A Taste of Wild Honey

The decline of natural beehives

All winter I have struggled to hold the bees in the hive of my head. Because I had no time to write about them, they threatened to rise up as a single blonde body and desert me. Or fall out of my head and die in disuse, like the drones thrown out of a hive when the food supply is low. I am so far away from that summer moment when I held a piece of comb in my hand and tasted wild honey.

In order to write about the bees, since they are irrevocably gone now, I must immerse myself in beeness. In 1924, E.M. Forster wrote, in Aspects of the Novel, that “One day, 200 years hence, we shall have animals who are neither symbolic, nor little men disguised, nor as four-legged tables moving, nor as painted scraps of paper that fly. It is one of the ways where science may enlarge the novel…” The more complete and realistic rendering of a bee may require yet another hundred years, still there are ways to approach them.

We can get closer to bees in the bright, new 20th-century way. A website based at Montana University has a camera outside a hive; weather permitting, you can watch bees take off and return (beekeeper.dbs.umt.edu/bees/beecams.html).

No matter how three-dimensional they make the one-dimensional computer screen, I prefer to immerse myself in beeness directly. So I went to the health-food store to get some propolis, a thick, black sticky substance that bees use to glue together their hives. A friend has been urging me to take propolis because it pumps up your immune system. I consulted the vibrant woman in her 60s who clerks at the health-food store. She told me she’s been taking propolis for years. Then she shared her deeper secrets with me. She mixes a heaping teaspoon of bee pollen with a bit of honey and a dab of royalbee jelly; she chases this with a propolis capsule. “This way,” she said, “you get the whole bee. This potion keeps you youthful from the inside out.” Swayed by her energy and her beauty, I left the store with “the whole bee”; perhaps that’s the closest I can get to immersion.

The whole bee thing really started last spring when my husband looked out the second-floor bedroom window and saw a cloud of bees moving in the direction of the house. He lost sight of them, thought no more of them; a passing phenomenon. During the summer we noticed a disproportionate number of drowned bees, or frantically swimming bees, on the otherwise smooth surface of our grandson’s wading pool. But the yard is bordered by ice plant, whose purple flowers shiver their delicate tines to seduce passing bees, and the garden is planted with brilliant orange day lilies with wide yellow throats that beg bees to enter. In the heat of the day, if you saw with your ears you would take the pepper tree for a hive; so many bees working so many blossoms. So it was that we didn’t realize that a hive had taken up residence in our yard.

It was late summer, the dog days of August, when my son discovered the hive. An abandoned playhouse in the backyard safeguards forsaken toys, broken tennis rackets, ancient bicycle handlebars, rusted tools, and spiders. Really, we should toss a stick of dynamite into it, but we are the types who are surrounded by things whose sole value is sentimental. My son said he noticed a lot of bees going in and out of a hole that had rotted through the wood. When he opened the door he saw a well-developed hive pulsing like a spaceship. The bees had to work to accommodate our memorabilia; perhaps that is why the hive had such an odd shape. It looked like Michelangelo’s hand of God, only pointing downward. A number of distinct runnel-shaped combs spread wide at the top and narrowed at the end. It was nothing like the straight-arrow combs in beekeeper’s boxes. And nothing like the wild hive I once discovered fleshed into a tobacco tree in the canyon behind my house.

Though we knew it was necessary, we were reluctant to call someone to come and get rid of the bees. The choices weren’t good — extermination or removal. Some years back our friends had a wild bees’ nest in their chimney. They called an expert out to transfer the bees. Everything went wrong and the bees ended up in the house, flying wildly around, trying to escape. Still, we felt the hive had to go; in recent months “killer bees” had been seen in the area.

In our society there are dog people, cat people, horse people; people who attach their happiness and even a bit of their identity to an animal. I can understand why in certain tribes individuals go on quests to find the animal that is their spiritual correspondent. Maybe it’s because we look at our fragile bodies and say: Is this all we get to experience the world with? Or maybe it’s because our animal self is buried beneath so much aftershave or nail polish. I have reluctantly accepted pigeons as one of my totem images, but bees were my first love.

