by Elizabeth Edwards
Elizabeth Edwards is a writer and creative from Virginia, living in Boston.
Notes on Bees
1. Bumblebees flap their wings 200 times per second. This is what makes the characteristic buzzing sound and knocks the pollen off of flowers. It’s no wonder that they sometimes get fatigued and need to rest and drink some nectar before continuing their journey home.
2. The bumble bee lies on the sidewalk, unmoving and imperiled by its position on the frequently-trodden path. I am young, young enough to be a friend to all animals. I have probably never killed a spider or a roach, and certainly not a bee. No one has taught me yet to be afraid of bees. This bee is cute. It is fuzzy and plump and looks like its sleeping. Bees like flowers. This is what I know. I pick a red begonia from the pot on the front porch and lay it beside the fatigued bee. It still doesn’t move. I nudge a delicate antenna with the equally delicate petal to rouse it. The bee crawls into the flower and settles among the pollen. I sit with my bee until it has revived itself with the flower’s nectar and flies away. From that moment, I consider myself a friend to the bees.
3. Carpenter bees bore holes into soft wood to create a safe place to lay eggs. They work as tirelessly as the profession for which they are named, hollowing a home inside solid places. The carpenter bee carries pollen into the excavation for its young to eat once they hatch. Only female carpenter bees can sting but are unlikely to do so unless threatened. They are seen as a pest, but really, they are just trying to survive.
4. For my sixth birthday, my grandfathers build me a swing set in my backyard. It has swings and monkey bars and a green slide that sticks out like a tongue. One day, I notice a hole in the wood that hadn’t been there before. It’s a perfect circle, as if someone took a dime-sized cookie cutter to the cedar. I watch the hole as I swing back and forth until a bee appears and burrows its way in. I don’t know how deep inside the creature is, but I hear it tunneling, a muffled scratching that I strain to make out. I show my siblings in amazement. “A bee is eating the wood on the swing set!” we tell our parents. They don’t believe us. Bees are capable of things you might only think possible in the imagination of children. When my parents see, and finally believe, they are worried the bee might compromise the integrity of the wood. We force it out of its home to make ours safer.
5. Honeybees dance when they find a good source of nectar or pollen. Not just for the joy of finding food, but to communicate their discovery to other bees. The bee that finds the food source dances to alert its fellow foragers of the location quickly, as it may only be available for a short amount of time. It is known as the waggle dance, their tiny abdomen wriggling in the direction of the food. Bees work together in a way that humans can only aspire to. They are a collective. There isn’t one among them left to fend for itself.
6. Every summer, honeybees flock to the pool I work at, allured by the sticky-sweet snow cone spillage. I wear a bathing suit with flowers on it. They are so realistic that the bees follow me. I lay on the lounge chair in the sun when a bee perches on the flower just above my belly button. I freeze for a moment, because now the first thought I have of bees is risk of a sting. But we stay still, watching each other, or so it seems. Its big eyes are jet black, and its antennae twitch, searching for nectar that the flower on my bathing suit can’t provide. Yet, it stays for a while, maybe just resting, and I never fear its sting.
7. Bees, like humans, are social creatures. They evolve through social learning and exhibit collective intelligence. Honeybees and most species of bumble bees are eusocial, meaning they have multiple generations in a single nest, a division of labor, and members of the colony that care for offspring that are not their own.
8. My sister is afraid of bees. She is four. She is afraid of playing outside because of the bees, even though she dressed up as one for Halloween. The costume is a yellow and black striped dress, complete with wings and pom-pom antennae. My mother, unwilling to imagine a summer with one child refusing to go outside, suggests that if my sister wears her bee costume, the bees won’t hurt her. My sister dons her costume and runs around the yard, carefree and one with the bees, as we all should be. Maybe the bees really see her as one of their own, or maybe they were harmless all along.
9. Female honeybees, or worker bees, die after they sting you. The stinger gets lodged in your skin and ripped away from the bee, rupturing the abdomen. It makes you wonder why they are given a method of self-defense if it only leads to self-destruction.
10. I sit on the lifeguard stand, legs crossed, sweat sliding down my back. A variety of flying insects harass me as I try to keep my eyes on the pool. A cool breeze parts the sea of sticky humidity for a moment, long enough to push one of the bees hovering near me into the bottom of my foot. It’s not intentional, I’m sure, but there is a sharp pain and burning that rivals the over 100 degree heat I’m sweltering in. I dislodge the miniscule stinger from the fleshy arch of my foot, stunned that something so small and fragile could cause me any pain. The breeze carries it away, and I don’t see where it, or the body of the bee it sacrificed, lands.
11. Beekeeping is thought to be the world’s second-oldest profession. It existed in ancient Greek mythology, hailing Apollo as the first beekeeper. Bees symbolized love, beauty, and fertility in ancient Greece, a meaning that seems to have been lost today. The ancient Greeks saw beekeeping as an art. Each hive is unique and requires unique care and an artful, balanced understanding of the creatures you care for. Today, they play a significant role in pollinating a third of the food we eat. We need bees, but they do not need us.
12. My godbrother’s beehive buzzes with life before me. It is my first time in Charleston, South Carolina. Despite the May heat already weighing down the air, I wear long sleeves and long pants. My godbrother’s backyard is miraculously shaded by a few palm trees and the edge of his roof jutting out, shadowing us and the bees. The man-made hive is more like a skinny dresser, with drawers that pull out to reveal not clothes or junk, but rectangular inserts housing hundreds of bees. A few strays drift lazily through the air, drunk with smoke and no threat to us. My godbrother opens one of the drawers, and I inch closer in awe. He removes one rectangle from the drawer, revealing the intricate honeycomb they have constructed. The bees crawl over one another purposefully. They appear a writhing, singular mass, each individual bee doing its part for the whole of the colony. The hum is infectious. It murmurs a quiet power, a tenacity, a complexity. It spreads over my body like a chill. The bees are unpretentious in their importance. Maybe they do not even know the part they are playing for us, but I think they are smarter than that. I think they just might be smarter than us all.