In a sea of honey
A sky of honey
Whose shadow, long and low
Is slipping out of wet clothes?
And changes into
The most beautiful
~ Kate Bush, An Endless Sky of Honey
I was behind the wheel of George’s Toyota Previa as we cruised down I-40 toward the tiny unincorporated town of Moyza, Arizona. Population: a whopping 65.
This marked our first road trip adventure for what would become Vanishing of the Bees, a now internationally acclaimed documentary about the global bee disappearances. The investigative journalist-slash-gypsy in me was thrilled for the quest. But they say you don’t choose the bees, the bees choose you.
According to those who believe in sacred apiculture, bees are “heavenly messengers, an expression of the wisdom in the universe, a spark of cosmic consciousness, a gift to the world.”
What story did this ancient and matriarchal creature wish to share with us?
George and I just needed to follow that sky full of honey to find out.
The windows were rolled down and the hot air felt good on my face.
“I’ll put on some music,” George said. We’d been on the road for almost 10 hours.
“That’s the Kate Bush album I gave you when we first met,” I bellowed over the sound of the zooming wind as I handed a CD to George. I could tell George didn’t recognize the album cover by the way he scrunched his nose and sort of squinted.
“Oh my god, I totally forgot—the album’s called A Sky of Honey,” I said with a smile of surprise. “George, this is a sign we’re on the right path with this bee documentary.
Upon arrival, we found a six-foot tall hefty woman of about 60 in a concrete edifice-turned-makeshift honey house, working wax with a sort of press. The radio hummed in the background and a few lone bees lazily buzzed around her in the heat. In the corner stood an industrial-sized spinner used for honey extractions. Outside, about 50 abandoned hive boxes were strewn about in slightly lop-sided stacks. Desert dust all around.
I was expecting Dee, born in New York State, to be strong (inside and out). And she was. She’d served as a tech sergeant in the Air Force during Vietnam. Today, she managed about 700 hives throughout the entire 45-mile long stretch of Altar Valley, from Benson to Sasabe, all by herself. When I thought of my about-the-same-age-old mother who didn’t drive and was afraid of traveling, I was impressed.
Dee used to have a partner in crime, but like Colony Collapse Disorder, this Queen Bee was left behind. In October 2006, her fourth generational beekeeping husband Edward passed away. He never recovered from the major stroke he’d had three years prior. According to Dee, the politics surrounding beekeeping and mounting pesticide use had stressed Ed to death. I am sure the two packs of cigarettes he smoked a day didn’t help.
“Yeah, I built all this after Ed died. I had four truckloads of cement brought in, and I carted all the equipment from the honey house in Tucson. And I re-set everything up by myself.”
“Is that a spinner?” George asked like a boy in a toy store. He was pointing to a huge metal contraption that looked like a furnace but with a big circular vat looking thing.
“It’s called a Silver Queen. You feed uncapped frames in the slots and it spins so that most of the honey is removed by centrifugal force. Many commercial beekeepers use plastic for foundation instead of real wax because it’s easier, but it’s not natural.”
“Yuck!” I exclaimed.
“You reach a certain point where the miticides like coumaphos and fluvalinate—a neurotoxin and a memory retardant—which beekeepers use, absorb in the plastic foundation,” Dee explained.
Were beekeepers complaining about chemicals but putting chemicals inside the hives themselves?
“And you make honey?” George asked.
“Yeah, yeah. I got 12, 14 boxes there to extract. Those are the cappings that are draining.
“Cappings top the cells of the frame?” he asked.
“Oh, that looks like the queen,” I said pointing excitedly to a bee on the edge of the spinner.
“No, that’s a drone. Drones don’t have stingers so they won’t hurt you.”
“Is this a drone?” I asked pointing to another nearby bee.
“No, that’s a worker,” replied Dee.
“How can you tell if it’s a boy or a girl bee?” I asked frustrated.
“Drones are stockier and have larger eyes,” she explained, as she fed frames into her Silver Queen.
“This is a drone,” I stated, pointing to a bee that was cleaning its head.
“That’s a drone,” she confirmed.
Yay, I had gotten it right. With that I picked him up and let him crawl on my hand.
“Let’s go see some bees,” Dee said.
“So Dee, what kind of honey do you produce?” George asked as we approached the hives.
“I want to know too. I was wondering myself what on earth the bees pollinate in this desert heat,” I added.
“Mesquite, cat claw, some cactus mix,” she responded matter-of-factly.
As we neared, Dee grabbed the hive tool tucked in her back denim pocket and pried open the lid of a hive box.
“Let me see if I can open up one slow,” Dee said. She was wearing a cowboy hat in lieu of a veil. She looked like a badass, and I think she knew it.
Within a nanosecond of her gently opening the lid, thousands of bees rushed to the top in unison. It was like opening a bottle of soda (or Kombucha in my case), and seeing all the fizz simultaneously float to the top. It was the incredible hive mind in action.
“There are the bees.”
As she held up some frames, Dee explained how agricultural biotech giants were hybridizing crops to produce bigger fruits and vegetables. To compensate, commercial beekeepers had increased the hexagonal cells inside the hives to produce bigger bees. Dee, on the other hand, supported small-cell beekeeping and believed that smaller honeybees were more adept at fighting off viruses and mites.
It was becoming clear, as I looked further into Colony Collapse Disorder, that we were gravely out of tune with nature. Here were these ancient, wise creatures operating on a superior dimension with exquisite efficiency and self-worth, and man was messing with them. It was as though CCD was Mother Nature’s way of saying ‘enough is enough.’
Do you think we have pushed nature too far?
“I think yes, we have pushed the bees too far,” she answered. “Because you can’t change the size of the cell, the size of the bloom; take away all their food; medicate them; breed them artificially; ship them around the country from job to job to job so they can’t acclimatize into any one given area, and then think they are going to do well and survive. That’s just not natural,” Dee maintained.
As she spoke, I recalled how a handful of beekeepers I’d interviewed over the phone had described Dee as a “difficult” woman, and yet those who advocated raising bees naturally without chemicals described her as “one of the most respected members of the beekeeping community.”
Through my perceptions about the average, stereotypical, middle-aged, white beekeeper, I could see how people viewed Dee as a threat. She wasn’t exactly a delicate woman. She was blunt. She had this shorthand way of speaking that could be misinterpreted as cryptic or impatient. Her cadence was harsh, military-like. But if you tuned in to her and gave her a chance, she simply advocated for 100 percent natural beekeeping.
According to Dee, beekeepers were “forced” to go commercial and load their bees on a truck to take them on the road from monoculture to monoculture because it wasn’t feasible to support a family solely on honey sales, with all the cheap honey around. “By being forced to go migratory, they’re forced to go into factory farming, and then they’re forced to artificially feed ’em, and that’s like going down a road to hell. Beekeepers should be overseers, like guardians who care after the bees’ needs… But it’s not for us to dictate what their lives are,” she continued.
Humans were assaulting Mother Earth on a massive scale. We too were worker bees who had abandoned the queen: the sacred feminine essence, planet earth.
The closer I examined, the more dirty things seemed to get.
* This is an amended chapter from Maryam Henein’s upcoming memoir Of Bees & Men, a bee-coming of age tale about bees, boys, and the stickiness of love.