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  • A Keeper of Bees
  • Written by Allison Wallace
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9780307430410
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A Keeper of Bees

Notes on Hive and Home

Written by Allison WallaceAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Allison Wallace

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List Price: $13.99

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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 208 | ISBN: 978-0-307-43041-0
Published by : Random House Random House Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

I was hooked. Call it adrenaline surge, call it honeybee venom in my veins–whatever the explanation, henceforth I would need these funky little critters in my life. Givers of sweet, thick honey, bringers forth of the fruits from trees and bushes and who knew what else, they also gave more food for thought than a body could know what to do with.
–from A Keeper of Bees

Allison Wallace’s devotion to honeybees and their amazing, intensely lived lives started years ago, when she was living in a cabin in the North Carolina woods. Ever since then, wherever she has called home, Wallace has kept company with bees. Now she gives us the honeybee in all its glory, dancing “the great, never fully knowable ecological dance,” striving like other creatures and plants to be all it can be in its short life.
With a philosopher’s perception and a scientist’s knowledge, Wallace interweaves the facts of honeybee biology with reflections on desire, intimacy, work, evolution, memory, and home. She shares the thrill of intimately observing thousands of busy bees cozily ensconced in their brilliantly designed, perfectly weatherproofed hive. She muses on the female workers’ unceasing activity, and on the male drones’ idleness as each awaits his acrobatic midair mating with the queen, followed by his instant death. She marvels at the cosseted queen, upon whom the future of the hive depends.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

1

The Work of Honeybees

Even the insects in my path are not loafers, but have their special errands. Not merely and vaguely in this world, but in this hour, each is about its business.

—Henry David Thoreau,

Journal, September 30, 1852

It is measured in droplets, flakes, grains. All natural materials, some produced by their own bodies. The work of bees aims at mass, strength, durability, longevity, achieving these with particles that, taken alone, would blow away in the slightest breeze. The work of bees appears in constant need of doing, though once they’ve established a solidly respectable colonial home, it’s hard to see why. I peer into one of my hives—a marvelous multichambered palace weighing a hundred pounds in wax, honey, pollen, and stored brood—and say aloud, “Look, gang, time to kick back and take it easy for a bit, don’t you think? Haven’t you earned a break?” But no: they’re as hard at it as ever, every one of these thousands of murmuring engines roaming across the comb on her particular mission of the moment. And if ever this hive begins to feel too small, if the volume of the bees’ work begins to push uncomfortably at the sturdy pine walls and inner cover, about half of them will take to the sky in search of nature’s vacant lots for sale or rent, some hollow in a tree or rock overhang where a new colony can be established. The work of bees can slow down, can pause (during a northern winter, for example), but it can never really cease. And though most of us don’t know it, we have reason to be deeply grateful this is so.



Every morning for a whole school year, the same thin-shouldered college boy could be found swabbing the tiled stairway separating me from my office when I arrived for work. Generally embarrassed at the sight of people doing any kind of cleaning on my behalf, I would tiptoe self- consciously onto the damp tile, apologize (“Sure, no prob”), and occasionally try to offer some variation on your basic “Nice work.” By degrees I came to realize that he worked some afternoon shifts, too, when once again he plied his mop over every step, perhaps ticking them off one, two, three in his head as he slicked them. Ignorant of the young man’s name, I was free to think of him as Sisyphus. He may have been fortunate in having only to drag a mop down the stairs rather than push a rock up a mountain, but there still remained for him the daily problem of ruined work in need of doing all over again. No matter that he’d left the tile a shiny chocolate brown before heading to class the day before: every morning and many afternoons there they’d be, a set of stairs newly begritted and grimed.

As I say, I was myself arriving for work each morn- ing that I encountered this fellow. And how many stu- dent essays had I already marked in my time, how many classes taught, meetings attended, sloppy committee reports mopped up? It did not much matter, since there was always another one waiting—and by some grace or other I never thought to drive myself daft ticking them off one at a time.

