from AN URBAN VERMONT BEE YARD: Telling the Bees

Patricia Ferreira Click to

patricia ferreiraPatricia J. Ferreira keeps two colonies of bees in her urban apiary in Burlington, Vermont.  She has published creative non-fiction in Yankee Magazine, Green Mountains Review and the Vermont Beekeepers Association’s FlightPath.  At present she is compiling an anthology of contemporary poetry about honey bees and beekeeping, titled Poems from the Bee Yard.  She is also a professor of English at Norwich University and publishes regularly on Frederick Douglass, African American writing and abolition.


Talking lips don’t grow cold;
babble and jabber.
Inside a beehive, a fortune.
What was lost was held
inside a tale.
The tall stories I told
utterly real.

from “Scheherazade”
by Carol Ann Duffy


Snow fell until the end of April and lingered on the ground well into May. As the month progressed dandelions, usually the first pollen producers, flowered slowly, so there was little for bees to forage. Since it was so cold and there wasn’t much to eat, surely my queen was laying little brood and there was still plenty of room in the hive for her to increase the numbers once the weather brightened. A swarm, a bee colony’s division, usually occurs where there’s not enough space for the population to increase. In mid-May, however, during the first warm week, half of my colony swelled into a cluster cloud and lodged across the street on a tree limb too near power lines to catch and re-hive. From my front porch I watched the departing brood beat their wings in a steady state on the branch, like the way we tread water to avoid drowning, while scout bees searched for new digs in a tree hollow or under a sheltered eve.

I could only imagine that this swarm occurring amid such unlikely circumstances had to be caused by something other than a need for more room. Folklore imparts that a colony may divide when the beekeeper does not reveal substantive news about the realm where the bees reside. The adage goes, “Marriage, birth, or burying,/news across the seas,/All your sad or marrying,/You must tell the bees.” As I watched the buzzing black mass stopped across the street, I was reminded of the watchwords and reflected on news that I was incapable of admitting to myself, never mind the bees: my marriage was ending.

If the proverb was accurate and I had found the courage to walk the few feet from my house to the apiary to convey my sorrow out loud, it may have brought solace to the colony and quelled its impulse to fissure. Instead, as my husband packed his belongings, I kept to myself, possibly causing the bees to lose their mooring, intuiting an anxiety surrounding the hive. I sat on the porch stoop waiting, as one would at the bedside of a failing family member, knowing at twilight the swarming half of the colony would finally leave the vicinity of the bee yard, needing more shelter than the tree limb to survive the night cold.

As expected, when evening fell, they vanished.

Although the timing of the swarm in my apiary mirrored my own separation, little else was similar. When the scouts found suitable dwelling and the rest followed, establishing domicile in an unknown habitat, they transformed themselves into feral bees. In contrast, my husband moved just around the corner. For our son, it was a fortunate choice; he could easily shuttle back and forth between houses. For me, I had to keep reliving the cliché cause of our split: her car parked in his driveway, long weekends knowing they were away, the injury of rejection inflicted again and again just by proximity.

It’s not as if I hadn’t experienced domestic rupture before the break-up of my marriage. My father was a disabled veteran incapable of working because of the shell shock he experienced during the Second World War. My mother, brother, and I endured silences that lasted for days while he smoked pack after pack of cigarettes, bit his fingernails beyond the quick, reliving bombs that sunk his aircraft carrier, leaving he and his crew mates presumed dead and floating in the Pacific.

Rather than become ensnared in his quietness, we worked around him and our overlooking of his downheartedness made me immune to its despair. Ironically, my happiest childhood memories include time spent with my despondent dad. The two of us would take drives in our blue Rambler station wagon and between us, I situated my orange, battery-powered record player so we could listen to his favorite forty-fives: Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” or “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” Simon and Garfunkle’s “Cecilia.” By ignoring his melancholy and backhandedly taking care of him, I learned that difficulty was no reason to lose faith.

In the face of trouble, though, my upbringing taught me a tough stance of allegiance that sometimes would not serve me well as an adult. My sense of loyalty is probably the reason it took me so long to reckon that life with my husband was beyond repair. He would arrive home to a dark house, any highlights from my day swallowed by excuses. In the morning, boiling water for tea, he watched our son master the skill of pinching a Cheerio between his index finger and thumb, the previous night’s explanations overlooked so a semblance of household commitment might be established.

