Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee;/ And live alone in the bee-loud glade./ And I shall have some peace there–W. B. Yeats, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”
This is where you know/ the honey/ from the killer bees–Tori Amos, “Taxi Ride”
I keep bees. I do this in the way I do everything–with extreme enthusiasm, obsessive reading, constant fear of failure, and a soul-shaking delight in the wonder of discovery.
And probably about every week or so, I call my uncle because I don’t know what I’m doing, and the book didn’t explain this part. So I called him last week, after my most disastrous foray into the bee-yard to date (even worse than the time I worked my hives on a falling barometer while wearing yoga pants, which, in case you don’t know anything about bees, is a recipe for pain). This is what happened.
It wasn’t raining (but it was probably too cloudy) and it was afternoon (but probably too late in the afternoon). I took my Assistant Beekeeper with me, all swathed in his Wee Bee suit, and cracked open a hive to treat for mites. Bees boiled out like dark water, seething over the white outer surface of the hive. After a few years of beekeeping, I knew just enough to feel suddenly in the pit of my stomach that this was A Very Bad Thing. As with most of my pursuits, I have exactly enough knowledge to be a well-meaning menace to myself and others. This hive of bees, which has on every other occasion behaved beautifully, suddenly decided that I was no longer the Giant Giver of All Good Things, but had instead become She Who Must Be Stung Repeatedly With Much Wrathful Buzzing. So they stung me, which was not entirely unexpected, and they stung the Assistant Beekeeper, which was extremely uncool. I got the Assistant Beekeeper inside and treated his sting, and went back out to close up the hive, at which point I learned that “beeline” is a word for a reason. After two laps around the house, during which I zigzagged frantically (no, new neighbors, you didn’t move in next to a madwoman….well, not for the reasons you might think, anyway), I escaped. Of course, I immediately called my uncle to gasp out “MYBEESAREGOINGCRAZYWHATDOIDOPLEASEHELP!!”
So he offered sage advice in his usual calm and gently humorous way, and then said, “I feel a blog post coming on.”
And I thought, “there is no way on this green earth I will ever want to immortalize this moment in language.” Plus, the language used by a woman in full beekeeping attire zigzagging up a steep hill to escape several hundred enraged bees is probably not language that should be immortalized. (Sorry, new neighbors.)
I’ve never been scared to work my hives before, but that shook me. Beekeeping is generally one of my Happy Places–a rare one in which I am so completely caught up in a moment that the constant barrage of thoughts in my head slows and stops for a brief space of time, and I am not thinking about What’s for Dinner or How I Am Screwing Up My Children’s Psyches or Why I Can’t Stop Thinking.
All those old adages about getting back on the horse or the bike or whatever are absolutely true, and they are also true for beekeeping. I had to get back in the bee yard, because the thought of going back in there was terrifying. So I waited for an unmistakably sunny early afternoon a couple of days later, suited up, and took the plunge. It’s not unlike what I imagine diving with sharks would be like. You put on a crazy costume that will (probably) protect you and you go right into the middle of a whole bunch of critters that (probably) won’t kill you, and you get them all riled up, and then you (probably) get out of there unharmed.
But I did it. And it went well. As such experiences do, it hit the reset button, transporting me back to my first memory of beekeeping, when my uncle helped me (and by “helped me,” I mean “did most of the actual work”) to install my very first hive.
Installing a hive of bees is pure magic. You shake them from their box in a black fretful clump which does not fall, but expands midair into a shimmering golden cloud. It surrounds you, the tiny song of one honeybee magnified thousands of times until the world is nothing but sunlight and buzzing. Like tapping a tuning fork, it strikes to quiet exultation something deep in your soul. You breathe in warm spring air heavy with the scent of pollen. Thought slips away, and there is only this–this scent, this sound, this heart-deep sense of standing at the center of all things. Above you, the burnt-blue sky; below you, the earth’s spinning; around you, the humming air sparkling with thousands of wings.
I cannot say it as well as it deserves to be said, because it is one of those things that is beautiful and powerful beyond words. But I need you to know that it is the kind of experience that changes you, that sparks an alchemy of the soul. It took returning to the apiary to be able to write about it. It took staring down the fear, which was, yes, partially a fear of getting massively stung, but mostly a fear of failure. Such things are worth the sting.