By Jill McKenna Reed
It is said by many beekeepers that the bees choose us, we don’t choose them. People long-fascinated by bees generally have some kind of memorable experience which serves as a final motivation to start keeping bees. Personally, I was rather anti-bug as a child and adult, but then, most of my encounters were with mosquitos, house spiders, or later, gigantic silverfish that continued to crawl even after being smashed in half when living in Chicago. Bees are quite different. Bees have moods and cycles that they will make you aware of. While largely indifferent to their keepers, they will happily inform you when you should leave them be, and give you clear signs when something is wrong. Bees in no way need us, but we most definitely need them.
The first time that I’m sure I got stung by an actual honeybee, I was on a swarm call a couple of years ago. Swarms are exciting and generally extremely easy to catch. Bees swarm when the population of a hive grows too large for all of the bees to thrive so the mated queen leaves with about half of the colony to establish a new home. The virgin queen remains behind with the rest of the colony, honey stores, and the brood. She is set up to succeed. Swarming is a natural means of reproduction and propagation. and because the swarmed bees have no brood or honey to protect, they are generally quite docile.
For this reason, I tend to get risky with the protective gear. As long as my face is covered, I generally feel like I’m good. At some point during the catch I had taken off my gloves while speaking with the homeowner. I was waiting to give another firm shake to the branch where the swarm had collected, in order to drop the bees into the box below. But as I walked up to the swarm to monitor their state, one feisty, flying lady landed on my hand with a single mission: she immediately stung me, and died.
Unlike the ensuing meltdown I no doubt had when stung at six years old, this time I was so fascinated by watching the bee sting my hand – her rear and abdomen ripping off and the stinger remaining behind – that I forgot about the impending rush of pain that would inevitably occur once her venom pumped in. And that pain did occur, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as the next two days, and the ceaseless itching that occurred.
I often try to think of what small Jill would think of adult Jill. I think in a lot of ways she would think adult Jill is kind of a badass; I think that young Jill is very proud of adult Jill. Young Jill would be wholly impressed that adult Jill is a writer, and artist, and a gamer (young Jill loved Atari). She would love how much time adult Jill has spent in school. She would probably also think adult Jill is slightly unhinged… what with the lack of food-related limitations and repulsions, and making a life and living out of bees and beekeeping. And she would think it was weird that the homemade bee costume I wore in grade school panned out to mean something – to be a kind of epic foreshadowing, and that despite the somewhat hermetically-sealed suburban and then urban existence I’ve had, the bees chose me.
Jill McKenna Reed is a poet, writing instructor, and beekeeper in Portland, Oregon. She is co-owner of Bee Thinking, a beekeeping supplier specializing in foundationless hives. When she is not writing or teaching, she can be found catching swarms or helping new beekeepers around the Portland area. Jill earned her MFA in Creative Writing – Poetry, at Portland State University.