Carol Ann Duffy’s “Hive” declares how the domicile of bees “is love,/what we serve, preserve, avowed in Latin murmurs/as we come and go [. . .].” Such fidelity to the domestic certainly was in force while we took care of my father. With the break-up of my marriage, however, I winced at the poem’s celebration of familial dedication. Out in my apiary, the bees’ devotion to each other was lost on the human habitat alongside their own.

In an apiary there is no arrival of a trophy queen that upsets the balance. Nor does the existent queen possess what Charles Darwin, in The Origin of Species, mistakenly identified as a “savage instinctive hatred” that causes her to “destroy the young queens, her daughters.” No one bee, even the queen, exercises that much control over the colony.

Using the purported hive culture, however, that Darwin imagined, women are often cast as rivalries especially surrounding the affections of men. Yet drones, the males, in a bee colony, hold no special status. In fact, as a hive downsizes in preparation for winter, most are tossed from the hive to die.

Perhaps it was my admiration for the colony’s symbiotic collaboration among its females that caused me to introduce myself to my husband’s new woman in the grocery store parking lot. In the flesh I hoped we could outwit the Darwinian competitive strictures in which we’d been cast, especially since they centered on the behest of a man.

While she pulled into a space and got out of her car, I watched her cross the pavement. She spotted me when it was too late to retreat and lowered her head in what I imagined was an impossible attempt to escape. I waited at the doorway and when we stood face to face, I held out my hand, but she only babbled, “Take care of yourself.”

I withdrew at her unsolicited advice, the insult exacerbated by my knowing she had entered my home, at my ex-husband’s invitation, while I was at work. From the time I learned of it, I often thought of her arriving in our driveway and my ex-husband secretly welcoming her at the back door. How did they both avert any sense of conscience as the black and white photos of his parents as well as my own looked at them from the walls of the entryway? As they moved to the sunroom, did he recount our family vacations when she surly spotted the picture of our son in my arms blowing a pinwheel in the ocean breeze? In the kitchen, when she saw the breakfast dishes in the sink, did he tell her that he always made my morning coffee, even on that day? In our bedroom, how did she measure my character when she saw my jewelry strewn on my dresser, my week’s clothing piled on the rocking chair, my books stacked on my nightstand?

Robber bees can enter a hive when the colony has little ability to defend itself. With stealth, they strip the honey and take over the comb until there is no room for the host bees. With equal callousness, this woman had sex with my husband in our home. I struggled in the parking lot to keep focused and mumbled good-bye, making my way to my car without surrender of Darwinian enmity. On that, bees clearly have pre-eminence.

The camaraderie of my fellow beekeepers helped lift my spirits as I went through the reckoning of my marriage’s end. Curiously, the majority of my beekeeping friends are men. Nationally, they’ve long outnumbered women by more than two to one, though the data is less than scientific. Even sketchier, however, are the reasons more men than women are drawn to bees. Of course, the joke is they simply enjoy the company of females. They are welcome comrades, though; especially since the only other male presence in the apiary are the pathetic drones.

A favorite beekeeper is Eaton whose extensive apicultural knowledge came from four generations of his family, which had long kept bees on their Vermont farm. He introduced me to euphemisms such as, “If you don’t like my gate, don’t swing on it” or “That one’s climbing up Fool’s Hill.” When it was cold, he said his “corners” were freezing.

Eaton and I often worked together in my bee yard. Under his tutelage, I hefted hive boxes and tipped them on an ordinary bathroom scale to weigh the needed winter honey store. He also taught me how to identify the queen, her abdomen longer than those belonging to her retinue whose members surround her like numbers on a clock.

When my bees swarmed that spring, I immediately called Eaton who arrived in minutes, his smoker lit, ready to climb a ladder and help me retrieve the colony before he determined that telephone lines made it impossible.

