“The first time that we open a hive there comes over us an emotion akin to that we might feel at profaning some unknown object, charged perhaps with dreadful surprise…” — Maurice Maeterlinck, The Life of the Bee 1901.
I was scared but the mystery of the hive beckoned me to step forward and take a peek inside. I had no choice. The bees had flown into my life and I (figuratively) had already been stung with a fascination for these virgin daughters of toil.
As always with research, I dived into the subject matter with voracity. In my apartment, my desk was littered with articles on Colony Collapse Disorder, which I’d pulled off Lexis Nexis, and books I’d purchased with titles such as Bees Besieged, Letters to the Hive, and The Shamanic Way of the Bee.
Our meeting with urban beekeeper Kirk Anderson would mark our first official film shoot with actual bees. For the filming, Kirk advised us to buy bee suits. We happily obliged. After a little Googling around, I learned that the only store that sells bee gear in Tinseltown is the Los Angeles Honey Company, located in Lincoln Heights along a smelly and dusty industrial street called Fichburn Ave. Why the store ended up there, near a pallet dump and salvage yard instead of perched upon a nice patchy hill with flowers and fruit trees was beyond me.
Larry, the overweight owner who stood behind the counter, refused to be filmed. It didn’t matter how dumb or cutesy I acted. So George filmed me instead as we toured the store. (At this point we thought I would be in the documentary.) I was shy and flattered and excited that George thought I was worth putting on camera. But after viewing a few rushes he decided I was too distracting. In a good way, I think. Anyway, I took it as a compliment and didn’t probe any further.
The store smelled of beeswax. Sweet and cozy. Balanced upon a top shelf behind the counter stood an oversized stuffed animal.
“Is that a bee or a bear?” I asked George.
“It’s a honeybeer,” he answered.
He filmed me as I picked up the protective gear we were going to buy and showed it to the imaginary audience à la The Price is Right. We needed a hard hat, a veil, and long thick gloves. Gloves, incidentally, I would never wear since they reeked of chemicals despite many attempts at washing them away.
“I can’t smell anything,” my friend Amanda would later tell me. But I could. I had developed super-nasal powers as a result of the accident. The rest of the warehouse was filled with things we did not yet know the names to: extractors, supers, queen excluders, frames, nucs, smokers and hive tools. The equipment was foreign and exotic and the store experience opened us up to a world we would soon breathe, eat and sleep for the next four years.
Kirk’s bees were situated on the edge of Chinatown in the midst of an out-of-sight community garden. You see, beekeeping is a covert operation in Los Angeles. Yup, it’s illegal to keep bees. Sure you can kill ‘em—thanks to the city and many pest control companies—but you can’t keep ‘em. (Not yet at least. But mark my words, this will change with time.)
Kirk or “Kirkobee” as he likes to be called, greeted us as we unpacked the camera and tripod. As he approached, I noticed a hobble. During the Year of My Limp I used to stop cane-carrying strangers in the streets to ask them why they couldn’t walk straight. I was collecting data to assess the likely permanence of my own shuffle. Mine eventually went away, but Kirk’s did not. He had broken his knee five times over the years. It was eternally dislocated.
“It can’t be replaced, but it doesn’t hurt too much. Now come on kiddos, get suited up and let’s go see my blondes. We’re here to talk bees not knees.”
“Blondes,” I asked. “What do you mean?”
“Many beekeepers call the Italian strain of bees ‘blondes’ because they’re pale-lemon yellow color, which differs from, let’s say, the darker variety of Carniolans,” Kirk explained as he shoved grass into a tin burner with bellows called “a smoker.”
When bees are smoked, they think there is a fire and engorge themselves with honey just in case they need to evacuate. As a result, their abdomens distend, making it difficult to make the necessary flexes to sting. Once the colony’s defensive response is interrupted, the beekeeper gets the opportunity to open the beehive and work.
“Italians—at least when it comes to bees—have a gentle disposition. And they’re great at making babies,” Kirk explained. This from a man who’d ordered his first set of bees through a Montgomery Ward catalogue. The bees arrived in the mail two weeks later. Now he regarded snail mail bees as a major transgression.
