Monday, April 27, 2009

The voices of bees

Going to the farm is a wonderful chance to see old friends. They always amble over to the fence to see what I'm doing. When the dandelion bloom is on, they can count on me for treats. We understand each other. I will keep my distance unless I have a treat, and they will not charge through the fence to give me what for - what am I thinking coming onto the farm - their farm - without clearing it with security. Matters not that I have my own key to the locking red gate, and that I always talk to the farmer in advance to make sure no one is in the driveway pasture.

I began preparing for the bees by visiting the beeyard two weeks ago. I re-stacked the boxes that had toppled, ejected the ambitious beginnings of a mouse coop, and arranged the left over frames of capped honey among the three hives that I would later fill with hungry bees.

I also discovered that two of those frames were so heavy with honey that they cracked the frames. Drat. I had only half of my tools, and the half I lacked included my hammer. I got all neolithic and bashed it back together with a rock. Didn't work - too much damage - maybe from the original break, maybe from the rock - being a neolithic type, I wasn't expected to know or care. I reinserted the broken frames anyway, and planned to repair them on the next trip. Of course, when I came to hive the bees I forgot half of my tools again, so the repair will have to wait until next time, when the bees will have patched it up with wax and propolis, but not strong enough. I'll have to undo their work, which I dislike because it seems disrespectful and wasteful.

When I picked up my bees in Stillwater last Saturday morning, they were loaded into my car by a helpful man. He plucked them from the stacks and stacks of screened boxes all arranged in the garage. The garage door was open, so the bees were exposed to the cold air and they had just finished a long, long truck trip across the country. I did not expect them to be happy, but I was concerned when the car smelled like rotten bananas. Bees secrete an alarm pheromone when agitated - smell it and you know you have to take precautions. I sprayed them with some sugar water to give them something to do, and then hoped. After about 30 minutes, the frantic high-pitched sound from the back seat had resolved into something more harmonic, but not peaceful. I was disappointed, because I knew that I'd be wise to wear a veil while hiving them, and gloves.

When I was a child, I took care of lots of babies. My siblings came fast and at short intervals, and I was called on to fold diapers, give bottles, exercise strengthening legs, play, kiss, sing to sleep, lie awake watching halting breaths and steady breaths, change, diapers, rinse diapers, wash diapers, feed, entertain and love, love, love. We depended on each other. We learned to understand each other. We gave each other purpose. It struck me as strange how I developed an almost intuitive sense of what each of the babies wanted at any given point in time. Their needs were few - eating, sleep, change diapers, relieve boredom, untwist bedclothes, relieve gas, massage aching limbs, heads and bellies. What I have come to understand in later years is that each baby has a vocabulary of cries, and that I was only responding to something discernible and known on a not quite conscious level.

So I am attentive to vocalizations of all pre-verbal creatures, including my bees. They have a dangerous whine, and they have a sun-baked drowsy buzz. There is a friendly warning thrum that rises in pitch as I break into the brood box. My favorite sound, though, is the one they make when I bestow something wonderful on them. Like sugar in January, or like a new home, full of dripping thick honeycomb. It is a sound I call gratitude. But it is not really gratitude - it just makes me feel good to call it that. It is a busy hum, the hum that I would give if I knew my purpose in the universe and was surrounded by thousands of competent beings who had my back, and had just been served my favorite food in the world in a new cozy home.

There is another sound, of excitement and confusion. When I hive my bees, I stuff the small entrance reducer opening with grass, to deter absconding. Using grass also gives them a chance to exit by dislodging the grass, but my hope is that by the time they manage it, they will have accepted the queen and the new location as home. As an experiment, I pulled the grass from the opening of one hive, and even in the chill air, bees boiled out. On this clip, the very last sound is a little scribble of a buzz that nearly stops my heart with tender feelings. I feel gratitude.

Hiving the bees, I wore a veil, but didn't need to. The bees had calmed down, and were too preoccupied with settling in to care about me. I removed my gloves after the first hive because clearly things were going well. The air was cool enough that stray bees started landing on me. I forgot about them. After I finished and took the car down to the farm house for a visit, the farmer was kind enough to point out the dozen or so bees crawling over my person and in my hair. I plucked each one off and placed them on the warm car, hoping but not hopeful that they'd find their way back to the hives. More likely they would end up as chicken food, which would be just fine, because I like eggs.

In a few days, I'll go down to make sure that the bees removed the pollen-substitute plug I made for the queen cages and released their queens. I'll listen when I lift the inner cover. What I hear will tell me a lot about how they feel about their queen, and whether I need to wear a veil. If I am lucky, they'll line up along the edges of the frames and box and just look at me. The hive will smell like beeswax and honey and there will be a soft hum. Bees will be tracing erratic paths in the air, returning from foraging trips and making figure eights in front of the entrance, orienting themselves to home. Birds will be calling, cattle lowing, and sheep bleating. Maybe I'll pitch in and sing a little. And maybe I'll cry, a voiceless cry of gratitude.

1 comment:

twinsetellen said...

C told me about the happy bees today. I'm grateful, too!