With my marriage dissolving, time spent with Eaton gradually began to renew my self-esteem. We developed a harmless, flirty repartee that often involved my aversion to wearing the trademark, white beekeeper’s jumpsuit. Once when he delivered a box of workers to help a struggling colony, as we hoisted it onto the hive, he warned not to be sorry if the bees got into my “knickers.” I laughed and responded that at my age “it’s all about avoiding hot flashes” to which he bent over double. It felt good to be so comfortable in a man’s company.

When I open a hive, prying the outer and inner covers from their propolis bond, wresting the frames from their housing, and inspecting the brood, I must be calm and respectful. Otherwise, the bees will attack, their high-pitched buzz calling others to the fore to circle and sting.

As I worked in the bee yard, the fact that I could so readily transcend into the bee realm taught me that my heartache was not impervious. I could recreate a life other than the one I shared with my husband.

Jarah, an entomologist that I met at the university where I worked, was also pivotal in helping me regain my footing. I enrolled in an apicultural short course he taught, the topic of which, ironically, was the queen’s mating habits. Before long, as he introduced her reproductive anatomy, I found myself easing into the heart of his lesson, becoming gratifyingly distracted from myself.

Just by his dress, Jarah piqued my interest. On my maternal side, I come from a line of cobblers, milliners, tailors, and seamstresses. Clothing, as a result, is not an incidental. As Jarah explained the benefits of the queen’s deliberate mating with multiple partners, I noted his linen trousers and blue cotton shirt, nothing unusual for a male academic. Yet, I judged his pants’ crease lines, whether the indent above the ankle was deep enough, and if his shirt had a single top stitch around the collar. My eye even measured the width of his collar points, noting they were narrow, what I preferred.

In contrast, slides of him in the apiary, projected on the big screen behind while he spoke, depicted him, for the labor involved, in more suitable jeans and a red chemise shirt. After his talk, I introduced myself as a fellow faculty member, though my pedigree is English. Despite our differing disciplines, he seemed grateful for a kindred spirit in the room, given his audience was comprised mostly of beginning beekeepers whose day jobs were removed not only from an apiary but also a university. We agreed to meet later in the week in the school coffee shop to talk bees since others in the crush around him wanted to ask questions.

When I readied on the morning of our appointment, I armed myself with a couple poetry collections, the mid-century Poems of a Bee-Keeper by Everard Stokes and my beloved, new-century, The Bees by Duffy. Like me, Jarah arrived with something to share, a syllabus for “Introduction to the Honey Bee and Beekeeping” that he taught to undergraduate, non-science majors. As I examined his class plan, I gave him Stokes and Duffy to inspect. While focusing on what we brought, we avoided any awkward silences that our initial unfamiliarity with one another might cause.

Two thirds of his syllabus was predictable enough for an entomologist, but the final third dealt with bees in mythology, religion, history, and literature.

“What texts do you use,” I asked, but Jarah explained that most of his lectures in the last section were “stand alone” where he only made casual references to writers and stories.

Given he only glossed this part of the syllabus and noting one of the assignments, I asked, “So you expect students to really write poems?”

The requirement seemed a toss off to me, diminishing the reading and practice necessary to do good work. “I suppose you think anyone can write a poem and anyone can judge one too,” I continued.

On the defensive, Jarah countered, “Well, could you teach the first two sections?”
“No,” I said. “I have no idea about any of that. It’s not my training, so I wouldn’t presume to teach it, at least not with any authority.”

“Well what if we meet regularly,” he offered. “I’ll teach you about bee biology and you can teach me about poetry.” We agreed. The prospect of seeing him on a regular basis was exciting.

As spring came on and dandelions began to bloom, during one of our sessions Jarah and I both coincidentally brought in burr comb to sample that our individual colonies were making across the top of our hives’ frames, rather than on the foundation. Since bees will build comb anywhere there’s space, when they do so on the top of the hive, underneath the inner cover, it has to be removed or else it makes inspecting the colony difficult.

If they start storing honey in the burr comb and it’s scraped out gently enough, the beekeeper can get a decent harvest. As I unwrapped the foil in which Jarah brought his, its collection of hexagons had just a touch of honey in each one. Tumbling it around my mouth, the sealing suddenly broke and a grade of thick medium amber gushed onto my tongue before the wax hardened and I had to spit it out.