Many organic beekeepers believe bees shouldn’t be plucked from their colony, dumped into a shipping cage and then jostled with other parcels. It is psychologically and physically traumatizing.
Today Kirk heads the Backyard Beekeepers, an organic beekeeping association, and only catches wild swarms despite the fact that packaged bees are still sold by the pound and frequently shipped all over the country. He definitely didn’t belong to the mindset that bees are “lower forms of life,” incapable of feeling or pain. His words reminded me of what I had read earlier.
According to The Queen Must Die, written by William Longood, bees can grieve over their queen, sound cries of war or hum with happiness. They can be angry, docile, ferocious, playful, aggressive, appear happy or utter pitiful sounds of distress. Are these not emotions akin to ours, merely expressed differently?
And bees are a sister society. In a hive of about 50,000, ninety percent of the population is female. They are daughters of the queen, sisters of service. I want to be a sister of service and I am definitely a sister at heart who loves woman and what she represents in her highest state. Which is why I was drawn to the hive.
As we followed Kirk, I spotted a constellation of bees in the distance, buzzing in the balmy air against the blue of sky. The hive, which consisted of white boxes stacked one on top of another, was deliberately hidden behind grass that was long and dry.
Their home looks like a filing cabinet, I thought. Gone were the idyllic domed hives made out of twisted straw I had seen in Winnie the Pooh books while growing up.
Because of its convenience and transportability, the Langstroth bee hive became the standard in many parts of the world after its invention in 1851, according to Kirk. Reverend Lorenzo Langstroth invented a box design with frames so that the bees could build honeycomb with some order.
And more importantly, beekeepers could move the frames with little trouble because they were designed so that bees wouldn’t attach honeycomb between them or to the walls of the hive. Ah yes, beekeeping too was subjected to the industrialized “revolution.”
Despite the office furniture, the garden with its rows of tomatoes, green peppers, and weeds, conjured memories of my past: girlhood in Montreal. The community garden on Charles Gill street, worms I dug out, mud pies I fashioned; the front bushes of our house teaming with ladybugs that I would catch and watch pee on my hand; the bumble bee I valiantly caught at age seven with a butterfly net; the massive prickly weeds my mother angrily plucked after returning from a two-week vacation in Sanibel, Florida; the arugula and cucumbers my aunt and uncle planted in their yard; the smell of a tomato on the vine.
I was grateful for the excuse to be outdoors, away from computer-screen life, and for the opportunity to observe bees en masse for the first time. Unfortunately I couldn’t hear their buzz. The 10 and 110 freeways were roaring. The honey and pollen are grand but don’t ever underestimate the hum of the hive. Bees’ wings beat about two hundred times a minute, which musicians say is in the key of C sharp below middle C. It’s hypnotizing. The sound is as priceless as the smell.
“Take a whiff, kiddo,” Kirk urged as he used a metal instrument known as a hive tool to pry open the lid.
I was scared but enthralled. This was an ancient species with its own secret language I couldn’t yet decipher. There was order amid the seeming chaos. They could sting and hurt me and yet my beesuit and veil were my VIP access pass to it all.
I tentatively stuck my nose in their city, which was abuzz with about 50,000 bees! The smell was deep, thick and sweet. Butterscotch. It was the smell of co-operation—one of the best scents in the world.
“How is it sealed?” George asked.
“It’s bee glue,” Kirk explained, “better known as propolis, a resinous mixture that bees collect from tree buds and sap flows.”
“How do they make it?”
“Well, they chew and mix it with their saliva. Since it’s a natural antibiotic it’s also used to sterilize the hive and protect it against diseases and infection. And let’s say a large insect invades the hive, the bees can use propolis to “mummify” the carcass. Of course they sting the intruder to death but because defending bees can’t transport such a heavy weight, they embalm it rather than allowing the corpse to decay.”
“Yup. But you do know that bees rarely sting unless someone bothers them first, right,” Kirk added.
And with that I made a promise to myself to eventually go suitless one day soon.
“Judging by the way they operate, I would say that if they were granted a motto it would be ‘live and let live,’” I offered.
“I would agree Kiddo.”
Maryam Henein is an investigative journalist, professional researcher, and producer of the award-winning documentary Vanishing of the Bees.
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