The Bee Story

On Wed­nes­day I read at an event put on by the lovely folks from Scis­sors Paper Pen . I was impressed, (although not at all sur­prised) by the incred­ible qual­ity of cre­ation from the other per­formers: Canberra’s writers rock. The theme was wires crossed, and in writ­ing this, I got lost between auto­bi­o­graphy and poem.

It’s very much meant to be read aloud.


Like a rite of pas­sage, on my 10th birth­day I received a hive of bees.
Thou­sands of striped, brown bod­ies, in a box of wood and wax, sin­gu­lar, united, and mine.
A box of liv­ing breath­ing beings, sit­ting on the gar­age roof, above head height of those who might object.

Do bees dream of fly­ing? Do bees dream at all?
Com­pound eyes closed
Dreams of being
leav­ing the moist buzz­ing hon­ey­sister hive
Sun coaxed, sail­ing up above the street-crossed, car-crossed, cable-coal and wire-crossed city suburbs.

To tell of bees is to tell of flowers
sought out, sucked up belly­ful of nec­tar,
Then borne back on tiny wings to sis­ters, to smell, to dance, to tell the story of flowers.

You could say I was born into a dyn­asty of bee­keep­ing
my father’s fam­ily are the bee­keep­ers, he showed me the tricks, taught me the lore,
passed down over gen­er­a­tions, here are
the broad wooden boxes, frames to build honey on.
Glor­i­ously Vic­torian con­trap­tions – this one puffs smoke from a fire in a tin can­is­ter,
this one takes in honey comb, wind­ing handle, grind­ing cogs,
then flow­ing honey, clear and vis­cose, as we know it in jars.

And here I am, covered in wax and bee debris, with a pile of old wooden frames
string­ing them with wire, like a rudi­ment­ary instru­ment, across the frame’s length,
wires cross the wooden rect­angle, once, twice, three, four times, then I wind it fast around a nail, pluck the wire, listen to the tension.

Across these wires will soon be wax, impos­ing order, hold­ing the hive together. The comb that will hold honey, or small bees, or both.
Each frame slots onto a box with nine oth­ers like it – like books in a boxed set, except with room for the bees to crawl in between.
The slot­ted boxes of beeswax frames can stack on top of each other, mak­ing the hive extend­able, indef­in­itely upwards, like a lib­rary, or an office block.
At the centre of each of my hives is a net­work of wire, mak­ing the bees build, not any which way, as is their want, but accord­ing to my rules – so I can inter­vene and intrude.

Half way between agri­cul­ture and cult, to keep bees is to step into super­sti­tion itself.
Only wear white to a bee­hive.
Only visit on clear, still days, but never let your shadow fall on the hive.
Bring some smoke as an offer­ing, puff it into their home to pacify, but only smoke from pine needles will do.
Eat­ing pol­len will cure hay­fever, put wax on cracked lips, honey on wounds, and pro­polis – a bee ver­sion of gap filler – is good for everything, from toothache to tiredness.

Thought I’d call to tell you about bees
about sex and death and drones and the flight of queens
the drones are big and slow, and the queen she says
‘don’t stop chas­ing me
but if you catch me, you won’t win’

they meet, they mate in the middle of the air,
he flies right into her
right into her proffered sting
and he breaks apart, breaks and falls away
and she to her daugh­ters,
to lay alone.

Which is why I don’t take romantic advice from bees.

So this hive of mine has been here for more than ten years
on a roof in O’Connor, through storms and fire, flood and drought.
The wood of the old­est, bot­tom­most box is col­lapsing,
helped by per­sist­ent bee mouths munch­ing out new doors and secret entranceways.

My father and I are excav­at­ing down to the dam­aged bit, tak­ing apart the towerb­lock of hive,
to see that the order of wire and frame has been lost.
The bees have blurred the bound­ar­ies, built comb over comb like some golden slum for six-legged beings.
The sun is set­ting, and a breeze has picked up, but it’s taken quite a lot of effort and cajolery, not to men­tion heavy lift­ing, to get to this point. And unwisely, against sci­ence and super­sti­tion, we per­sist,
reas­sembling the over­grown comb in a new box, encour­aging the apine archi­tects to mend their mean­der­ing ways.
The bees them­selves, usu­ally so calm and com­pli­ant about this sort of inter­ven­tion, begin to get kind of narky – like a kid up past their bed­time – they buzz at gloves and veils.
It’s ok, we’re exper­i­enced at this, effi­cient – soon we’ll fin­ish the task and put the lid on all the buzz­ing, snug for the night.

Frames full of hon­ey­comb are sticky and unwieldy with bees crawl­ing all over them, won­der­ing why it’s sud­denly so cold and bright.
Give them a bit more smoke, puffed at the horde to make them light­headed, and for­get their misgivings.

A box full of bees and wax and brood and honey is even more tricky to man­oeuvre, but all we have to do is put one on top of the other, stack them back into their office block shape.
A box full of bees is heavy, and com­plain­ing, and if your tim­ing is wrong, if there’s dis­sent and con­fu­sion among the hive, every­where you touch with your gloved hand is likely to be bees.
But, there is one thing that you should never, never do.
Even if the box is heavy and your hands are slip­ping, and there is an unwel­come buzz­ing at your ear.

Don’t drop the box.
Because instantly, every­body who was in a crawl­ing con­fu­sion on those combs will become air­borne, and unhappy.

A bee suit is almost like battle armour, you look a bit like an astro­naut and a bit like a really para­noid bush­walker.
Between my face and the bees is a criss-crossing wire mesh veil, sturdy, proven to be bee-tight.
It shouldn’t have to come to this, many api­ar­ists work without suits, trust­ing in intu­ition and care­ful hand­ling not to upset things, to main­tain peace, order and har­mony.
And that’s lovely, but, as that box of bees came crash­ing down, I was very, very glad to be dressed as a bee-astronaut.

But, they’d found my gloves. Old, tight white lady’s gloves, I’d picked them up at an op-shop, assum­ing that bee stings wouldn’t get through leather.
But, where bees are involved, you should never assume.
That after­noon, I found out that bee stings do go through soft leather gloves just fine.
I found out, around twenty times over.

So I left with swollen hands, to carry their poison inside me awhile.
But by the hive, twenty brave sol­dier bees oozed into death, twenty stings ripped from twenty abdo­mens by old, soft calfskin.

Later I went back, made my peace, car­ried on
you may well ask why I still do it? Don the veil, anoint with smoke, lift the lid of the hive to hear the buzzing.

Yes, I can for­give them, because it’s their nature,
in cer­tain situ­ations, bees are just wired to get cross.

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