When I was younger, I used to pinch bees inside of orange honeysuckles and chase my enemies with them; briefly they lent me their ferocity and their power. As an adult I fell in love with them for real. I was walking my dog in the small oasis of undeveloped land behind my house, when I ran across a wild beehive. The hive was about four feet tall, and I came within inches of brushing my leg against it because I wasn’t paying attention. But the bees were so busy they didn’t give me a second look. They were crawling all over one another, not randomly, but rather intent on a purpose I could not decipher. Their translucent wings were flattened to their backs as if flying were a dream they sometimes had. Around the bottom of the hive were the dry husks of bee bodies. Why did they seem to know exactly what they should be doing? How could so many bodies work to one purpose? Why were their dead strewn around the threshold to their hive? This wasn’t the Burning Bush; still, it seemed the hive posed a question that would be worthwhile answering.

At the time I was taking a poetry seminar at San Diego State University. My professor, Fanny Howe, had assigned us to write ten poems on the same subject. By then I was fascinated with the beehive; I checked on it every day and was able to sit in front of it and study it for long periods of time without angering the bees. In the same field a professional beekeeper kept dozens of white drawer-like boxes filled with bees. I speculated that my hive might not have been wild, rather a renegade hive, a breakoff from the orderly, civilized bees, living domesticated little lives in white, high-rise boxes. My hive was statuesque, architectural, the bees’ own design; it looked like a golden Gaudi cathedral. Yet for all my speculation I knew nothing about bees, so I decided to research them, to make them the subject of my poems.

One of the most vividly descriptive books I found on the subject was Sue Hubbell’s Book of Bees. I learned from that book that the bees I saw crawling all over each other were the worker bees — which are females with atrophied sexual characteristics. They do nearly all the work of the hive: gather nectar and pollen, make propolis, raise young bees, build comb, make honey, defend the hive, and take care of the queen. Whew!

The queen bee doesn’t have to sully her hands with domestic work. According to Hubbell, “She is long, elegant, wasplike…easy to find among the short, stubby workers…. She will be able to lay fertile eggs for one, two, or even more years…. [Her] only purpose within the hive is to lay eggs. She cannot even take care of herself. The queen’s attendant bees feed, stroke, groom her, and carry away her feces. The workers are, as a result, aware of her condition, and when she begins to fail…they raise a new queen. When the virgin queen emerges from pupation, she roams the hive to murder any other queens…. The worker bees will not allow her to linger in the hive because she is not yet mated, so they urge her toward the hive entrance.” How classic to be displaced by Lolita; perhaps bees and humans have more in common than it appears.

So the worker bees have a hard road to hoe, and the queen has to be nubile or else, but your heart has to go out to the drones. First of all, the drones only get half of the genetic material, which rather limits their possibilities in the work world. Their only role in the colony is to mate. According to Hubbell, “They are big bees, with big eyes, and they hang out in groups watching for a virgin queen. They are not very bright…and they have been known to try to mate with a swallow flying by…. But it is the drone’s tragic fate that touches us. When a drone sees a queen, he flies high in the air to mate with her. He mates by everting his penis into her sting chamber, which closes around it, causing it to rip loose from his body, and he bends backward and falls lifeless to the ground.” An ugly way to go. But if the drone doesn’t have his penis ripped from his body, a less dramatic but equally terminal fate awaits him. “Drones are found in bee colonies during the spring and early summer, when the workers regard them with favor…. But after the queens are mated, the drones are…a drain on resources, so when the nectar flow begins to taper off in the summer, the workers bar the remaining drones from the hives, and they die.” Could these have been the dry husks of bees I saw scattered around the bottom of the hive?

Perhaps the queen seems a tad vicious, the workers a bit dull, the drones’ treatment barbaric, but there is another way of seeing bees: altruistically. According to Pulitzer prize–winning Harvard professor Edward O. Wilson, “It is only among the lower animals, and in the social insects, that we encounter altruistic suicide comparable to the human level…Ants, bees, and wasps are ready to defend their nests with insane charges against intruders.” As we know, after the bee stings, she dies. A Kamikaze sacrifice for the good of the hive. Worker bees also pull together against the forces of nature. In cold temperatures they vibrate their wings to maintain the temperature of the hive. Bees are the dream of a perfect world. Each bee in her little Mao jacket working to feed the entire population — to feed the world not meat and potatoes, not the bare necessities, rather the frivolous, the golden — pies, ice cream, and mead.

