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.