Vibrations

I don’t do journeywork any more, but I remain a shaman in spirit, if not in practice. The world to me is alive, all of it, in ways that biological functions can’t define or determine. It’s all light and energy, it’s all interconnected — visibly if I open my eyes in the right way — and bees are little sparks in flight. Sitting with them is part of my daily meditation, becoming part of their landscape as they accept me as a resting and jumping-off point, them becoming part of mine as my vision shifts and the air comes alive with trails of light and energy.

My husband has been watching me do this for months now. He’s apparently decided that if I’m weird, it’s his kind of weird. This afternoon, he came out to me with an eyedropper in hand and told me to turn my palm up. Bees eat like hummingbirds. And clean themselves like cats. We have hummingcat bees. And in their own way, they purr.

Sugar water drops
On my fingertips reflect
Sunlight and bee tongues

I’m becoming more aware each day of his hand in keeping the bees happy and thriving. He’s happy to tell me what he’s doing and why he does it each time something new comes up. He enjoys my being so curious about his work, but it also gives him a topic to talk on, which he does non-stop while he’s working the hives. Nonsense, a stream of dirty jokes, a weather report for the day, he talks to them in a low, calm tone. On the days when he’s doing something that’s new to me, he can add the explanation, and an explanation to them of why he’s explaining it. It’s dark in the hive, he tells me. They can’t see the dancing; they feel it. They hear that way, too. Whether they have the capacity to know him by the vibration patterns of his voice, no one knows. They do have the capacity to tell vibrations apart that finely, though — that and far beyond. And it keeps him relaxed and working in a steady rhythm, too; those things matter beyond a doubt.

Today his work is partly away from the hives. He’s taking frames out of storage, cleaning and repairing and organizing. I notice that the frames are sorted in part by the size of the preformed cells in them. He taps one stack and says that size encourages producing more drones, something he’ll do once a year for purposes the bees themselves don’t share, but benefit from: By placing and removing drone frames at the right times, he can also remove 75% or more of any new Varroa mite brood, which can leave a number that’s readily manageable for a healthy hive that’s aggressive toward them. It also controls bee population, which prevents swarming. This particular kind of bee is predisposed to both aggressive removal of mites and swarming, so drone culling works exceptionally well with them.

“And it gives us our morning eggs,” he says cheerfully. The usual route to ensure that the mites are destroyed is to freeze them. But chooks love them, and the mites are entirely harmless to the birds, so he brings the whole stack of them a couple of miles up the road to a man who keeps chickens. It’s enough to provide a couple of days’ free high-quality food to the chickens, and in payment for the smorgasbord we get fresh eggs once a week.

There’s a reason I look around me and see my best life. It’s the same reason that makes me feel an urge to bake bread and hang needlework on the walls and make preserves from the fruits the bees are hard at work pollinating, and plant an herb garden — something my husband is enthusiastically encouraging for us and for the bees: Everything intertwines with everything else.

Myth

I usually know from the moment I’m within earshot of a hive just how close I should get. I learned by watching and listening to my husband watching and listening. The only protective gear he wears is gloves — nitrile ones to protect the bees, that he changes between hives — and goggles, because, he assures me, bees landing on your eyelids isn’t the most enjoyable thing that can happen in a day. He does have a suit for emergencies in which he has no choice but to wade into a horde of angry bees, like driving off a marauding critter that would destroy hives looking for honey. I’ve yet to see him in it, though, and I’ve never seen him stung more than once or twice in a session of checking two dozen or more hives; he most often isn’t stung at all. He’s preventing it before he’s even within arm’s length of a hive by being fully present in the moment and alert to what’s happening with that particular hive alone and in the context of all the others.

In good weather conditions, healthy hives are busy, noisy places. There’s a steady inflow and outflow of foraging workers, and a calm hive sounds remarkably like someone absently humming to him or herself while working. What you don’t want to hear is a high-pitched, aggravated buzzing; or a low, monotone roaring sound. Either means the bees are agitated, and approaching will likely mean being stung. They may be expelling invading bees or a predator, a job they’re best left to do themselves unless the problem is obviously critical and beyond their capacity to deal with. There may be something that’s fallen on the hive and is upsetting them. They may just be irritable that day for no reason you’ll ever deduce. Whatever the reason, if it’s just a routine visit, it’s likely best left until tomorrow.

I don’t interact with the hives as closely as he does, but I use the same aware and present approach to decide how close I’m going to sit to them each day, or if I’m even going to sit at all. They haven’t warned me off entirely yet, but there have been days I’ve felt better a bit further away than my usual five feet. On most days, a few foragers will stop and inspect me; some will use me as a resting point. I sit quietly and just watch, so I have yet to startle a bee badly enough to be stung. They hang out for a few seconds, sometimes get a little explorative if I’ve changed my shampoo to something especially enticing — echinacea and peppermint guarantees me a daily mild case of bee-hair — and then go on their way. They never seem upset when I turn out to not actually be food. Eventually, they start mostly buzzing on by me as they go about their business; I’ve been accepted as a normal part of the world for the day. I try not to leave before then. I want to be the usual to them. It makes just about everything easier and less stressful for everyone.

I often wonder as I sit there just what the bees see when they look at us. My husband is as hands-off a keeper as he’s able to be, but regular mite counts are an absolute necessity, and other things he does seasonally have profound effects on the bees. Do they recognize him? They certainly don’t react badly to him. Are they coming to recognize me? They don’t seem troubled by my presence, either. He says bees are known to have a basic recognition of shapes as far as identifying predators goes, and it’s possible they know us by smell, or by how we move, or even by some kind of magnetic signature that’s individualized to their very sensitive detection. Or we might just register as part of the enormous mass of things in the world that are not-threat.

We see them as a lot of things, and have for centuries. They give sweetness and pain, so we’ve associated them with love. I do that for a whole other set of reasons. They make food from their bodies, so we’ve associated them with women, and with goddesses. Flowers and the sun are even more obvious.

Do they associate us with something other than occasionally raiding their larders? They don’t automatically treat us like the bears we could reasonably resemble to them. Are we many things to them — in the way they are to us, or in the way all things are to their eyes?

Ommatidia

There is no solstice inside, no equinox, no sun at all.
They made their offerings when the flowers closed and the light waned
And they wait now for the god of the sun to come back around,
For the hands that will unlock the single cloacal entry
And return to them the daylight and the compass and the heat.
What I could be to their honeycomb eyes, I can’t ever know.
I regard them with too much fear and wonder for a goddess,
Unless it’s one of the gentle ones, the vulnerable ones:
Lady of the hearthfire, or of salt, or of the moon and stars,
All things of which they know nothing at all, and care even less.
I could be a goddess of the rain, I suppose, or of poems,
Or of history — memory in bees must needs be female.
I begin in this way: I read Plath’s bee poems to their god,
The humming music of his devotees shivering in tune
Like the taut-drawn string of Kamadeva’s sweet and stinging bow.

Reorienting

Getting settled in was the first order of business, but we did some business of ordering, as well. The new bees arrived, 30 boxes of them, from Austria. The men who delivered them could probably have been happier about it, but I don’t think we could have.

I’ve come around on bee aesthetics, but these seem especially beautiful to me, a lovely golden brown against gray. I sat a respectful distance away — out of not wanting to get in the way of a process I couldn’t help with rather than out of fear any more — and watched my husband settle each colony in turn into its new home. He called me over to see the second one up close, with its white-dotted queen. Even displaced and nervous, they seemed more curious than aggressive. I was walked on, considered, tasted, and eventually found much less intriguing than the new hive box was.

I’ve discovered a universe of pastels thanks to the bees. A lifetime in the deeps — navy, forest, slate — got turned around by them. They don’t like dark colors, my husband told me the first time I visited his bees; wear something that says spring. After a survey of my closet, I went shopping and came home with an armful of soft t-shirts — peach, mint, rose, lavender, sky. The colors bees like are the colors of things they like.

The first hives were sending scouts before the last ones were rehoused. When one explorer decided I was a fine choice for a resting point, I took her on a walk to the edge of the neighbor’s property. He raises blueberries and strawberries; it’s nice when someone’s happy to have bees move in next door. I stayed there until she took off. With a bit of luck, she’d go home with news. You don’t get honey from strawberry foraging, but the early pollen will encourage settling into this as home.

Collective action
One worker’s urgent message
Bees in the berries

So will putting sticks and branches in front of the hive entrances, work that I was in time to help my husband finish when I got back. They recognize that as a change in condition that requires reorienting themselves, and they’ll begin exploring. Once they’re foraging, the litter can be cleared away.

Lemongrass

When I drink ‘ava, it’s usually alone or with one other person. My brother and I drank together regularly, and I shared with people who came to me for treatment whenever the plant spirit spoke up about it. ‘Ava is a more social drink, but I’ve rarely led a more social life than that. Sometimes, though, life leads me. We drank to share news that it was hard to judge as bad or good. Bittersweet, maybe, like ‘ava when it’s ready to drink: I have found my ideal life and am prepared to go out and meet it. It’s nine hours away.

It was both ceremonial and personal to bring together my new husband and my adoptive older/younger brother to have ‘ava together for the first time. Preparing the drink for us all is a moment I’ll keep with me. One of the gifts my father gave me when I joined the family was a beautiful and very old tanoa, the traditional Samoan ‘ava mixing bowl. It came with four cups that weren’t as old, having needed to be replaced a few times over many decades. The bowl is carved from milo wood, and the cups are coconut shell halves. I only had two of those out; the rest were still packed away somewhere. Now that I had two drinking with me, I added a tea bowl from my small collection for me to use.

As we all walked in the garden, drawn toward the madly-blooming fruit trees, ‘Ava-spirit spoke: My future is with my husband, he said, and will take me away from my garden. ‘Ava-spirit is at peace with that; he invites me to also be, to taste bitter and sweet as a richness that either one alone couldn’t have.

Lemongrass entwined
In an orange tree’s branches —
What would divide them?

Oranges

I learned a lot of things in college classrooms that weren’t in any course guidelines that I ever noticed.

In an undergraduate creative writing seminar, the star student wrote a prose poem that while well written, was written in second person. The first sentence was “You live in a place where it never rains.” In my critique, I mentioned that it ran the risk of pushing a reader out of the piece if that wasn’t the case for them, especially if it so much wasn’t the case that it struck them as humorous.

You aren’t supposed to dogpile people giving critiques; most seminars aren’t allowed to devolve even so far as into debating each other’s critiques. I got dogpiled anyway. I lived somewhere it rained a lot (I was an out-of-state student from Louisiana, so that was true), and I couldn’t see past my own experience. Star Student was a local, and it didn’t rain much there, but no one accused him of not being able to see past his own experience.

I am deeply grateful to this day to the professor who heard from another student what happened that day and took me aside to make sure I wasn’t driven away from writing courses because of it. The seminar was very badly run if that was allowed to happen, he told me, and the instructor was also a stampeding sexist. If I’d been a guy, he would almost certainly have stopped what happened. What I learned that semester was just how much I wasn’t willing to let someone like that take writing away from me.

I hereby take oranges and rain back, too.

chart: Amanda Gregory
poem: my work

Sunset

Every now and then, the sun decides to put on an especially enthusiastic show that’s visible from the Causeway Bridge. It’s illegal to stop in the breakdown pullouts to watch a sunset, but sometimes you just have to do a thing, no matter what. I stopped to do just that and had a squad car pull up next to me to see if I needed help. When I admitted why I stopped and they saw, they stayed and watched with me — assuring I wouldn’t get a ticket — then sent me on my way with a very stern warning to never do that again.

Everyone should have a grandpa to tell them about how the sun hisses when it hits the water. That was a different lake 1,300 miles from New Orleans, but I could still hear it just fine. He’s in this poem as much as the sun is.

chart: original design
poem: my work