We all donned white bee suits, gloves and helmets fitted with protective mesh.
As they went about their chores, Stevens and Shifley patiently showed us details of this fascinating and surprisingly complicated form of animal husbandry.
They took apart a few hives and pointed out cells packed with golden honey. We also got a glimpse of the brood, where thousands of worker bees tend to their future replacements. We even saw a couple of queen bees scurrying from cell to cell.
The hum of hives coming to life on a warm spring morning was enchanting. Stevens and Shifley both come from agricultural backgrounds, and they said working in the field is the best part of the job. They carried smokers to keep the bees calm. Small pry bars help them gain access to the hives.
Beekeeping dates back to the time of the pharaohs, and its importance to the food supply has been underscored in recent years with the appearance of colony collapse disorder, a devastating affliction marked by unusually high losses of bees. In some cases, entire colonies have been known to disappear. Despite years of research, experts still haven’t nailed down an exact cause. The problem may be linked to a combination of factors.
As the weather warmed, the bees started to get a little more aggressive. A couple bounced off the mesh in my helmet. Suddenly, I noticed a bee buzzing a couple inches in front of my face. Somehow I had forgotten to zip the helmet and the suit together completely, and the bee found an opening.
A couple of seconds after I announced my predicament, the invader stung me right above my right eye. Stevens dispatched the bee by deftly grabbing it, along with a handful of the mesh from my helmet.
The bee’s stinger didn’t stick, and swelling was minimal. Fortunately, I was spared an embarrassing YouTube moment. A video clip of a panicked journalist stumbling around with a bee in his bonnet undoubtedly would have generated thousands of hits.