Such appears to be the futile nature of most work: for every floor scrubbed, shirt sewn, wall painted, brick laid, wire strung, bale tossed, net hauled, baby delivered, engine tuned, meal prepared, report written, form processed, purchase order filled, confession heard, steer branded, or broken bone set, another just behind awaits its turn. The fact may be the sweetest dream that labor knows (as Frost put it), but let’s not be fooled: each fact achieved by work is nevertheless a dream, a dissolution in the making, a ruin waiting to unfold. There is no such thing as work done that stays done: even God—or, if you prefer, organic evolution—seems not to have called it a day (not on the seventh, not on the six million and seventh), called it good, and given up tinkering. For mere mortals, the impermanence of achievement is an old, familiar source of grief. Listen to the Preacher:

Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought,

And on the labor that I had labored to do,

And, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit,

And there was no profit under the sun.

Fast-forward a few hundred years nearer our own time, and here comes the thin, robed figure of Gandhi stepping up to say, maddeningly, that although everything I do will be insignificant, I must do it anyway. Stopping short, I peer into the apparition of his raisin-brown face: But why?

Animals generally and insects in particular appear not the least afflicted by such questions, though their work, too, is consistently undone by the same law of entropy that has set its face against permanent human achievement. Those bees of mine, for example, and their exquisitely built environment inside the hive: they tend it endlessly because it is endlessly subject to the vicissitudes of temperature, humidity, and the differential pressure exerted by thousands of tiny, hairy honeybee feet. To leave off housekeeping for even a day would be to court disaster, since the hive (especially in summer) is a very active nursery, where the near constant birthing of bee babies makes for a constant mess in need of tidying up.



The great majority of honeybees in a given colony are infertile females, and there’s a reason they’re called worker bees; there’s reason in the phrase “busy as a bee.” While the males or drones have their one job, that of mating with queens from other colonies (outside the hive, high up in the air), and while the queen has her one job of laying eggs (as many as two thousand on a really good summer’s day), each worker bee has nearly a dozen jobs. Certain tasks are usually taken up as she reaches a certain age, and she usually takes them up in roughly the sequence followed by her sisters, though the overall condition of the colony can affect these patterns somewhat: the colony’s needs always take precedence over any one worker bee’s “need” to fulfill a given role. Like human children in a well-ordered home, the workers have their various chores, all assigned according to the bees’ ages and abilities, or more precisely, their degree of physiological development. But unlike children’s growth, honeybee development appears to speed up or slow down as the colony’s well-being demands. Imagine being able, at will, to turn your toddlers into teenagers overnight, just because the housework has come to include some heavy lifting.

Suppose it’s high summer. In some nondescript region of honeycomb in one of my hives, a newly matured worker bee is chewing and pawing her way out of the wax cell in which she has been nestled, growing, for a couple of weeks. In order to keep up with her in the throng of bees she’s about to join, let’s daub a bit of fluorescent orange paint on her back, and for ease of reference, let’s call her Bella. When she is finally freed from her chamber, the first thing she does is turn around and clean it of any debris she may have left behind, like a newborn tidying up its own afterbirth. She soon moves on to do the same for other brood (larval) cells, joining thousands of newborns who are simi-larly occupied, many of whom will poke around in Bella’s cell, too, to be sure it’s clean. (Honeybees are nothing if not thorough.) Bella and her young sisters may keep this up for only a day, or for as long as thirty days in rare instances. During this time, many will also begin capping brood or nursery cells—that is, sealing off with a wax cap the larvae that are ready to pupate. The wax has come afresh from the bees’ own bodies, one flake at a time emerging from the upper abdomen like paper from a fax machine, in response to glandular signals. Or it could be that some of the caps are recent castoffs from newly emptied cells; recycling of this sort saves precious energy.

