At the time I was taking a poetry seminar at San Diego State University. My professor, Fanny Howe, had assigned us to write ten poems on the same subject. By then I was fascinated with the beehive; I checked on it every day and was able to sit in front of it and study it for long periods of time without angering the bees. In the same field a professional beekeeper kept dozens of white drawer-like boxes filled with bees. I speculated that my hive might not have been wild, rather a renegade hive, a breakoff from the orderly, civilized bees, living domesticated little lives in white, high-rise boxes. My hive was statuesque, architectural, the bees’ own design; it looked like a golden Gaudi cathedral. Yet for all my speculation I knew nothing about bees, so I decided to research them, to make them the subject of my poems.
One of the most vividly descriptive books I found on the subject was Sue Hubbell’s Book of Bees. I learned from that book that the bees I saw crawling all over each other were the worker bees — which are females with atrophied sexual characteristics. They do nearly all the work of the hive: gather nectar and pollen, make propolis, raise young bees, build comb, make honey, defend the hive, and take care of the queen. Whew!
The queen bee doesn’t have to sully her hands with domestic work. According to Hubbell, “She is long, elegant, wasplike…easy to find among the short, stubby workers…. She will be able to lay fertile eggs for one, two, or even more years…. [Her] only purpose within the hive is to lay eggs. She cannot even take care of herself. The queen’s attendant bees feed, stroke, groom her, and carry away her feces. The workers are, as a result, aware of her condition, and when she begins to fail…they raise a new queen. When the virgin queen emerges from pupation, she roams the hive to murder any other queens…. The worker bees will not allow her to linger in the hive because she is not yet mated, so they urge her toward the hive entrance.” How classic to be displaced by Lolita; perhaps bees and humans have more in common than it appears.
So the worker bees have a hard road to hoe, and the queen has to be nubile or else, but your heart has to go out to the drones. First of all, the drones only get half of the genetic material, which rather limits their possibilities in the work world. Their only role in the colony is to mate. According to Hubbell, “They are big bees, with big eyes, and they hang out in groups watching for a virgin queen. They are not very bright…and they have been known to try to mate with a swallow flying by…. But it is the drone’s tragic fate that touches us. When a drone sees a queen, he flies high in the air to mate with her. He mates by everting his penis into her sting chamber, which closes around it, causing it to rip loose from his body, and he bends backward and falls lifeless to the ground.” An ugly way to go. But if the drone doesn’t have his penis ripped from his body, a less dramatic but equally terminal fate awaits him. “Drones are found in bee colonies during the spring and early summer, when the workers regard them with favor…. But after the queens are mated, the drones are…a drain on resources, so when the nectar flow begins to taper off in the summer, the workers bar the remaining drones from the hives, and they die.” Could these have been the dry husks of bees I saw scattered around the bottom of the hive?
Perhaps the queen seems a tad vicious, the workers a bit dull, the drones’ treatment barbaric, but there is another way of seeing bees: altruistically. According to Pulitzer prize–winning Harvard professor Edward O. Wilson, “It is only among the lower animals, and in the social insects, that we encounter altruistic suicide comparable to the human level…Ants, bees, and wasps are ready to defend their nests with insane charges against intruders.” As we know, after the bee stings, she dies. A Kamikaze sacrifice for the good of the hive. Worker bees also pull together against the forces of nature. In cold temperatures they vibrate their wings to maintain the temperature of the hive. Bees are the dream of a perfect world. Each bee in her little Mao jacket working to feed the entire population — to feed the world not meat and potatoes, not the bare necessities, rather the frivolous, the golden — pies, ice cream, and mead.
Which makes the next thing my husband and I did seem so bad. We called the beekeeper who seasonally places hives in the canyon behind our house. We hoped that he could somehow use the bees. He told us he could help us with the bees and drove all the way from Fallbrook the following morning. Enter the beekeeper: Bill Mathewson. When Mathewson emerged from the playhouse, he said, “Oh, these bees are gentle bees, calm bees — they didn’t mind at all when I disturbed them.” He told us he doesn’t tolerate bees that aren’t gentle; if he gets an aggressive hive he requeens them, which takes care of the problem. Nevertheless, he said he couldn’t use this hive because it was too well established. That the bees were gentle only made us feel more troubled about our decision to exterminate the hive. We asked Mathewson if he could suggest any alternatives.
Mathewson was patient, came in for a cup of coffee and some bee talk, while I called the places he suggested might be interested in a hive. Sometimes a 4-H club or similar groups would be interested in acquiring some bees, he said. If the bees had just swarmed, he told us, he would be able to capture the hive and use it. When Mathewson said, “It’s the old queens that swarm; that’s what brought these bees here,” I felt even more empathetic. Sylvia Plath wrote a number of bee poems in England the year before she committed suicide. She, too, identified with the aging queens: