Prairie Gold, by Chris Wiewiora

Last summer when my fiancée Lauren and I pulled up to the prairie, bees boilingly hummed around our bee club’s hives as our wedding planning swirled in my head. We had driven to the prairie to check on the bees’ honey production. From the gravel lot, the bees danced from the adjacent alfalfa field to their hives that we would open up.

Earlier, in spring, I had proposed with my grandmother’s ring. The simple silver band with a diamond stud fit Lauren’s finger perfectly. Around the same time, we had joined the bee club and took a class with Arvin, the apiarist at the horticulture farm for the university where I teach. For several Saturday mornings the club met in a room with a radiator that pinged. During the meetings, I thought about the countdown until the wedding and all the planning to do.

Lauren had a yearlong list that we were checking off. The list noted things to do months (dress and tuxedo), weeks (rings), and days (marriage license) leading up to the wedding. Lauren and I were planning on inviting both our families in Florida, more than one hundred people, and that meant a band, catering, venue with enough parking, and ordering cards for RSVPs and Thank Yous. The ceremony had become more for our families than about us.

We had already been together for several years but knew we wanted to commit to being together for the rest of our lives. We met where we had grown up: Central Florida—multiple cities that sprawled over orange groves and swamps. It took either 15 minutes or 45 minutes to drive anywhere, and mostly via toll roads. Nobody made eye contact in the suburbs as owners’ dogs left turds on lawns. My boss chewed me out in front of customers at the restaurant where I worked, and Lauren filed accounting and blueprint plans for a construction firm that paid her as an intern. Lauren had moved with me when I entered grad school. We came to love our quiet, simple life in the Midwest. From the sidewalks, our neighbors said, “Good morning.” Lauren rode her bike to work for a non-profit. People on the bus gave their seats to older folks. In class, my students shook my hand. We belonged to a co-op grocery store and made meals at home each night.

In the prairie, I considered that we probably wouldn’t have discovered—let alone had the time for—a bee club in Central Florida. At a shed, Lauren and I put on bonnets and then walked over to the white boxy hives. Throughout summer the club had added levels of “supers,” stacking the hives into miniature towering apartments. Lifting the roof, I squeezed a smoldering smoker’s accordion-like pump filled with smoldering burlap. Lauren used a beebrush to wipe off the frames with “the ladies” (as Arvin called the all-female workers). I scraped and pried the gluey propolis off edges with the crowbar-like hive-tool. I pulled up a heavy frame with uncapped comb oozing honey.

As the bees rose in a smoky stupor, my thoughts on the wedding cleared. We were getting married for the continual days together that would fill with moments: playing rummy at the kitchen table, pouring water along the rows of our backyard garden, watching the green flickers from lightning bugs through the screened windows, huddling under the basement stairs as the tornado sirens wailed, wearing hats inside the house during winter, and dabbing our fingers in the first taste of tens of thousands of flights.

This essay first appeared in Edible Iowa River Valley.

1Chris Wiewiora is from Orlando, Florida but currently lives with his wife in Ames where he earned his MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University. His nonfiction has been anthologized in Best Food Writing 2013 and published in GastronomicaGrazeMake, and many other magazines. Read more at www.chriswiewiora.com

Advertisements

Kat Nesbit: Bees at the Truckstop Diner

145-Honey Bee Diner (88)

It was 2:29 AM. I was wolfing down a steak at a truckstop diner, in between spreading pallets of bees in the pear orchards. A bee popped out of my sleeve while I was ordering and I quickly scooped her up and held her in my hand. She hadn’t stung and was intact, so she had a chance if I got her back to a hive.

But the waitress had noticed. Her eyes got large as she asked, “What was that?”

I tried to look casual and innocent: “Nothing.” But she persisted, “Was that was a bee?”

I nodded reluctantly, and she asked me to take it outside, which I did. Later, she came over and said, “Can I ask you something? If I hadn’t seen that bee, would you have just held it the whole meal?” I shrugged—I hadn’t thought that far ahead—and she said, “I’ve never seen anything like that. You must really love your bees.”

It made me tremendously happy to realize she was absolutely right, I really do love them. Then she said, “I’m going to have to look up honey bees and read about them.”

That was the honey on the hot bun!

Kat Nesbit raises bees in southern Oregon, and hosts the annual Treatmeant-free Beekeeping Conference. This post was originally published on Bliss Honeybees.

Three Experts on Bees

We love this recent TED Blog interview with three experts on the relationship between humans and honey bees. The discussion features Marla Spivak, Dennis van Engelsdorp, and Noah Wilson-Rich. We especially like what Dennis had to say about the power of first-hand experience:

 

What does each of you wish the average person understood about bees? 

DV: Everyone owes it to themselves to open a colony of bees once. I think some people will realize they are not beekeepers, but I think that they’ll overcome a lot of fear and they’ll be awed. Other people will fall in love. I don’t know anyone who has opened a colony of bees on a sunny beautiful day, and seen all those worker bees toiling together in harmony, and not been awed. It’s awe-inspiring. The more you do that, the more you’re connected — not only with the bees, but with the environment around you. I wish everyone that experience.

 

For more awe-inspiring education on honey bees, watch the original TED Talk from entomologist and MacArthur Fellow Marla Spivak, whose research on breeding mite-resistant honey bees is especially fascinating.

 

 

First Sting(s): Part Three

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.

FirstStings2

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.

jillkeeping

Jill McKenna Reed

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.

