Asleep with Bees

T he honeybees arrive one spring during blossoming—a wild swarm. On the south side of the house, near the orchard’s edge, they hang in a pink-dotted branch, a heavy, dusky clump like some brown-clotted fruit. We watch them from a distance. We are warned not to throw anything, not to annoy them. We don’t; we have all been stung. Though we sometimes sit on the southeast porch and watch the hive evolve, we leave them alone. These bees are nothing like the neat white hives in the beekeeper’s backyard.

After two days the bees find the rotted spot at the porch corner where the fascia meets the farmhouse siding—a small ice-crafted hole, which now leads them into the uninsulated darkness of our walls. We watch the dark humming line disappear under the clapboards. My father shakes his head, but he values bees. Their work is a boon to every farmer, and he has no time to move them from the house. He leaves the hive alone. In the years that follow, those orchard trees closest to the house always bear heaviest. My father tells us the bees are wild because they are afraid of nothing—part truth, part warning.

In fact, the bees don’t mind the orchard and yard activity, and once they settle, the character of the hive seems calm. In summer, we play under the mock orange bush, through which they hurtle like tiny bears, trundling in halting, circular movements through every flowered thing and then, like slow escalators, they rise to the hive at the porch’s roofline. They rarely sting, and in the seven years they live in the house, they swarm again only once.

That first summer I am so little, I don’t understand their sound. Bees work all the time–even in the dark. Behind the curtain of night birds, summer breezes, insect and moth patterings, I hear their hum like dark cream. It is so much a part of everything that it seems like a sound from my body. As one summer follows another, their hum assumes the quality of foam, haze, and dozing. In the walls, the bees purr through heat waves and storms. And each April, with the first false warm days, the walls breathe and no one can name it until one breakfast, Dad will say, "I heard them last night." We realize they are awake again and working. We love them for the deeper sleep they bring.

It is my younger brother, Rick, who brings their demise. Rick, who leaves his south bedroom window open and his door shut; Rick, who through all the summers, in the shuffle of scrapes and cuts, by some freakishness of the fields, rarely gets stung until the summer when his bedroom window is open and his door is shut and he is sleeping through the summer dawn when the bees swarm. Out of the corner of the porch where they have worked peacefully for so many years, the hive divides, shimmers out in a dusty, buzzing cloud. A portion of them swarm thickly through the open window and into the bedroom.

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