Which makes the next thing my husband and I did seem so bad. We called the beekeeper who seasonally places hives in the canyon behind our house. We hoped that he could somehow use the bees. He told us he could help us with the bees and drove all the way from Fallbrook the following morning. Enter the beekeeper: Bill Mathewson. When Mathewson emerged from the playhouse, he said, “Oh, these bees are gentle bees, calm bees — they didn’t mind at all when I disturbed them.” He told us he doesn’t tolerate bees that aren’t gentle; if he gets an aggressive hive he requeens them, which takes care of the problem. Nevertheless, he said he couldn’t use this hive because it was too well established. That the bees were gentle only made us feel more troubled about our decision to exterminate the hive. We asked Mathewson if he could suggest any alternatives.

Mathewson was patient, came in for a cup of coffee and some bee talk, while I called the places he suggested might be interested in a hive. Sometimes a 4-H club or similar groups would be interested in acquiring some bees, he said. If the bees had just swarmed, he told us, he would be able to capture the hive and use it. When Mathewson said, “It’s the old queens that swarm; that’s what brought these bees here,” I felt even more empathetic. Sylvia Plath wrote a number of bee poems in England the year before she committed suicide. She, too, identified with the aging queens:

  • Is there any queen at all in it?
  • If there is, she is old,
  • Her wings torn shawls, her long body
  • Rubbed of its plush —
  • Poor and bare and unqueenly and even shameful.
  • I stand in a column
  • Of winged, unmiraculous women, Honey-drudgers.
  • I am no drudge
  • Though for years I have eaten dust
  • And dried plates with my dense hair.
  • And seen my strangeness evaporate,
  • Blue dew from dangerous skin.
  • Will they hate me,
  • These women who only scurry,
  • Whose news is the open cherry, the open clover?

The ragged wings of a newly swarmed queen are more than metaphor; the worker bees will clip the wings off a queen to keep her hive bound.

Wild honey

Wild honey

Bee products are Mathewson’s primary source of income, though he also inspects bees for the State of California. Aside from honey, he sells beeswax to a large local company that makes candles. Some of his honey is purchased by local bakeries, and one customer uses honey as part of his barbecue sauce. Mathewson says it’s getting increasingly hard to just raise bees for honey and wax. The cost of the hive frames, the queens, and the medicine keeps increasing, while imported honeys from Argentina and China are being sold cheaply in the US and are driving the price of honey down. And, though we are all conscious of the many problems that accompany overdevelopment, we fail to imagine everything. Mathewson said that he has lost many locations for hives due to the explosive development San Diego has experienced. The lower Sweetwater Valley behind our house is one of the last good places. The beehives he places there thrive on the mellaluca and the eucalyptus in the area. He said development has contributed to local beekeepers’ decision to rent their bees for pollinating groves as opposed to collecting honey.

I asked Mathewson how often he got stung working with bees. He laughed and said, “As much as I want to because I usually don’t wear gloves. It’s easier to assess the temperament of the bees with bare hands.” Then I asked, “Is there any truth to the idea of bee stings helping arthritis?” He told me that this was a proven fact. “If I haven’t been stung in eight or nine months,” Mathewson added, “my hands swell up.” He also said that health-food stores in the area purchased his honey because many people believe that the honey from local flora and fauna can help to immunize you against allergies.

My phone calls for a home for the bees were to no avail. No one wanted the hive, and we finally had to make a decision about the hive, the dog, the grandchildren, and the trip this man had made from Fallbrook to Chula Vista. Mathewson donned his veiled helmet and strapped a red plastic container to his back, which was filled with nothing more vicious than soapy water, and entered the playhouse. Attached to the plastic container was a narrow hose, which he used to drown the bees. It was all over in a matter of minutes. The miniature civilization was washed away, and only the Greek columns were left as a reminder. Mathewson broke off some small pieces of hive and brought them out for us to see. As we handled them, the voluptuous scent of honey overtook us, and we had to lick our fingers. Then he broke the seals of chambers and showed us where the would-be queens slept like little poisoned Juliets.

