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OPINION | OLD NEWS: Arkansas' aurora borealis and a serious case of fancy bees

by Celia Storey | May 17, 2021 at 1:54 a.m.
Headlines from a May 15, 1921, Arkansas Gazette. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

One hundred years ago, unusually intense aurora borealis — Northern Lights — danced above Arkansas.

The May 15, 1921, Arkansas Gazette described a dramatic sight: a rosy glow shot through with streamers of amber that wavered in the northeastern quarter of the sky beginning about 8:30 p.m. May 14. Auroras were not unprecedented, the paper noted, but this one was unusually noticeable for 15 minutes.

The show faded to sepia and lingered until about 9:45 p.m.

No big deal, right? Although rare, auroras do appear over Arkansas today. This is known. Many of us witnessed a light show as recently as September 2020. But the May 14, 1921, aurora was a product of the most intense geomagnetic storm of the 20th century, a three-day space-weather event. (See

Triggered by a series of very large coronal mass whooshes from the sun, the magnet storm tingled or nudged or riled up Earth's chakra-like whatchamacallits, goosing mighty currents that messed with telegraph systems, blew fuses, damaged electrical equipment and started some fires, including one in the control terminal of New York's Central Railroad.

Among the weird effects, the Gazette and other newspapers lost connection to the Chicago Tribune-New York Times wire service. The paper reported:

The Associated Press service of the Gazette which is filed out of St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans was practically undisturbed, but the Tribune Times service out of Chicago was badly demoralized.

■ ■ ■

What else might sun spots do? Could they rouse bees? Full disclosure, I have no idea. But the thought occurred to me as I studied the pages of that long-ago newspaper and came across a story about a bee colony that had swarmed away from its owner's address and wound up in municipal court.

As it happened, the bees swarmed far enough before the space-weather storm to allow for interpersonal arguments and the formal lodging of complaints. But it took two judges, at least one lawyer and eight months to determine where those bees belonged.

The story of the swarm that became a lawsuit was not big news. The names of the neighbors involved do not appear often in the archives of the Gazette or Arkansas Democrat, but they weren't nobodies. Their illnesses and out-of-state trips are mentioned in social columns, but not so frequently as to suggest they were big-shots.

So, the bee story appears to have settled atop Page 14 of that May 15 Gazette on the strength of its (unnamed) reporter's prose, which is inventive, a bit legalistic and, spuriously, mathematical.

"Only the timely appeal of his attorney yesterday saved Tom Grandkoski, 908 Magnolia Street, North Little Rock, from having to return to J.A. Wilson, who lives two blocks away at 818 Olive Street, one swarm of able-bodied bees."

The bees, the report said, had filed a homestead claim on a peach tree in Grandkoski's yard.

Grandkoski thought they were wild bees, immigrants from Big Rock. Wilson, an apiarist, said they belonged to him and furthermore were fancy bees, "seceders from his prized leather-colored Italian stock."

"Mr. Wilson filed replevin snit before Municipal Judge Payne, who yesterday found for the plaintiff, ordering Mr. Grandkoski to return the bees."

Words don't always mean today what they meant in 1921, but in this case, a modern dictionary is helpful: Replevin — claim and delivery — is a legal remedy by which plaintiffs can have property that has been wrongfully taken from them returned, perhaps at no cost.

Snit, though, isn't a legal term so much as a typo for the word suit.

The report continues that Grandkoski, not a bee charmer, figured that whether wild or Italian, bees are bees in the end:

"Also, Judge Payne didn't order transfer of the bees, f.o.b. Mr. Grandkoski's. He simply ordered the return of the bees to Mr. Wilson, whether bee by bee or the whole swarm in a single wad being left to the discretion of the returner.

"Either method has its advantages, overbalanced by a preponderant amount of disadvantages."

That term f.o.b. stands for "free on board." In shipping lingo, it is used to specify at what point any risk involved in the delivery of goods shifts from a seller to the buyer — in this case, when does the risk posed by thousands of stingers shift from delivery guy Grandkoski to recipient Wilson?

The reporter is setting up a joke by noting that the judge didn't tell Grandkoski how to return all the bees, and so he had options.

If Grandkoski were to tote the 5,000 bees back one bee at a time, "he would stand 5,000 chances of getting bee bit, but, on the other hand, he would have only one bee to battle at any given period, and his chances of battling this one bee for a row of goals would be commensurately improved."

"Whereas, if he packed the whole outfit at once, while he might not be stung but a brief period of time, this brief period would be interesting while it lasted. Five thousand bees spread out over one man can just about cover the ground.

"Still, the latter method would save time."

The reporter imagines Grandkoski — covered in bees — could make the first leg of his round-trip from his home to Wilson's at high speed:

"He might make a Garrison finish in an ambulance, but he wouldn't have to make it but once."

Collins dictionary online defines "Garrison finish" as a close finish, "as in a horse race, in which the winner comes from behind at the last moment." The phrase honors a 19th-century jockey, Snapper Garrison.

So, the reporter indicates, speed was the advantage of the 5,000-at-one-blow method of bee delivery, and serious health risk was the disadvantage. If Grandkoski instead chose to move the bees one by one, his backs-and-forths would amount to a distance of 568 linear miles.

Assuming he averaged 4 mph going and coming — "while the going trips would naturally be faster, he would slack off on the return" — it would take him only 142 hours.

Distribute those hours over 10-hour workdays, with an hour off for dinner, Sundays off and half-days on Saturday, and Grandkoski should finish "somewhere around 3 o'clock Thursday afternoon, June 2."

He took neither option. The bees stayed where they were. His attorney, W.D. Jackson, filed notice of appeal in Third Division Circuit Court.

In January 1922, that court upheld the municipal judge: Grandkoski had to return the colony to Wilson or pay him what it was worth.

Reporting this "bee verdict," the Gazette and Democrat mentioned evidence presented in court. Grandkoski had been sitting on his front porch when the bees swarmed onto his honeysuckle vines. He used tin pans (somehow) to persuade the colony to settle, and later he put them in a hive. Catching them made them his, he said.

But experts identified the queen bee as the same fancy queen bee Wilson had purchased up north.

The Democrat was in a bit of a snit over this ID: "Mebbe the Queen Bee Had Eyes of Different Color," says the headline.

"Just what are the identifying marks on a bee?" the Democrat reporter asks — twice — apparently unable to supply a scientific answer.

As are we all, much of the time.


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