Before long Bella’s body has responded to further physiological prompting and has begun to produce “brood food,” a glandular secretion mixed with a bit of honey, water, and digestive enzymes. (As larvae age, until their cells are capped for pupation, they will also be fed some pollen, important to them for its protein.) This brood food Bella will dole out in tiny, one-droplet doses at the inner edges of larval cells, each time she pokes her head into one and determines the larva therein is deservingly hungry. By no means does she often reach that conclusion: she’s at once a fussy and a stingy nanny, unable to refrain from constantly looking in on the babes yet rarely willing to dispense a warm bottle. Which is just as well, since, again, Bella is one of thousands making the nursery rounds at all hours: honeybee young are among nature’s most doted upon.

Days pass. Having reared her share of brats in her time, Bella’s about ready to move up into royal service—tending the queen. The lady of the hive must be frequently stroked, petted, and generously fed mouth-to-mouth helpings of brood food. She must also have her chamber pot emptied—that is, her feces carried away. Her every need anticipated by Bella and a half dozen or more daughters who keep close beside her, she moves steadily all the while over the brood comb, looking for clean, empty beds in the nursery to fill with more eggs. (And though Her Majesty seems to reign over the scene, let her fail regularly in this, her one grave duty, and the otherwise servile worker bees will forthwith have off with her head, trotting in a replacement queen raised by themselves.) Now Bella is more heavily drenched than usual in the queen’s perfume—her special pheromone. This substance she and the other royal attendants will unwittingly spread out among the rest of the colony, giving all the bees there a sense of family identity. They may look like any other honeybees on the block, but they won’t smell like them.

Bella may now be ten or twenty or perhaps even thirty days old. She’s cleaning the hive of debris, such as dead bees, of which there are always some; the queen’s egg laying occurs as steadily as it does precisely because there’s always a certain amount of dying going on here, as each bee’s life runs its course. Bella is also building comb—again, with wax she’s produced herself—forming near- perfect hexagonal cells, each of which shares its walls with adjacent hexagons in a geometric miracle that maximizes space and architectural strength as circles or squares could not. And she’s helping to process the nectar and pollen that are coming into the hive via the foraging bees. The pollen storage is begun by the foragers themselves, who scrape it off their back legs where they had stored it temporarily, during flight, in the middle of some hairs that curl around to form a kind of basket. Look—there’s one scraping herself clean now. And here comes Bella, the bee with the orange spot on her back. Her newest job is to moisten the pollen pellets with saliva and regurgitated honey and to pack them into solid plugs securely within their cells. As for the nectar also arriving daily—the sweet, watery secretions collected by bees from blooming flowers of all kinds—that, too, is Bella’s responsibility now, whenever a returning forager gets her attention. Taking the nectar into her mouth from the regurgitating bee, she spends a few minutes opening and closing her mouth around it (presumably to begin the evaporation process), then tucks it into a cell well above the brood nest, where it will undergo further evaporation before being sealed off, later on, with a wax cap. To aid in this all-important evaporation period (nectar must lose 82 percent of its water content to become honey), Bella and thousands of sisters fan their wings over the cells here at the top of the hive; at other times, they do the same down below, at the hive entrance, helping in the process to air-condition the whole building.

A few more days pass. Soon Bella is at the entrance regularly, getting a glimpse of the wide world while she now does sentry duty: each bee alighting at the entrance and seeking admission had better have about her a whiff of this hive’s pheromone, or Bella will turn bouncer.

Having reached her prime in as few as a dozen and as many as forty to sixty days of age, Bella gets ready to fly. The glands that had produced wax and brood food now atrophy. In her first attempts—very short “orientation flights” only, to be sure she has landmarks by which to find the hive again later—Bella’s brain actually undergoes subtle changes, and at this time (oh, finally!) she gets to expel her own feces, something she hasn’t been willing to do indoors. (Elimination just makes more work for everybody, and who needs that?) Flying and foraging for water, nectar, pollen, and propolis—plant resins that bees use as “glue” within the hive; making dozens of trips daily between the hive and the surrounding fields and woods: all this will take every mite of energy she can summon over the next several days. And then it will kill her, essentially by wearing her out. Here lies Bella the bee, a hard worker gone to a deserved rest.

