The overgrown slope to the west of our house is NOT merely a weed patch. It is…an incipient meadow. On a verrry small scale. There are thistles, and there’s clover, and there are the tiny yellow blossoms of sheep’s shower. There are gorgeous flowering tall grasses, some blue with oat-like heads. Others are vivid green blades, w/ thinner, more elongated heads. And did I mention the 100 or so orchard bees diligently working all of it?
It’s all in how you look at it. You see a weed patch (probably our downhill neighbors do, as well). I see where the wildflower seed will go, and a place for the native bee house we’re going to put in. We brought with us to Virginia the lovely little native bee ‘condo’ my beloved bought for me from Crown Bees. It was a Christmas present — a cedar bee house that he put a copper roof on, setting it on a post capped w/ a matching copper top. Beautiful! Just right for our neglected native bees.
I’ve encouraged mason & orchard bees since then, buying cocoons (well, they aren’t really cocoons, but pupæ) from Crown, and putting them out to hatch & reproduce. It’s far easier than keeping honeybees (which aren’t as good a pollinator, and are a LOT more work!). And like honeybees, native bees are having a hard go right now.
I’m besotted with bees. They seem to know this, seeking me out when I’m outside, & settling on my hand, my arm, sometimes in my hair. They never sting me, and seem to understand I love them. But I have stepped on honeybees in clover, as a child, so I’m well acquainted w/ the searing fire of a sting. Just not in decades. I even took a beekeeping course, intending to try keeping honeybees. Note to folks who think they’d like the honey: get it your local farmer’s market. It’s HARD WORK, like farming tiiiiny animals!
Bees need pollen & nectar sources, and suburbs are increasingly limiting their plantings to stuff that really doesn’t feed bees. Not to mention poisonous pesticides that contribute to their ongoing demise. Folks don’t want clover or dandelions in their lawns (we do!), and they don’t plant nearly enough native species (which tend to attract more pollinators, including butterflies). So hearing my beloved say he’s okay w/ putting a path around the perimeter of our slope, and calling it a bee meadow, was wonderful! I may even get industrious & put in edging, to make it look even more intentional!
You may still see a weed patch. But it’s not. It’s a bee meadow, complete w/ viewing path/mowing strip & bee house! It just requires a bit of creative re-framing. Like far more of life than we often admit.
Anyone who knows me is aware I adore bees. At one point, I even took a beekeeping course. Turns out beekeeping is a LOT like farming. NOT ‘hands-off.’ Yes, bees are self-sufficient. But if you’re going to be a responsible beekeeper (and why would you not be??), there’s a LOT of work involved. So I became a native bee supporter. Honeybees aren’t native to the Americas. Our native bees are my very favourite — the bumbler — and the mason, leaf-cutter, et al bees. We have 4,000 species of bees in North America alone!
Enough on bees — this was supposed to be about the 5th NaPoWriMo prompt! Which was:
In honor of Mary Oliver’s work, I’d like to challenge you to write a poem that is based in the natural world: it could be about a particular plant, animal, or a particular landscape. But it should be about a slice of the natural world that you have personally experienced and optimally, one that you have experienced often. Try to incorporate specific details while also stating why you find the chosen place or plant/animal meaningful.
Listening to bees
The bees talk to me now
Trapped within the window screen
Their buzzes climb the scale
Humming growing shrill
I hear their fright & frustration
When they graze my hair
Flying so low their wings brush
I understand what they say
Here is the one who loves us
She will help us find our way home
How do they know, these new bees?
How can they sense love?
I have listened so often
Wanting to hear what love
Sounds like. But the bees know.
Dipping a paper towel corner
Into honey I approach
They climb dutifully to safety
Heady fragrance familiar
Gently I place them outside
Where chilly spring winds
Resist their flight
An hour later
One lies still on the pavement
Still faintly honeyed
Love is not always enough.
Honey bees dance. It’s magic, really — they dance and hum to each other, and that’s communication. They tell each other stories about nectar, about flowers a mile or more away ~ follow the contrail above you east; turn north at the giant dogwood and head on to the mimosa. Lifting their wings, and fluttering their antennae, they share fragrance and colour and distance and a complete journey there and back again. A dance that becomes a story, becomes a journey. And they do this in the dark.
I want to know that dance. I want someone to tell me how to get there, wherever that is. I want to know how long it will take, and what I will find, and even what it will taste like. Although I might not believe them.. .And at the same time? I want to strike out all alone, little baggage, and discover something… momentous. Transcendent. I want that, too. Maybe I’m a more solitary bumble bee?
There’s a song my sister sent me, when I was going through a really rough patch, that seemed for many years a kind of mantra for me. It’s Mary Chapin Carpenter, one of my favourites, and there’s a line that says: pens that won’t run out of ink/ and cool quiet/ and time to think…Shouldn’t I have this?/ Shouldn’t I have this?/ Shouldn’t I have all of this and… she asks. I remember thinking — me too. Me too.
