Bees: An Earth Day Essay, Northern Michigan

Traverse Classic Read: This essay by Anne-Marie Oomen first ran in the May 2004 edition of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.

The honey bees 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 activity of the orchard and yard, 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.

Rick rolls over in the hot sheets onto a half a dozen bees. He tosses, scratching and slapping in his sleep. He wakes to a room with bees crawling over sills, bees in curtains, bees on his pillows. He listens to the hum and thinks it is louder than usual, even for a hot day. He opens his eyes and watches the bees teeming in the room. He knows them. These are the bungling insects that get into his cuffs, the ones he must watch for when he walks in a field of tufted knapweed.

He feels sick lying there among the sheets, and he realizes he has been stung, perhaps more than once. Silently, he crawls from his bed, scattering bees onto the floor, brushing away the frantic, stinging creatures. Before he is even aware of the bees gathering force, he shuffles to the door, opens and closes it behind him. He staggers downstairs. Our mother, the woman who knows there is enough danger and crisis in the world not to invent any—and who therefore has underplayed every catastrophe—drops the basket of wet laundry, scattering clean white sheets onto an unswept floor, and sweeps the boy into her arms. She does not say his face is twice its normal size, that his eyes are already nearly swollen shut, that his heart is racing so fast she can feel it under the damp cotton of his pajamas. She merely runs, calling for the truck, for any means to get him away, to get him where there is an antitoxin for his tight, rasping breath against her neck.

Dr. Verbanic is shaking his head as he returns to the waiting room. “You’ll have to keep antitoxins around. He should wear a metal bracelet that says he’s allergic.” He looks at the slim woman, her thick hair prematurely gray, her pale eyes exhausted. He knows this look, common among the farm people he serves. Too much work, too many children in too short a time, and then that Catholic weakness for guilt.

“He’s going to be fine. With a few precautions, he will be in the fields again before you know it.”

She holds her quiet.

He tries again. “There’s no way you could have anticipated this.”

She stares at him. The silence moves across the room until finally he asks, “Ruth, what is it?”

She looks up at him. “The bees live in our house.”

“In your house?”

“In the walls of our house.”

After a long pause, he says softly, “Then you’ll have to get rid of them.”

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.

The day he returns, he is smoking and his hands are nervous. This time he brings the square white box with a black cover. He climbs the ladder, opens only one part of the clapboard, the place he left untouched the first time. He works very gently as he takes the queen of this wealthy hive and as many of the bees close to her as he can. He takes the combs in which she lives and the workers and places them into the square-slatted box and lets the bees find her and gather around her until he can put his hand inside and they cover him with bee fur.

“That means they’re safe,” he announces to us. When he puts the cover on, their hum becomes mute. He closes the box and carries it to the open trunk of his car.

When this is done, he and my father open the side of the house again. My mother is there now, and on the porch benches, she has spread newspaper and sterilized Mason jars. The men pull the boards. The walls reveal pale-blond, nearly perfect new honey. It shines. A few bees buzz frantically around their heads, but the men pull the combs carefully away from the inside lath of the house, picking out bits of plaster that cling to the new clumps, and they pass them down to my mother who, standing in the shade on the porch, packs them into jars, wipes the jars clean and seals them. The nearly 30 quarts of honey from the hive will sweeten our cereal and coffee for three years.

Once, they hand down a comb dripping with clear syrup, “Nectar honey. It’s sweeter,” he says. “Off the top of the hive. Got more moisture and floral residue.”

She calls us and we come like puppies to the teat. She cuts the comb and hands us each a dripping piece. The rich amber floods my cheeks, and as I suck, I wonder what I am tasting. With each lick, it occurs to me that when they took down the honey, we could tell how old it was by the combs’ darkness, but now, all the years are blurred—the year Tom ruptured his spleen, or that Mike died, or the year we learned to swim. Was I tasting the year of the bumper cherry crop, or the year the apples froze? The year of my first communion? I realize all the summers I have lived run together in these golden combs. And I am just old enough to wonder if there is something wrong about the loss of the old islandlike combs. What does it mean to remove the order of years from inside the very walls of our house? What is it we suck when we suck this nectar, this honey from the top, this transformed syrup?

Though nothing bad happens for the rest of the summer, I sleep restlessly. I toss, longing for their hum. I have no words for why I wake at night or for why the dark feels sharper, the nights cooler, the leaves in the silver maple too shrill. The house is quiet, except sometimes I wake in the dark to hear the soft plunk as the last of the stray bees die in the hollow walls.

Anne-Marie Oomen chairs the creative writing department at Interlochen Arts Academy. Find her books at annemarieoomen.com.

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