At the risk of stating the obvious, one might observe that work is not generally easy: we derive the word “labor” from the Latin verb labi, to slip or fail, to stagger under a weight. Sisyphus growing ever more fatigued with each upward shove of the rock; Bella wearing her wings and her life away fighting the wind that would bar her way back to the hive. The same Latin root gives us “lapse.” Not for nothing is it said, then, that after their great lapse, Adam and Eve were made to labor for the rest of their days. If we may compare small things with great, Bella and all her laboring kin are in estimable company.

Yet she did get quite a lot of rest during her short summer weeks of life—prior to flying, anyway. Perhaps the honeybee’s best-kept secret is that, though she appears to work like the dickens around the clock, she actually does a good deal of strolling or loitering on comb corners during part of every hour. How can this be, you ask, since so much astonishing work really does get done—many hundreds of wax cells built, many thousands of larvae reared, many pounds of honey put up in storage, one drop at a time? It would appear, as the old saw tells us, that many hands (or feet) do indeed make light work: with up to eighty thousand bees looking after business in a strong colony at the height of summer, the real wonder is that they don’t make a mess of the job, getting in one another’s way.

Bella’s wintertime sisters get even more rest, since numerous tasks, especially foraging tasks, aren’t begging for attention at that time of year. Most of these girls’ work consists in keeping one another and the precious queen warm, not by hibernating, as many believe, but by drawing tightly together into a ball with the queen near the center, and keeping the ball in slow, constant motion all winter long—the toasty bees on the inside gradually crawling to the outside to take the places of the chilled ones, who in turn move in for a brief stay near the colony’s inner fire. The extra rest these winter workers get appears to mean longer life, as many as three or four months longer than the summer bees’. Even so, a single worker bee, no matter what time of year she’s born, doesn’t live to celebrate a birthday.

For all the work performed in a normal hive throughout most weeks of the year, the rub still is—you guessed it—the fact that every bit of it has to be done countless times over. Every task completed will have to be taken up anew, if not by this worker bee then by that one, if not this summer season then the next. Everything you do will be insignificant, but you must do it anyway. The question persists: What in the world for?

For the sake of the world itself, it seems, for starters. For the very formation of the world. Scott Russell Sanders writes of the “force of spirit” in a recent book by that title, but I find myself dwelling on the force of form—on the force with which spirit demands manifestation. The unspeakably powerful spirit of biological life comes we know not whence and goes we know not where, but it always does so in forms—a wax cell here, a beaver lodge there; an orchard heavy with fruit, a stream dammed into habitat for water striders and wading birds. A world built and rebuilt, world without end, so long as bees and beavers go about their work. Things do not fall altogether apart—at least, not right away, and not until some other creature comes along, say a bacterium of some kind, whose own special work it is to dismantle the world. And even then, the scattering of molecules out there in the fallen leaves is prelude to some new construction project or other. The center does hold for a while, as long as every being at the periphery keeps to its given work, its given activity, its own in-form-ation.

That is, while at work a creature is not just shaping its own little corner of the world: it is also forming itself, coming into its own (we might say), living out its own form’s dictates. In his wonderful little book The Hungry Soul, Leon Kass writes that “to be something, to be a particular animal in the full sense, is to be that animal-at-work: Really to be a squirrel means to be actively engaged in the constel- lation of activities we can call ‘squirreling.’ ” “Do your work,” wrote Emerson in a similar vein, “and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself.” For us as for animals, the work we undertake is a major key to our identity: if we’re lucky, we do work that we have been formed for. (If only each of us could know what that is, as easily as a squirrel or a honeybee knows!) It seems that a big reason we work is just to realize something of who we are—to find out what we’re made of, what we’re capable of. Be we tinker, tailor, soldier, or spy, we yearn to find out which of the world’s countless itches we were born to scratch.

