I recently started keeping bees, and already I’ve been amazed just watching how they cluster and move, then suddenly flow in a line like a rivulet of water just a few bees wide — many small minds following some higher thought known to them only in common and to none alone.
As a boy I spent warm spring days in my father’s bee yard — not because I wanted to be there but because I’d been told to help. Though my father lived and worked a life of the mind as a psychiatrist, he imagined himself the salt of the earth and was determined that such earthiness be a part of my upbringing.
I was expected to prepare the equipment for smoking the hives before we opened them: if bees smell smoke, they reflexively engorge themselves on honey, in case their home catches fire. In that state they’re not aggressive. My father often worked the hives with a cigarette burning in the corner of his mouth, but the smoke had no such calming effect on him:
“So you need to learn the hard way again? Damn it! How many times do I have to tell you not to hold it that way? Here. Give me that!”
He snatched the burning smoker from me.
“Hold it level, or the ash’ll put your flame out. And pump it! Don’t just dangle it around. You’re handling fire. Now shape up!”
He held the hot-metal smoker in a bare, calloused hand. I waited for him to wince and drop it, but he seemed not to notice the heat, as if the fire of his anger overwhelmed any burning sensation.
I watched a bee march onto the landing board in front of the hive door. She arched her back and sprang into humming flight, circling once, then twice around my head, her hum a melody rising and spiraling upward. Then she shot toward a patch of purple thistle in the next yard, a dot of vibrating enthusiasm vanishing into the middle distance.
I began to hum, as much to the bees as to myself, letting the tune unwind in harmony with their buzzing, letting it bear me away with them.
“What the hell are you daydreaming about? Snap out of it. Here!”
My father scowled as he thrust the bee smoker back at me. He had pumped a few perfunctory puffs of gray smoke into the door and under the lid of the hive. He wanted to have a look inside because he was afraid the “girls” — as he called the bees — were outgrowing their boxes and might be getting ready to swarm and find a new hive. He had an amateur’s innocence about what he might be looking for, along with a confidence that he would recognize whatever it was when he saw it: perhaps the building of new queen cells or simply too many bees. He never wore gloves or a beekeeper’s veil. He would have nothing to do with such folderol: “What’s the matter? Afraid of a little sting?” I took the smoker and backed away as he got ready to open up the hive.
Watching him work, I remembered his attempt once trying to hive a swarm that had come to rest on a low-hanging branch. He had read about being able to shake a swarm into a hive so that the bees settled right in. The technique must have seemed straightforward enough. He placed a hive box with a few fresh comb frames in it on the ground under the swarm and proceeded to lop off the branch with a pair of pruners. Most of the bees did fall into the box, but the descent of the branch was not as gentle as it could have been, and he didn’t have the hive cover ready. By the time he could pick it up and move to enclose the bees, the situation had gotten out of hand. With a collective roar the bees ballooned out of the box and formed a cloud around him.
I imagine the sound as it built in intensity: hundreds of bees speeding by his head, each buzzing tone making its own Doppler effect, a falling pitch like a shifting vowel, as if each bee were singing out, Hay-oh!
Though he wore no veil, my father was not stung. Instead the great humming cloud rose in the air and hovered on a level with the crowns of the citrus trees — remnants of the grapefruit orchards on which the houses on our lane had been built. The bees remained there for several long minutes, each insect scarcely visible in its speed, the swarm like a quality of the light, a shimmering excitation of space. Then the cluster drew in on itself until it was a small fraction of its earlier size and began to move purposefully and unhurriedly out of my father’s yard and down the road.
The swarm took up residence in a new bee box that a neighbor happened to have left sitting open at the side of his garage. “Lucky, dumb son of a bitch!” my father swore, though he certainly didn’t believe in luck, only hard work. He had paid his way through medical school driving a taxi back east. Ever after, he drove as if battling big-city traffic, even while raising his family in a mostly rural Phoenix, Arizona, neighborhood of citrus groves and horse pastures just beginning to be developed into suburbs. He had started medical practice during the Great Depression and told of being paid with a loaf of bread or a chicken. Drafted as a doctor into the war, it was there that he became a psychiatrist — what he always called a “shrink.” His therapy was shaped by a single philosophy: “What most of them need is a kick in the ass and to stop feeling sorry for themselves.” And, remarkably, this sometimes proved true — or, at least, he had former patients who had recovered and felt grateful. Some became his friends, touched by the generosity they saw beneath his brusque exterior.