Jarah did likewise, putting a gob of mine in his mouth and uttering an almost requisite “ummm,” when the honey met his taste buds. “Whose do you think is best,” he tauntingly asked.

“Mine,” I said immediately. “Yours came from lab hives. Mine is from a real colony.”
Our meetings always had an edge of playfulness, but Jarah could also be quite serious and consoling. He gradually learned the circumstances of my home life. Once, I compared myself to the carpenter bee in one of Natasha Tretheway’s poems of the same title. The bee, in the piece, builds an elaborate nest inside the framing of the speaker’s porch. Eventually, the speaker has the entry hole filled and when the bee, whose been foraging, returns, she can no longer get inside. The speaker is reminded of herself: “[. . .] Watching her,/I think of what I’ve left behind, returned to,/only to find everything changed, nothing but/my memory intact[. . .].”

When I described the kinship between Tretheway’s poem and my life, Jarah pointedly asked if the piece continued, what would be the bee’s next actions? It was a question I thought characteristic of a scientist, who, rather than succumbing to the metaphor, returned to the physical. The bee would obviously hover at the impenetrable entrance only for a limited time, before finding a new spot to begin building a new elaborate network in which to nest. It was an instinct that I too had to adopt in order to recover from my marriage’s end.

As much as Jarah learned the details of my separation, I learned of his personal life. Namely, that he is married. As a result, I tried to merely delight in the intimate longings that he inspired; relieved they still existed. When on an extended research trip, though, I nearly crossed a line, sending him Duffy’s short poem “Bees,” where the speaker, in the closing lines, declares, “[. . .] know of us:/how your scent pervades/my shadowed, busy heart/and honey is art.” If he asked me about it, which thankfully he never did, I could always explain the poem literally: that the speaker was confiding to the bees how much she cared.

Despite the loss a beekeeper feels when a colony divides, swarms, in their own right, carry centuries of mystique and appeal that span countless cultures. Traditions as diverse as the Hindu and Mayan believe the sound of a mass of migrating bees carries power. The Hindu call it “bhramaram,” the hum of the bee, which drives away demons. Likewise, the Mayan believe the sound carries healing and protective properties that their Shaman mimic during ritual chants.

I attest an approaching swarm is a sight like no other and, because of its murmur, it is often heard before seen. Twice, long before becoming a beekeeper, I’ve walked down the same hillside only to hear the sudden dulcet tone in the breeze before witnessing the black pulsating cloud overhead. Once, as I watched a swarm beat by, my son was with me, then a boy, hardly able to know the full breadth of thousands of bees flying tightly together over our heads. Yet as we walked home, the sight lifted his steps, like mine, as it drifted toward the horizon.

In time, I embraced the ancient draw of a swarm. I refashioned my house and its surrounding property so that it would manifest my newfound strength. Near my apiary, my son and I screwed planks together for four oblong raised garden beds. We hauled and spread compost and topsoil in them and planted tomatoes, basil, spinach, and a host of aromatic herbs to use in my newly renovated kitchen. I also restored a set of stained glass windows that looked out to the bee yard. In the summer, when it is especially hot, the smell of honey breezes inside.

Ancient Egyptians would rub into wounds that struggled to heal a salve made of honey, beeswax, and fourteen different plants. Every civilization since then has touted honey for its healing properties. For me, every aspect of tending my bees: hive observation, inspection, maintenance, the harvest, writing about them, using their honey and giving it away, works as my curative tonic.

And on this July morning, as I check the health of my hives, I think that although science has advanced beekeeping so much in the last century, the unknown also seems to enshrine life in the apiary. Hearing the bees’ low susurrate as I open a cover, I wonder at the way the brood has repopulated itself since the swarm.

Although my marriage’s end certainly underscored a loss of faith, what is to say that my swarming bees did not chase away the dispirit that enveloped the house, their wings shifting the wind before heading to uncertainty? As I appraise the comb, the brood is tending the queen, feeding the young, and, as it does most days, synthesizing nectar into honey that I will spoon into tea, spread on toast, or use to treat what can be slow to heal.


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