Asleep with Bees

The beekeeper lives in a tiny shack covered with brown asphalt shingles. Behind his home, among the dandelions and crab grass, neat box hives sit in rows like miniature churches. He has red hair and smokes Salems. He rarely wears the heavy screened clothing that other beekeepers wear, but prefers sleeveless cotton T-shirts with short-sleeved plaid shirts over them, work pants and boots. He is wiry and so slim he looks elfin. He is chain smoking the day he comes for the hive. I ask him if he ever gets stung. "Lots, that’s why I don’t have any arthritis."

He goes to work, smoking the hive until the bees are stunned. Then he climbs the ladder and with a black crowbar, begins tearing off the clapboard. The squeal of the boards is like a knife each time he yanks down a board. He pulls off another, then another."God, this thing is big," he says as he passes down the boards to my father. Each time he pulls a board away, it reveals more dark-clotted comb. "And old. Black honey means it’s been there a long time." Our honey is like that—black, then stormy gray, dark brown, and golden brown. Two, four, eight feet down from the eaves, and two, then three studs to the side. I imagine it going on in the walls of our house, circling us, this massive dark-combed, ancient honey.

When he climbs down, he nods, "Rich hive." His words clink together like pocket change.

My dad and the beekeeper talk, scuffling their boots in the grass. The small negotiations move back and forth in understated tones. When the bee-man climbs back up the ladder, he works more carefully. After he has identified where the queen is, he leaves that section alone, but begins to pry out the old combs with a wide paint scraper and a small shovel. The combs are like the topographical maps I study in geography—irregularly shaped, brown continents clinging to the inner lath of our house. Without ceremony, he breaks off, pulls down, and one by one, drops these dark masses into a wheelbarrow sitting under the eaves of the porch. When he finishes, it is overflowing. He spends a final hour climbing up and down the ladder, carefully tacking each piece of clapboard back into place.

"I’ll be back in a week or so," he says. He leaves the wheelbarrow, packs his things and drives away, the smoke of his Salem lingering in spirea. I move closer to the wheelbarrow. I am unsure how it is to be done.

The bees return and discover the disaster. But they view it as lush work. They gather on the old combs, a dense, woolen blanket. They layer it with their bodies, waddle over it with their warm fuzz, and then, having laid the claim, they work it. They work it until they take it back. Through it all, their sound is fierce. They have never been so loud. At night now, the hum enters our muscles, the hollows of our bones where our marrow is held thickly as old honey. I sleep like the dead.

It takes them ten days.

When they are done, the wheelbarrow is not even sticky. Only when I run my finger along the edge and stick it into my mouth do I taste anything like the sweetness that belongs where so much sweetness has been. I look at this thing which was full and see an empty basin, and then I look back at the chipped siding of the house. 

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