For work can be performed only upon the world, in response to problems (using the word loosely here) presented by other forms, by phenomena lying outside ourselves. Just as the eye sees only when it encounters an object to be seen, just as the tongue tastes only in the presence of flavor, so the elements of identity—will, energy, brain, opposable thumbs in a person, compound eyes in a honeybee—join forces and go to work only when some part of the world presents itself in invitation. A flower oozes sweet, minute droplets of nectar; another flower sheds its golden dust, a little of which the visiting bee will accidentally deposit on the next flower over, nestled in a branch just inches away, in the course of her work. And all so that spirit may soon say, Peach. Orange. Almond. Pecan. Behold, all work is vanity and vexation of spirit—but first it is beauty, in-form-ation, spirit’s good news. Creation itself, shining wet and new as youth and maiden on that first day of their perfect, prelapsarian beginning.

“The forms of beauty fall naturally around the path of him who is in the performance of his proper work; as the curled shavings drop from the plane, and borings cluster around the auger,” wrote Thoreau. Thus will the neighborhood of honeybees grow fatly into an orchard, and the orchard will nourish children and squirrels and juncos and mushrooms and earthworms and springtails. And these in their turn will do unto the world as it has done unto them, for good and for ill, and always in spirit’s fantastic guises. 2

The Bees of My Youth*

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;

Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,

And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

—W. B. Yeats,

“The Lake Isle of Innisfree”

I.

Who can say what a beginning is, much less when? All stories begin in medias res. So if I tell you I began keeping bees one spring some dozen years ago, picture me in my late twenties, a couple of years married, happily puttering about in a sunny woodland clearing in central North Carolina, planning a garden. The world all around is ancient, its rocks and dirt, bugs, birds, and greenery, having been

*With apologies to Jo Ann Beard, author of The Boys of My Youth.

shaped in the direction of this day for millennia. But it’s a young world, too: this is only April of the year, with so many sweet things unfolding in perfect form and bright as morning. Just out of reach in the boughs fringing this space, little twiggy nests are taking the shape of cradles, and all around the air is abuzz with world-making business.

Here I began keeping bees by keeping, more or less successfully, out of their way. But before I can fully tell that story, I have to say why “here” mattered so—how it prepared me to think seriously about bees, among so many other things.

We had answered an ad in the paper for a cabin available for rent in the country, though he wasn’t nearly as keen as I was on moving out so far. Impoverished graduate students and part-time teachers that we were, he thought we might just as well stay in our ratty little brick duplex near the university, rather than take on the expense and hassle of commuting fifteen curvaceous and partially unpaved miles in our big boat of a ’77 Plymouth. But I had wearied of the noisy, shabby neighborhood that was all we could afford in town, where the soft Southern air was regu-larly assaulted by bad mufflers and student stereos booming along on big wheels spitting asphalt crumbs, and where the grass, the shrubs, the trees, and even the birds all seemed dusty, tattered, and tired. I wanted to walk out of the house with my dog and not feel immediately worried for him in traffic; I wanted to spy on birds from my front stoop with binoculars and not be taken for a busybody spying into people’s windows. I wanted to plant lettuces, peas, potatoes, beans, sweet corn. Basil, oregano, tomatoes (six varieties), strawberries, cantaloupes. Blueberries, almonds, peach and apple orchards.