First Sting(s): Part Two

By Jill McKenna Reed

Before I moved to Portland, Oregon, in 2006 the three geographic choices that were before my boyfriend and I were: Portland, New York, and Philadelphia. I advocated for Portland, as I wanted to live somewhere exceptionally beautiful and I was tired of large-metropolitan city life. Chicago had wrung me out. I was depleted, afraid of how hardened I was becoming, and fearful that I couldn’t easily turn off my accent at will.

Upon arriving in Portland, the city was beautiful. I tried to be in love with it or at the very least, meld into it; its newness, fuzzy green firs towering, lush green expanses, welcoming, young population. The relationship I was in quickly fizzled. In one version of the story, the one my friends tell for effect, I dumped him and took his job. The truth is more faceted, but the result was the same.

Spring in Portland is a sublime surreality, holding the violent bloom of the season against the ache of winter breaking, in one unbelievably sustained note. There are entire months of walking on beds of petals while the trees snow timid, earnest fragrances. Fall in Portland is equally protracted; months of walking on one long carpet of wadded orange leaves. Residents rake giant mounds into the streets so cars can’t park.

Bees in our first hive passing nectar. The bee on the right has stung and lost her abdomen. Her last act is passing nectar to her sister.
Bees in our first hive passing nectar. The bee on the right has stung and lost her abdomen. Her last act is passing nectar to her sister.

It was in Portland, one autumn day in 2008, that a bee flew into the apartment that belonged to my new husband and I. We had met at an antiques show the year prior; we had only been married a few months. The bee had flown in through a wonderful old kitchen fan vent and was resting on the counter. My instinct was to find a cup and paper lid to catch and put her outside. But it was a gray and cool day and my husband knew she was exhausted and cold. He had the good mind to heat a plate with warm water from the tap, dry it off, and drop a little honey on it. We put the plate near the bee. She quickly smelled the honey and ran over. As she lapped up the drops, she began flexing her wings and abdomen and warming up. We moved her on the plate to the front doorstep and watched her. She ate some more, cleaned herself, and zipped off into the air, but before she left she very clearly hovered and looked around, orienting herself and noting the location.

The next day when I opened the door to leave for work, about a dozen bees were pelting the screen trying to get inside because that’s where they were told the honey was.

The next week we had our first bee hive.

jillkeeping

 Jill McKenna Reed

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.

First Sting(s): Part One

By Jill McKenna Reed

The first time I got stung by a bee, I can’t be sure it was a bee. In retrospect it was likely a yellow jacket, but I can’t know. I remember it was a hot, mid-western summer day with insects screaming out their songs: “scKzzzzssT… scKzzzzzssT,” and I was small – probably six or so.

I was standing in our narrow garage which was opened to the driveway. Likely I was deciding which vehicle I was going to take out for a spin: the Big Wheel, the pickle car (don’t ask), or the Green Machine. I was not a bike rider. My siblings’ bikes were always too big for me and I was fearful of the heavy frames and the extreme distance to the ground once seated; I wanted to be able to bail out with a soft tumble if need be, not take the hard fall on the concrete, yielding stinging, scraped legs and arms.

Even at that raw age, friends and siblings had long warned me about the possibility of getting stung by a bee, so I wonder if I didn’t just want to get it over with. I had been promised by my friend across the street that the pain would be like death, that I would probably want to die. So that day when a bee flew into the garage and began inspecting me to see if I could possibly yield nectar or pollen, I panicked. I eschewed the instruction that had been drilled into me by my wise, experienced friends and siblings, being: Don’t move, and it will go away.

Naturally, I moved. A lot. In a remarkable, small-child’s dance motivated by fear of an unknown pain. And I began swatting, a lot. From what I can remember, the bee or wasp stung me on the right arm.

Me, dressed as something scary for Halloween
Me, dressed as something scary for Halloween

Growing up in suburban Chicagoland, there was almost no authentic relationship with nature; everything was abbreviated. The bug-spray truck drove down our street every summer night and we deeply inhaled that spray while trying to fall off to sleep. Our yard was chemically treated so no dandelions ever appeared. The corn fields at the mouth of our subdivision were sold and built up with houses before I was 10.

Despite that, some of my most vivid and important memories are of the few verdurous natural spaces I could find. I was fascinated when we studied milkweed pods in the first grade – the way they broke and gave up white fuzz.  We had to wear rain boots that day which I didn’t have, so the teacher put garbage bags and rubber bands over my shoes and secured them up my legs.

My best friend had a Macintosh apple tree in her yard. I was charmed. That the tree could swell small green fruits into the ripe red ones I plucked off on warm days and immediately begin gobbling– this was thrilling. (The humble Macintosh remains one of my favorite snacking apples for this reason.)

The same friend once insisted I borrow her extra pair of ice skates so we could go skating on a pond near our houses. It was the first time I had ice skated and with the snow coming down, it remains a favorite memory. That solid pond, the snow, layers of clothes, no one else around, the gray sky and the pond ringed with dry straw weeds and tall brown grasses frozen into place.

But by the time I was in high school, nature had become a foreign locale. Social life had long since taken over as the all-consuming, enthralling focus of my life. At one point my group of friends got really into camping and going away for the weekend. On one trip to Devil’s Lake, everyone decided to go hiking which would involve some basic rock climbing. I eagerly set out with them. Looking down at my shoes, my friend Nick asked, “…are you going to wear those?” I shrugged. I had no idea that black and white patent leather wingtips (with leather soles) might not be ideal hiking wear. I somehow managed to hike like a champ with those lovely dress shoes on.

jillkeeping

Jill McKenna Reed

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.