My father taught my siblings and me to view the world as rational, mechanical, knowable in all its detail, and devoid of mystery. But what then, I wondered, could be the purpose of life? If I’d had the courage to ask my father, he would have answered that the question itself was a kind of “wishful thinking” expressing “an infantile need.” What was left for me, in such a clockwork universe, was emptiness, and into this emptiness came music.
Ours was a home without music, so my first experience of it was in a concert hall as a teenager. The sound propelled me through sweetness and anguish into awe. I could no more choose not to follow its call than I could decide not to feel hunger. I remember my father’s growling voice years later, when I dropped out of engineering school to pursue music: “Aw, you’re a damned fool!” But years before that, I’d heard the bees’ lines of song streaking by, and I’d felt a longing like a low, humming background noise in my head, the sort of sound you’d hear on a cold winter’s day if you put your ear against a hive to listen for life.
The “lucky, dumb” fellow in whose box my father’s swarm had set up housekeeping kept his hives in a row beneath a shed, to ward off the baking Phoenix sun, and facing east, so that they would be warmed by the sunrise in the morning after the cold desert nights. All of that was too fussy for my father, who had no intention of emulating “that anal-retentive bastard.” When I was in high school, however, he came up with the notion of setting his hives back under the branches of our citrus trees. The trees were a dense tangle of limbs behind their waxy wall of leaves, and their aprons often went clear to the ground. It became my job to get under there with a handsaw and pruning tools and clear out something like a cave in the foliage, opening toward the southeast and deep enough that my father could put a hive in and walk around it.
Of course I couldn’t be trusted to do this unsupervised. While I crawled under the bushy canopy, my father stood outside in the full sun, barking orders. From the dark heart of the tree I could see him leaning over and peering in, hand shielding his brow from the glare. The inside of a citrus canopy is a sheltered space. For the kids growing up in our neighborhood the rows of citrus trees and the hedges of oleander and pomegranate had been full of “secret tunnels” connecting our backyards. This tree was like that, and I looked up through the intricate network of branches, trying to determine what would happen if I cut here, or here. My eye traced a tangled limb out from its base to the shell of leaves that would fall away if I severed it.
“There!” my father shouted.
“There, by your elbow!”
It was ludicrous for him to think he could see what he was ordering me to do. From his vantage point he certainly couldn’t look up into that darkened, branching filigree to see the effect his choices would have on the crown. His bullying orders were so clearly uninformed that a sense of injustice rose in me like heat.
“No,” I said. “I don’t think you want —”
“What do you mean, ‘No’?”
“But if I cut there —”
“Do as I say!”
Do as I say. As if I had no mind of my own. “But you can’t even see from out there.”
“The hell. You do as I say!”
“But seriously, the whole back half of the crown will —”
“Damn it! Will you or will you not —” And with that he began to thrash his way in at me. The thick and thorny branches held him back, but they wouldn’t forever. Afraid of getting trapped against the trunk, I dove and crawled out the backside of the tree. My father circled around, and my own anger flooded my vision with a blinding blaze. “Jesus!” I said. “Do it yourself, then!” And I threw the saw at him in indignation.
I froze in horror at what I had done. The saw had missed him, but clearly only by chance. He narrowed his gaze on me and advanced.
“Come here, you little shit!”
I ducked toward the hive as he came after me, but he grabbed my shirt. I tugged, he held, and we slammed into the box. The bees responded with a full-throated roar.
I broke away and ran without thinking or looking back, the aggressive appoggiatura of the bees shooting by my ears.
I ended up in some bushes far from home. There I stayed for two days, hiding out in the secret tunnels and spending nights at the house of a friend who let me in the back door furtively after dinner. When I came home, my father said nothing about what had happened. Perhaps he actually felt responsibility for his temper, but he’d be damned if he would admit it. Instead he treated me with a kind of grudging respect, as if my standing up to him had made me someone to be reckoned with. Though still on my guard, I felt a peculiar confidence, a strength, a reluctantly accepted heritage. I knew I would be all right.
I didn’t spend as much time at home after that. I took my guitar to the streets and fell in with a crowd that seemed to flow with a swarming mind all its own. Hay-oh! It wasn’t long before I left to follow the music west and north.
