Friday, February 6, 2009

The Secret Life of Dead Bees

When the first sprig of green finally arrives and the world opens its greedy arms to springtime, I clap my hands in joy and wait for bees. They will come. My bees always do, planting their little nest in a safe harbor between my windows and storm screens. I do not know what draws them here, to my humble place in the world.

“The bees are back,” I tell Todd excitedly.

“This year I’m going to take that damn nest down.”

“If you do that, I will divorce you.”

He doesn’t understand. How could I explain in any simple way how much it means to me that they let me into their strange, little world? Liv and I sit, side by side, watching these creatures at their miniature labors, listening to the constant hum of their wings beating in the new air. They are fresh with possibility. It is the beginning of a lifetime that is equal to a human summer. But a long, hot summer is all they need.

When I was little I would devote entire summer afternoons to the capture and release of bees. Butterflies bored me. Ladybugs were over-rated. Caterpillars made my hands stink. So, in the backyard of my childhood home I became a hunter of bees.

“Mom, I need some jars with lids.”

“What for, Gwenny Pooh?”

“I’m catching bees.”

“Again? Honey, beeee careful. They sting.”

But that was sort of the point. It’s not that I wanted to get stung. But I instinctively knew in my little girl heart that anything worth having wouldn’t come easy. Those bees were a worthwhile opponent. And I had something to learn from them. Bees could fuck you up. How could I not respect a thing that would rather die than be in pain any longer? How could I not understand them? Bees will sacrifice their lives for the opportunity to sting, to punish the source of their pain. How awesome is that?

Little Gwen tip toed through the grass prowling for those bees. My de-labeled mayonnaise jar in hand, I spotted my prey extracting nectar from a buttercup. Once I placed the jar overhead, the bee doesn’t know he is my prisoner, not right away. It is for this moment I do my work. I sit cross-legged on the ground next to my captive; my skinny legs itched by the sharp blades of grass, watching a private moment, intimate as a dance between lovers.

“You have a sweet tooth, little bee. Guess what? So does me!” And I laughed at my own silly, ungrammatical rhyme. My giggle a music harmonizing with the cackle of a distant locust.

We had a talk, the bee and I. He always listened. Then came the moment where the bee realized the jig was up. There was my bee hurling his little body against the glass. Ping. Ping. Ping. That is a sad sound. It was time to let my bee go.

That is a tricky game: Release. The bee was pissed off at me. He was ready to lay down his last stinger, his only life to make me suffer his wrath. I pulled off the jar right quick and ran as quick as my little legs could take me to the safety of my own jar. And therein I stood looking out the back door. My little finger pressed against the coldness of that glass. Ping. Ping. Ping. It was just another prison.

Now that I am grown the bees come to me. I watch their workings at my leisure. And work they do. They never stop. Ceaseless humming. Coming and going. Moving and spinning, covering and uncovering. Busy bees. I could learn from them. I could learn how to live from these bees in their wild state, satiated with nectar and purpose and all that is right in the whole wide world.

The first chill of September brings stillness to the hive. You can see the beginning of the end in their movements. The bees move slow and stilted, but their queen is safe and fat. She is full of the next generation. And for the first time in the whole of their short bee lives, they will rest, satisfied with the work of their bee hands.

This is when I stop watching. Maybe it’s not fair of me to abandon them at this, the end. Is that wrong? Some people don’t know how to deal with death. Soon the hum is gone, as are the bee shadows on my blinds in the late afternoon. When I peer out of my jar, I see their lonely hive, beautiful and haunted, long remiss of the buzz of bees. Beneath these intricate catacombs lay the bodies of its occupants, drying in the cool, autumn winds.

When I see those dead bee bodies, something awakens inside of me. Something hot and uncomfortable. These bees are done. I want to know if they regret never stinging somebody in the ass. I want to know if they died with the sweetness of nectar in their mouths. I want to know if their bee lives flashed before their eyes.

“Did you bee all you could bee?” The grass is itchy. I scratch at my legs. Ping. Ping. Ping.

Capture and release. A wild thing won’t be taken alive. But freedom has its own price. That is the agony of life. Maybe you don’t know this, but we pick our own deaths. I’m not saying we choose the way we lose our living breaths. That is not the death I’m talking about. I’m talking about the slow, aching death of the soul. I’m talking about the captured heart of a wild thing, hurling all its energy against the glass walls of its prison. Ping. Ping. Ping. That is the saddest sound. Sometimes we don’t know we’re captured until it’s too late.


  1. Gwen, Weston does the exact same thing! So weird. As much as I tell him not to catch bees, they sting, he still always does it! Now I know where he gets it from!

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  3. This was really beautiful. I shed a tear. One of your best "serious" pieces.

    These Bees that you speak of were in my dream last night. However, I was running to get away from them as they were attacking me at the time.

    Remember when Dad got attacked by bees and he jumped in the pool but the bees continued to sting him? I always thought that the bees must have put on a snorkel set to breath underwater. Like in cartoons.

  4. We'd better be careful with bees, as endangered as they are these days. Without bees, where would we all, well, be?

    Nicely written, and very evocative.

  5. The was very beautiful and well-written. That last paragraph- I feel that a lot- ping ping ping. Hurling against the bars of whatever bondage we've chosen for ourselves, trying to break free. It's harder to get out than it was to get in.

  6. The sad thing, is that a bee in a cage was captured and put there. But people are really the only ones that imprison themselves.

  7. This is publishing material, for sure.

    I bow my head in deference to your skills, milady.

  8. Alisha - I did not know that about Weston. A boy after my own heart.

    Jodi - Sorry I made you cry. Well, actually I'm not. I cried, too, when I was writing it. I also laughed remember dad and his "bee mishap". There are a lot of bee stories in our family. Remember Amy had those bees in her parents in first grade and wouldn't tell the teacher?

    Gypsy - You are right about that. The bees are an important natural resource and their numbers are dwindling. Thanks for a reminder on the importance of respecting the natural world. And thank you for the compliment on my piece.

    Mountain Lover - "It is harder to get out than it was to get in." Nicely put. I can never put away the feeling that I've built my own, unscaleable walls.

    Rassles - Why do we do that? We are supposedly the smartest creatures and yet we are so mean to ourselves and sometimes each other.

    Sharon - Wow. Thank you so much for thinking that. Your opinion means a lot to me.

  9. The first year that we lived in our house, there was a big spider living in a bush right near the deck. My husband adopted it - he'd catch flies and toss them to the spider - and we'd watch the demise of the fly. When fall came, he moved the spider into the garage. But it didn't last.

    I'm glad to hear that you like butter. Why isn't your email address apparent?

  10. Magpie - I never kill spiders. There's something about them that fascinates and terrifies me.

    I didn't realize my email address was nowhere to be found. I will add it to my "About" page. Thanks for the heads up and for taking a peek at my blog : )

  11. Simply beautiful. .... babspeapod

    (p.s. thanks for stopping by and reading my not-so-eloquent blog!)