Some people are “cat people” or “dog people,” but others of our species require a different kind of companionship. Some crave emotional intimacy at arms-flailing distance. I think it was Milton who once said, If there is a void in your soul, fill it with a starter packet of 11,000 European honeybees.
I made them a home among my DN1 slats the first spring. We fast became one, strolling through the garden together, a man and a man-shaped swarm of bees, hand in hand-shaped bee swarm.
In those long summer afternoons, they would alight on me and me on them, and I felt like a young lad again. A lad in a suit with padded knees and gusseted crotch, gazing at a pulsing constellation of golden thoraxes through a veil and knowing I was alive. Alive and properly gusseted.
One evening, my daughter called across the yard, “Pa, have you been stealing ham steaks from the supermarket again?” But all I heard was “ZZZzzzZZzzzzZzZZZZzzZZZzZZZZZzzZZzZZZzzzzZz” and the unspoken acceptance of all that I am, issuing from my Langstroth.
Many people are afraid of honeybees, but they are docile as a St. Bernard, and as diligent as as a labrador retriever. You must not take a bite to the face personally. It is simply a breed trait. A periodic sting keeps you immune and lets you know that you are not a calcified bachelor numb to life’s experiences. I was in terrible pain after a sting in July, but that was because I stepped on the tines of a rake in my surprise, taking a handle to the face while lodging my other foot in pail of manure. “That’s okay, my sweets.” I sang. “I’m not cross.”
As the days grew shorter, I treated my hive to corn syrup. “Hullo, you’ve been busy,” I whispered, lowering a piece of funnel cake dusted with powdered sugar onto the top bars and giving the cage a pat. “Sssshhh, my queen.”
Come spring, I beckoned them out into the warm air. The bees spiraled up and out toward the frangipanis and asters, ferrying pollen back to their frames with such gaiety that I couldn’t help but bumble alongside. My daughter was halfway to Bonn by the time I found the polaroid, left on my dresser, framing me and my brood in rapture. Gazing at the picture, I couldn’t tell where the bees stopped and my chin began.
It was a glary May day when I stepped out to the hive with my copper smoker in hand. I lifted the roof with a jaunty “‘Allo ‘all—” and was knocked onto my date by a geyser of 50,000 bodies. “BZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ” they went, shooting past me like the Scarborough Flyer. The entire swarm was gone without so much as forming an exclamation mark, or jumbo jet, or arrow to let me know where they were going. That’s life really. One day you are hoping for honey, the next you’re crying facelessly in a plume of smoke.
They were lonely days. One moment I would be laughing into my orange pekoe, the next I would be morosely looping the Bridlington log flume. I would feel a hand-shaped swarm on my shoulder, but turn around and find nothing there. Sometimes having no bee stings hurts the most.
Then came a morning when my daughter walked back through the door to the table where I sat, my crumpet held aloft in one hand, a knife of honeycomb dregs in the other. “Pa,” she said, “are you using your Czerny as a placemat?”
I knew I would learn to bee-keep again.