A teacher years ago — a professor, a famous writer — told me I always want more. The implication, from this nice, aescetic writer, was that ‘more’ is not a good thing. And certainly the Buddhist in me recognises that greed is one of the three mind poisons. But I don’t think of myself as greedy, but more like Chapin Carpenter’s label ~ passionate.
What does this have to do w/ bees, and the way they dance to tell stories, and how they lift on wings ragged from the weeks it takes them to learn how to forage flowers and scout the wind…? It may well be why I became a writer ~ the only skill I have that comes close to flying. I never did dance well enough to fly through the air — voted ‘most improved’ in my ballet class Mais, Britton: what an interesting grand jeté ~ I have never seen one executed quite like that. Nor could I draw, even well enough to create a cartoon, an attempt at line drawings that might be a kind of Braille. Music might have saved me, had I realised that women could become classical composers. I never wanted to be a rock’n’roll heroine, but études and sonatas and the singing hum of bees ~ these have certainly seduced me.
No, words are the only wings I have. And they are the wings for the stories I bring back, from wherever it is that bees fly to on the last hours of daylight, when the sun is already just below the horizon. They’re map & journey, flower & nectar, wings & home, all messily entangled. It would take a very sure-footed bee to dance this mystery. In the meantime, I’ll watch as they work the black-eyed susans in the garden, landing sometimes — when I’m lucky — on my arm. Feather light dancers, who always know their way home.
A few years ago, for Christmas gifts I got bees. Two, to be precise: a small, dainty gold one from my husband (banded in white & black diamonds, just to be decadent 🙂 ), and a similarly dainty sterling bee pin from my younger son, with antennae crooked so lifelike it looks as if it were a victim of a silver Midas touch. In other words, not real bees. Those would follow, a couple of years later.
I often write about bees. I’d like to work up a collection — use them as metaphor, possibly, but mostly just observe them, writing down what they do, look like, are. Haiku, tanka and renga are good for that. Perhaps it’s the Zen influence: watch, reflect, learn. Kind of the Zen mantra, that.
I’m not good at mindfulness. But I do like watching bees. They ground me, ironically — their tiny wings, their fuzzy bodies. How they make work into honey. Even their short life spans, spent working — it’s almost mystical, to me. In the past few years, I’ve read more than 20 books on bees. I don’t really even know how many — 20 is how many I have on the book shelf w/ the gardening books, and I know I checked out several from the library. And there are still a few on my wish list!
I love reading about bees. There’s something so soothing about the idea of the hive, the soft hum that fills my head even as I read, so that I have to go in and get a teaspoon of honey. I used to buy my local honey at my local bakery, but the beekeeper ‘aged out’: he gave his bees to a new keeper. I wished at the time I was ready to keep honey bees, but I wasn’t. Now, I buy my local honey at the farmer’s market, or the supermarket.
Recently, a friend’s brother was giving away a hive. I wanted it like I sometimes want a new book — desperately, as if it might somehow impart magic and wisdom and order to my crazy life. In my city you have to go through a bee-keeping seminar (several weeks long, put on the by City-County health dept) to get a license to keep ‘urban bees.’ I even took it — well, most of it. Life got in the way, as I recall (it was a few years ago), and I didn’t quite finish. But I still have the notes — a notebook of info from local beekeeps about bees.
Ironically — but so like real life — what I found as I talked to local beekeepers is that I’m not going to keep honey bees. They require FAR more work than the beautiful books detail. I’d always thought of keeping bees as a symbol of the coming quiet, the time when there would actually be time. To read, to write, to learn to speak to bees. Endless Saturdays … to walk outside, to sit in the sun, to watch the bees… What I learned is that bees have their needs — think of bees as livestock, in a way: they need things done according to their schedule, not necessarily yours. Kind of like kids.
When I was a young child, I would follow bees. The way I would stick my nose in the grass to follow ants (really). I would try to find the hive. I didn’t know then that bees could fly a two-mile radius from the hive. Or maybe I did — I read omniverously, Fabre on bees & moths when I was 10, for instance. Insects and birds and animals fascinated me. I was horse crazy, dog crazy, fish and bird and outside crazy. A goofy, leggy, elbow-y girl who believed what the servants told her — that everything had a spirit. That the very bees could speak to you, if you would listen.
Just last fall, sitting at a café in the warm autumn light, I watched as a bee flew over the table. I sat out a small drop of sugar dissolved in water for her. She touched her body to it, and then turned to land on my arm, as light as dust. I could feel her tiny feet crawling over my arm, see her antennae feeling her way. It was as if she was saying thank you. I am learning to speak bee, even if I don’t keep honey bees. I do keep native bees. More on that next post ~