Throughout the day bees returned from foraging and buzzed confusedly, as if afflicted with Alzheimer’s, around the entrance. What ultimately became of them I don’t know. The sight of them filled me with regret. I realized I had taken bees for granted, common as flies, birds, people. How could I know that they were disappearing, ravaged by mites and disease. That a feral nest of bees is a rare occurrence nowadays. Think of the Butterfly Effect in the Chaos Theory. James Gleick says, “The modern study of chaos began with the creeping realization in the 1960s that quite simple mathematical equations could model systems every bit as violent as a waterfall. Tiny differences in input could quickly become overwhelming differences in output — a phenomenon given the name ‘sensitive dependence on initial conditions.’ In weather, for example, this translates into what is half-jokingly known as the Butterfly Effect — the notion that a butterfly stirring the air today in Peking can transform storm systems next month in New York.” I could only begin to imagine the rippling repercussions of the Bee Effect. The extinction of a feral hive is no small thing in a part of the world where nature itself is being extinguished. Where will wild oats, wild honey, wildness come from?

The more I looked into the subject, the more the stain of spilt honey stuck to my hands. Apparently wild honeybees in England are “racing toward extinction.” And according to James Taw, an associate professor of entomology at Ohio State, “Honeybees in the wild are decimated by bee diseases, pesticide problem…the mites, however, were clearly and definitively the last straw….” Taw goes on to discuss the repercussions this will ultimately have on us; he speculates that backyard gardeners and small farm owners will be most impacted as big farms can afford to rent bees to do the pollination. Doomsday, doomsday. I looked out my window to see if the world was still flowering.

Oddly, Thomas Lindemood of AALL Pest Control offered comforting news. I phoned him to find out if, in his experience, the report of wild-bee decimation was true. He told me that last year there weren’t very many wild hives at all but that this year the bees are making a comeback. He said only recently he had to remove wild hives from numerous locations, including eight schools. Currently, the calls about feral hives do not equal the 30 or so a week he had before the mite invasion, but he believes the stronger bees have survived, and the future looks good. Lindemood is the kind of man who knows his business and knows how to tell a colorful story. He’s the one who told me that when bees swarm, after herding the queen for miles and establishing her in the new home, they chew off her wings to make her stay. “The queen,” Lindemood said, “is nothing but a glorified egg-layer.” He also told me that it’s not uncommon for bees to wear their wings down to nothing when they flap them to heat the hive. When I commented that I thought a bee’s life looked good because of all that community spirit, he reminded me that bees work from sun up till sun down. That took the wind right out of my anthropomorphism.

I asked Lindemood if he experienced any problems with the “killer bees” that have been in the media. His opinion was that to a large extent the threat has been exaggerated. He suggested that their poisonous sting derived from the poisonous flowers they fed on in Latin America — a phenomenon that diminished as they moved north. They are already working Africanized hives in Texas, he told me, which suggests that the bees can be domesticated. Lindemood mentioned something odd but very canny about approaching bees. He said that like dogs, bees can sense fear, and that fear manifests itself in heat radiating from the eyes and the mouth. According to Lindemood, the bees see ultraviolet red coming from those two areas, which operates as an attack signal. To avoid triggering this response, he says, look down or cover your eyes and mouth when moving around a hive.

It’s that time of year again. As Plath ends another poem, “The bees are flying. They taste the spring.” I am more and more aware that for the most part, the bees want to be left alone, to go on about their own industrious business. Each morning when I cut across the field behind my house, hundreds of Mathewson’s bees fly into me and around me. I know they have been out spreading the wealth, and I know the little baskets on their rear legs are laden with pollen. Mathewson reminded me of the crucial part that bees play in perpetuating so much of what we love. The beauty of a honeybee is that it is a generalist; it will pollinate many different kinds of plants. Besides working the flowers, they pollinate — that is to say bring into existence — new avocados, melons, cucumbers, almonds, apples, not to mention alfalfa, which feeds the meat crops. Mathewson told me the one thing he wished he could communicate to the larger world: “A bee is so much more than just something that will sting you.”

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