All winter I have struggled to hold the bees in the hive of my head. Because I had no time to write about them, they threatened to rise up as a single blonde body and desert me. Or fall out of my head and die in disuse, like the drones thrown out of a hive when the food supply is low. I am so far away from that summer moment when I held a piece of comb in my hand and tasted wild honey.
In order to write about the bees, since they are irrevocably gone now, I must immerse myself in beeness. In 1924, E.M. Forster wrote, in Aspects of the Novel, that “One day, 200 years hence, we shall have animals who are neither symbolic, nor little men disguised, nor as four-legged tables moving, nor as painted scraps of paper that fly. It is one of the ways where science may enlarge the novel…” The more complete and realistic rendering of a bee may require yet another hundred years, still there are ways to approach them.
We can get closer to bees in the bright, new 20th-century way. A website based at Montana University has a camera outside a hive; weather permitting, you can watch bees take off and return (beekeeper.dbs.umt.edu/bees/beecams.html).
No matter how three-dimensional they make the one-dimensional computer screen, I prefer to immerse myself in beeness directly. So I went to the health-food store to get some propolis, a thick, black sticky substance that bees use to glue together their hives. A friend has been urging me to take propolis because it pumps up your immune system. I consulted the vibrant woman in her 60s who clerks at the health-food store. She told me she’s been taking propolis for years. Then she shared her deeper secrets with me. She mixes a heaping teaspoon of bee pollen with a bit of honey and a dab of royalbee jelly; she chases this with a propolis capsule. “This way,” she said, “you get the whole bee. This potion keeps you youthful from the inside out.” Swayed by her energy and her beauty, I left the store with “the whole bee”; perhaps that’s the closest I can get to immersion.
The whole bee thing really started last spring when my husband looked out the second-floor bedroom window and saw a cloud of bees moving in the direction of the house. He lost sight of them, thought no more of them; a passing phenomenon. During the summer we noticed a disproportionate number of drowned bees, or frantically swimming bees, on the otherwise smooth surface of our grandson’s wading pool. But the yard is bordered by ice plant, whose purple flowers shiver their delicate tines to seduce passing bees, and the garden is planted with brilliant orange day lilies with wide yellow throats that beg bees to enter. In the heat of the day, if you saw with your ears you would take the pepper tree for a hive; so many bees working so many blossoms. So it was that we didn’t realize that a hive had taken up residence in our yard.
It was late summer, the dog days of August, when my son discovered the hive. An abandoned playhouse in the backyard safeguards forsaken toys, broken tennis rackets, ancient bicycle handlebars, rusted tools, and spiders. Really, we should toss a stick of dynamite into it, but we are the types who are surrounded by things whose sole value is sentimental. My son said he noticed a lot of bees going in and out of a hole that had rotted through the wood. When he opened the door he saw a well-developed hive pulsing like a spaceship. The bees had to work to accommodate our memorabilia; perhaps that is why the hive had such an odd shape. It looked like Michelangelo’s hand of God, only pointing downward. A number of distinct runnel-shaped combs spread wide at the top and narrowed at the end. It was nothing like the straight-arrow combs in beekeeper’s boxes. And nothing like the wild hive I once discovered fleshed into a tobacco tree in the canyon behind my house.
Though we knew it was necessary, we were reluctant to call someone to come and get rid of the bees. The choices weren’t good — extermination or removal. Some years back our friends had a wild bees’ nest in their chimney. They called an expert out to transfer the bees. Everything went wrong and the bees ended up in the house, flying wildly around, trying to escape. Still, we felt the hive had to go; in recent months “killer bees” had been seen in the area.
In our society there are dog people, cat people, horse people; people who attach their happiness and even a bit of their identity to an animal. I can understand why in certain tribes individuals go on quests to find the animal that is their spiritual correspondent. Maybe it’s because we look at our fragile bodies and say: Is this all we get to experience the world with? Or maybe it’s because our animal self is buried beneath so much aftershave or nail polish. I have reluctantly accepted pigeons as one of my totem images, but bees were my first love.
When I was younger, I used to pinch bees inside of orange honeysuckles and chase my enemies with them; briefly they lent me their ferocity and their power. As an adult I fell in love with them for real. I was walking my dog in the small oasis of undeveloped land behind my house, when I ran across a wild beehive. The hive was about four feet tall, and I came within inches of brushing my leg against it because I wasn’t paying attention. But the bees were so busy they didn’t give me a second look. They were crawling all over one another, not randomly, but rather intent on a purpose I could not decipher. Their translucent wings were flattened to their backs as if flying were a dream they sometimes had. Around the bottom of the hive were the dry husks of bee bodies. Why did they seem to know exactly what they should be doing? How could so many bodies work to one purpose? Why were their dead strewn around the threshold to their hive? This wasn’t the Burning Bush; still, it seemed the hive posed a question that would be worthwhile answering.