Calling the number in the paper, I was given complicated directions to the place—this was going to be a hideaway cabin for sure, requiring a dozen trips just to memorize the route. Eventually Mark and I would make hundreds of drives out to the home that came, for three years, to hold our happiest days together. Built from the logs of an old tobacco barn, the ashy-gray kind that’s slowly sinking all over Carolina into clay and kudzu, the cabin had a central room with a woodstove where a tall, three-paneled, south-facing window made up one side, and a kitchen sink, stove, and old fridge made up the other; two small flanking rooms with lofts; a tiny room with a tub and shower; a tin roof; and, attached to one outer wall of the structure, a composting privy. Located one long stone’s throw away (supposing you could have managed not to hit a tree) from the cabin in which our landlords resided, the place squatted comfortably in the vicinity of two hand-built tool sheds, several piles of lumber—our builder-landlord’s wealth could be read in his many, careful piles—and an active chicken coop. A couple hundred acres of woods. A quarter mile of gravel driveway (elvis presley blvd. read the green-and-white sign nailed to a tree) separating both homes from the main road. And room—about forty yards down a wind- ing, shady path from our cabin to the much sunnier strip of land kept free of trees by the power company—for a garden.

The patch of ground Jamey and Nettie allotted me wasn’t much more than that, a patch. Naturally they kept for themselves the majority of the garden space in that little clearing, since they’d been working it for nearly twenty years. Along the western edge, its back to the woods, stood a beehive, one of those standard, silver-topped, two-story white boxes you occasionally see in a country field. Its front opening faced the square of ground I’d been granted—to torment me, I came to believe, though much later I understood the hive had been placed, some years before, to catch the first rays of the sunrise.

This was to be my first real garden, so I had plans enough to fill a couple of acres, much less the eight or ten square feet that, until I arrived, had been “approach” territory for Jamey’s honeybees. Even before Mark and I had fully completed our move, I got to work turning the soil and preparing tightly ordered beds; it soon became evident that someone forgot to tell the bees they’d have company this year out in that slim, sunlit space where the power cut bisected the woods. The fact dawned on them, and they promptly let me know how they felt about it.

Zzzip! A furious, noisy tussle within my hair, like someone trapped in a nightmare of bedsheets, then a sudden quiet pause. Yeow! Nailed in the top of the head. A bee’s response to any perceived assault is to sting the offender, and since hair can’t be stung, this one went for the next best thing. A few days later it was déjà vu all over again, right in the seat of my baggy jeans. Ta-da, surprise. But no surprise, really, considering I had backed up to the hive while digging around, unaware in my green-bean daydream how close I was getting to its wooden bottom lip. This served as a takeoff and landing board for bees coming and going on their foraging flights, and since they were flying more by instruments than by direct sight (stay tuned for details), the looming wall of my jeans didn’t figure in their calculations. And a bee’s response to any perceived assault—well, like I said.

Okay, now they had my attention. I knew vaguely that honeybees leave you alone if you leave them alone, and although I thought I was leaving them alone (“Just let me get the broccoli in, will you, girls?”), we suffered a difference of opinion. I suffered; they died, one at a time, with each sting. Determined to ease our conflict by giving them a wider berth, I concentrated for a while on planting other parts of my patch, leaving the young broccoli plants to fend for themselves.

What was it like, what was it all about. Many intervening years of change—a dissertation finally written; a move to Maine and another, much later, to Arkansas, following teaching jobs; the move of a husband out of my life— may bathe that first season of country living with lemony memory light, too lovely to trust. But what do you say we take our chances. The first thing I heard each morning as I headed down the footpath to the garden, warm coffee mug in hand, was the quiet. No traffic, no stereos or TVs. A thin breeze tossing the tops of the pines high overhead. (Oh. That’s why all the cut-over subdivisions are called Whispering Pines.) A woodpecker making his rounds, the pitch of his hammering shifting slightly with each new tree. Lisping chickadees, towhees scratching in last fall’s leaves and needles, mockingbirds gleefully mocking other birds. Squirrels squirreling. The wordless flit and drift of pale blue butterflies in the warming sun. My little rusty-brown mutt rubbing one ear with a paw, dropping and rolling sensuously in the dirt, then standing up to turn around twice and settle himself in a drift of crispy leaves he’d found in the shade. The rhythmic scrape and slice of my shovel as I worked my way down one side of the garden, turning that orangy-yellow clay that passed for soil, watching it shear away from the blade in slabs the texture of hard ice cream. (With one such downward shove and upward thrust, I was horrified to find I’d sliced a live frog in half, just behind the shoulders. Its bulging eyes and wide, gasping mouth turned up toward me, as if pleading for an explanation.) Nearby, a bee going full throttle as it lifted off from one peach blossom, suddenly killing its engines to plop softly onto another. And, later in the season, cicadas tuning up their piercing whine, the sound that means high summer in Carolina.

