My bees arrived last spring. They came in two wooden crates with mesh sides no bigger than shoe boxes, buzzing and whining. My wife took pictures of me, grin splitting my face, holding each vibrating box like it contained a giant diamond I had just won. In reality, each package did hold a diamond — the diamond of a fertile queen, ten thousand of her busy attendants, and a few drones. The drones are the only males — the freeloaders of the hive — unless, of course, the queen gets it into her insect brain to mate. Then those lazy, big-eyed bastards have something to do. Otherwise, they just hang around and eat and get in the way. The rest of the bees, the ones that do all the work, are female. My girls.
The hives I prepared over the previous winter waited for their tenants in my back yard. I named one hive “Romulus” and the other “Remus” — fitting, I thought, to symbolize either the sibling planets of Star Trek’s Romulan homeworld; or the mythical founders of the city of Rome. You pick. My wife painted the hives in bold patterns because that is what she does. She sees blank spots in the world and makes them beautiful.
My beekeeping mentor (I’ll call him “Master Jack”), a local legend who’d been working with bees since 1953, told me not to expect too much my first year, that I shouldn’t be discouraged if I harvested no honey until the next season. So, with that in mind, no expectations, I dutifully inspected my hives every week over the summer, looking for signs of disease or a failing queen. I emulated Master Jack by shedding my protective gloves within the third week, choosing the dexterity of bare skin over the security and awkwardness of leather. I’d get stung occasionally, usually by inadvertently pinching one of my girls against the wall of the hive box as I hefted it aside to check the lower internal frames. The stings were excruciating, but I knew that my sacrifice of pain was little in comparison to what the bee sacrificed. For you see, stinging is suicide to a honeybee. They sting and they die. That is why, unlike hornets and wasps, they are hesitant to sting. My girls know they are more useful to the hive if they can stay alive and will only put their lives on the line if they are convinced it is needed to protect it.
My family found the hives so enchanting we placed park benches just a few feet away from them. On warm summer evenings it was not uncommon for my father-in-law and I to pour ourselves a small whiskey, sit next to the hives, and fix the world of all its problems to the background music of thousands of humming foragers zipping in and out of the boxes before the sun dropped too low in the sky.
I cannot say if it was the location of my hives, nestled between blueberry patches and fruit trees; or if it was the industrious tenacity of my girls, but before the end of the summer we had harvested twice for a total of sixty pounds of sweet honey — a surprise not only to me, but also to Master Jack. Both of us are looking forward to seeing what happens next year.
Like my painting, the story of my beekeeping comes later in my life than even I would have expected. With every new endeavor I look around and ask myself “why didn’t I start this years ago?”, but I never have an answer that sounds like anything other than an excuse. I was working. I was going to school. I was raising children. I was trying to write a novel.
The truth is, I don’t really know what being busy is. I pretend I do, but I really don’t. My girls, however, my bees…they know. And they don’t even care.
During the season, a honeybee doesn’t sleep. She is born, she tends to the new eggs, she forages for pollen and nectar. And if she is lucky enough to die naturally at the end of her six-week life, she will look a tattered mess, her wings shredded, her body fuzz worn smooth. Her and eleven of her sisters will have worked their entire lives to make a teaspoon of honey. She’ll die quietly and unceremoniously and without seeking acknowledgement of her efforts. But I am torn between the joy I find in the beauty of her existence and the guilty sadness I feel at the passing of a life completed.
So, to make myself feel better I will acknowledge her. I will whisper a soft eulogy with every taste bud on my tongue. I will celebrate her with every bottle of golden honey I share.
And I will immortalize her with my paint.
Thank you, my dear.