Many years later I’ve settled in the cooler, kinder climate of the Northwest and taken up beekeeping myself. My first season was a wet spring, and I fed my new hives with sugar water during their early months. Sometimes, as I refilled the feeders, the bees would circle and dart around me, and I’d stand still and calm. They were interested only in the sweetness.
I learned to gently pry a comb frame loose without having it bump and get the bees worked up. And I found that if I pulled the frame out slowly, they would cling to each other and then gently let go. They seemed docile, tolerant of me, almost appreciative. Perhaps they’d begun to recognize me in a way I can hardly imagine, or maybe I’d just grown more comfortable with them.
At first I wore all the protection: hood, gloves, cotton clothing in light colors — no leather or dark colors; the bees might take you for a bear and explode out to defend the hive. I have been stung, but it seems as if each time I am, I have less of a reaction. Once, last year, a bee got inside the hood with me: the poor girl got stuck between my shirt and the fringe of the hood and crawled up underneath. By the time I figured out where she was, she’d stung me in the soft flesh of my temple, close to my eye, which swelled almost shut.
I spend a lot of time sitting with my bees, watching them come and go, their bloomers laden with bright orange and yellow, the quick conversations among antennae at the entrance. What do they say? I want to know the mind of my hives. As I sit, I find myself humming to them again, the way I used to.
It’s been decades since my father’s quiet passing. He had insisted on an absence of sentiment or ceremony, claiming that his own death was an event of no consequence. But the memory lingered of his working the hives with his bare hands, his exposed face sweating. It seemed almost a matter of course that I would decide to work without the hood. The veil is cumbersome, and it’s hard to get a good look at what’s going on through the mosquito mesh. Practical reasons aside, it became an act of remembrance.
I made my decision one day in early summer last season. I wanted to check how my bees were doing and see whether I could put the feeders away. The cold and damp had finally broken, and we were getting our first flush of warmth. It seemed a long time since I had felt the hot sun on my face, so, when it came time to suit up, I decided this was the moment to do without the hood and the gloves. I still smoked the hive, but only lightly. It was as though, if I were going to trust the bees, I should do so almost completely.
Pouring sugar water into feeders outside the hive is one thing. Taking the hive apart and pulling out frames is another. A beekeeper is supposed to “inspect the brood,” but, like my father, I had scant idea what I should be looking for. I’m getting a little nearsighted too, so after I pulled a frame, I held it close, turning it slowly and peering into the cells for the curled white larvae smaller than grains of rice. My cheek must have been just inches away from the comb. Suddenly several bees shot up and hit my face. The jolt startled me. But I was holding a frame covered with hundreds of bees. I remained still. The bees had landed on my cheek. I could feel their feet as they walked about. I don’t know how many there were; maybe two, maybe six. It took a lot of effort not to panic as I slid the frame smoothly back into the hive. The girls on my face kept crawling. Finally, when I had my hands free, I was able to brush them gently away, and they flew off. It was only then that my heart raced, and I moved to sit down in the grass and catch my breath.
I haven’t handled a swarm yet, so I can only imagine what really goes on in one, but this much I know: When a hive grows to a certain size, the workers build special cells and raise new queens. The old queen takes flight and alights in the landscape somewhere near. About half her daughters go with her, and the swarm condenses, a writhing multitude on a tree branch. Through this mitosis the hive achieves a kind of immortality, its genes revitalized and perpetuated in the new queen, who takes over in the absence of the old.
The swarm then decides where to go before it flies. Scouts go out, messengers into the world. Where one or two linger, more gather until they become a number. When enough of them gather, something is triggered. Together the decision is made: This is the place.
It’s easy to pretend to hold a “scientific” view and regard bees as little machines, programmed to serve their queen. “They’re just bugs, for Chrissake,” I can hear my father saying. And considering his own view on mortality, he would have denied a hive’s deathlessness. But it’s not like that to me. A hive, a mind, is mysterious, musical. How do they find their way? And how do I find mine?
After the scouts have reached their threshold number, they return to the seething mass on the branch and deliver their message by dances and scents. The decision takes hold of the whole. As the airborne swarm shimmers aloft, the scouts flash through the cloud toward their goal. The swarming multitude is slowly drawn forward, led by the meteoric flight of the knowing few. They fly.