Not that this paradise was without its serpents. Real ones, to begin with, serious customers like copperheads. But most were harmless garter and king snakes and all were turgid sleepyheads until the spring mornings began to lose their cool. Deer ticks caught a ride in the hair of your arms as you passed near the trees; chiggers insinuated their mean, itty-bitty selves between your skin and the waistband of your underwear. Mosquitoes hovered with dainty menace in your ears and just beyond your eyes. And those lovely, diaphanous blue butterflies? Agents of destruction, laying eggs on succulent garden seedlings so the caterpillars to come wouldn’t have far to go for groceries.

Which meant the broccoli would need tending, after all, with an occasional dusting of Bt—a powder Jamey told me about that carried billions of naturally occurring bacteria (Bacillus thuringiensis) lethal to caterpillars but harmless to everything else. Thanking him for the tip, I ventured to mention the location of the crop in question: Beehive Central.

I was still very much at the beginning of what turned out to be a rather long journey, that of Learning to Read Jamey. His fleeting glance toward the hive from where we stood at his end of the garden told me he’d heard what I’d said; the quick return of his glance to the chickweed he was uprooting with a shovel, along with a soft “Hmm,” told me he’d prefer not to think about or discuss it quite yet, or perhaps ever.

All too soon spring gave way to the thick, humid folds of summer, when each day seemed to sink in heavy, wet woolen layers over your head and shoulders. Some days it was exercise enough just to sit in a simple wooden chair and sweat. The swelter that had, by June, moved in for a long stay did no more for the bees’ mood than it did for mine. They still took off from the hive in eager squadrons each morning, but by noon thick clumps of them hung about the hive’s bottom entrance like bored bums around a pool hall. Eventually I would learn to see in this behavior a sign of great changes to come, but for now I just saw panting, irritable, would-be bullies spoiling for a fight. I maintained a careful distance, thankful the broccoli plants were now big enough to crouch behind.

Our cabin had no air conditioning, and though there were screened doors and windows we could open, that didn’t mean much, what with no breeze and humidity enough to dampen towels. Even taking off all your clothes couldn’t bring relief. But hiking nearly a mile of thickly wooded trails to a nearby pond and then stripping everything off—well, that was worth a try once in a while. Sometimes Mark joined me; always the Ben-dog trotted happily along, in love with the coming and going (so many flowers and weeds to sniff, so little time!) but decidedly loath to pass beyond the pond’s sandy shore. Just as well: anyone taking a dip there had to share the water with the countless toe- and elbow-nibbling bream with which the pond had been stocked. Better to keep your bath brief and emerge refreshed, ready to take up the fishing pole you’d brought along so as to exact a little satisfying revenge. Only two or three of those outings yielded fish big enough to trouble with cleaning and frying, and even then they were too bony to enjoy eating. Most of what I caught either went back into the pond alive or else served to fertilize my compost pile. The afternoon sun finally relenting by about six o’clock, we’d commence a slow, thoughtful walk back home, stopping on the way at an old, abandoned garden in a clearing to search out any fresh spears of asparagus that had outlived the gardener’s neglect. Now the woodland trails were free of the cobwebs we’d had to break through on our trek to the pond, and deep carpets of pine needles exhaled a warm, fragrant, end-of-the-day sigh.


From the Hardcover edition.
Allison Wallace

About Allison Wallace

Allison Wallace - A Keeper of Bees
Allison Wallace has published many articles and essays. She is a professor of American Studies at the Honors College of the University of Central Arkansas. This is her first book.


From the Hardcover edition.

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