Be One With The Bee
There was an over abundance of canola growing in the farmlands of south western Australia that year. Almost every paddock was a vast, undulating carpet of yellow. This meant that the bees had an over abundance of food, and their population exploded, like thousands of yellow roman candles across the night sky.
When a hive grows to a certain size, a new queen is born, and she must split off and create her own hive. In the world of bee queens, there can be only one. While a queen won’t sting a human, even if you make her angry, she will fight to the death with any other queens.
And so, the hives were growing and splitting, and growing and splitting. There were hives in sheds, eaves, roofs, tractors and trailers, in drawers of old dressers, on tarps, ceilings, fences, and tremulous wooden walls. There was even one trying to establish itself on a single stalk of oats. If we moved or destroyed one, three more sprang up in its place, like hydra. The farmer coaxed a couple of hives into polyurethane boxes, so we could move them away from the house and the working shed. The local beekeeper was inundated with phone calls from farmers asking him to take their bees away.
He made you bring the bees, pre-boxed, to him. Once, the farmer went through a McDonald’s drive through in town, forgetting that he had a box full of bees in the back of his truck with the entry/exit hole uncovered. Everyone in the vicinity thoroughly freaked out. That was the last time he tried to bring any hives to the beekeeper.
We couldn’t bear to outright destroy all of the hives, either. In the end, it was just easier to live with them.
I remember the day the first swarm moved into the farmhouse. I heard strange noises outside and, against all horror film wisdom, I went to investigate. It was the middle of the day but the sky had darkened, as in a flash thunderstorm, or the Apocalypse. It sounded like thunder, shaking the air in one long, quivering roar, like a stampede of lawnmowers charging through the clouds. The bees hovered, menacingly, over the house for a while, as though deciding whether they really wanted to live here or not.
Over the next couple of hours, they annexed the roof of the house like an army of tiny ghosts. We were never alone after that day. The house became the Amityville of bees. More swarms moved in and around the house; we stopped counting at twenty hives. The house buzzed ceaselessly from morning till night. It filled my head too; the steady drone became the undercurrent to my thoughts. They rumbled in the attic, seeped through the walls, crowded the windows, and were always over head and under foot. Their entrance was just above the front door, and they guarded it vociferously. The hotter the day, the more active they were. We covered our heads and darted quickly in and out of the house. In short, they took over and we became the intruders.
There was a skylight in the ceiling of the bathroom, covered in wire mesh, that extended through the attic to a small window in the roof. It was our only peek into their world. It smelled of wax and honey and creatures breathing together, like a slumber party or a dorm room. Honeycomb tumbled from the eaves alongside the house and littered the grass. Honey dripped from the ceiling. The bees would slip through cracks in the ceiling and walls, popping into the living room as if by magic. Then they’d throw themselves against the large glass windows, over and over again. I can only imagine their frustration at seeing their comrades on the other side of the glass. So close, and yet they could not join them, no matter what they did.
Day subsumed into night, and so too would the bees begin to ebb and fade. They became clumsy and bumbling, their light slowly, surely dimming and extinguishing. They’d embrace lazily together on the window sill, like drunk ballroom dancers, acting out their last communications. Love letters to the queen, perhaps, that would never reach her. After the sun went down and the living room bees were dead, the ants would march in, dismantle the carcasses and take them away; our little pall bearers. Every day we witnessed this microcosmic life/death cycle. Each morning brought new life and energy, and each the night, dwindling and death.
I was alone with the bees one day. The farmer had gone into town and I stayed behind to bake bread and catch up on correspondence. I put the dough in a patch of sunlight to rise, and the house comfortably buzzed, as it always did in those days. Suddenly, the buzzing stopped, completely, and just for a second; an eerie and too-quiet second, like when all of the birds stop chirping in the forest. I froze and listened hard. And then the house exhaled and the buzzing started again. But it was different, it thrummed at a higher octave, like someone mellifluously singing a lullaby. This lasted a few seconds and then the buzzing resumed its usual pitch. It’s called piping, and it’s what the hive does after there’s been an intrusion or a fright, like the appearance of an ant. It’s how they soothe themselves.
The farmer and I kept a tally of stings, a little mock competition, and became adept at extracting stingers. I was stung only three times in about six or so weeks. The first time was on moving day, when one got caught in my hair and we both panicked. Another evening, I forgot to put on my slippers and raced barefoot through the house, and stepped on a bee fumbling about on the floor. The last time, I was sitting in front of the fire and I put my hand to my neck to brush away a tickle. The bee had only been following the contours of the couch and found its way onto my shirt. Luckily, I didn’t react too badly, although tagging and castrating calves with a grossly swollen finger isn’t the easiest. It’s wildly unfair that their strongest defense mechanism kills them.
While there were stings and deaths and we were both a little territorial, I like to think that the bees and I reached a sort of detente, an amiable co-existence. It’s amazing how quickly one can adjust to and normalize a situation. Sometimes, when the sound of the phone or an unexpected voice gives me a start, I think of them singing their sweet, soothing piping song.