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Petting the bees

Some people are lucky enough to know what they wanted to do since they were kids. I am one of them. I always wanted to be a writer. Through much adversity, most self-imposed, I published my first pieces at age 32. Since then, I have been able to make a living writing. I’ve published two books and written three more that will soon see the light of day. I can say, yes, I am where I always wanted to be. I am a writer.

beeSome kids also dream of avocations, things they want to do but that they will never make a living at, or ever want to. They are the things we would do if we didn’t have to make a living. I’ve always known what I wanted to do in addition to being a writer. I dreamed of it all my life.

When I was a kid, I used to roll around in the clover in the front yard petting bees. That’s right. My favorite summer pastime was bee petting. Misfortune and hurt filled my childhood and I didn’t fit in with the neighborhood kids.

So I petted bees. It got me out into the sun and filled hours with useful, meditative activity. I’d find a bee on a flower, extend my index finger, and rub it on its back. The bee would move on to another flower. So I’d do it again and it moved farther along. Sometimes, a bee was so intent on the nectar it sought that it just stayed there. As long as I didn’t prod too strongly, it drank its fill before it moved on to the next flower or flew off to the hive.

A little kid poking may be irritating to the bee but it isn’t a threat to house and home. Bees only sting when they feel a threat, like the bottom of a foot or bump of an elbow. They sting to protect the hive. But bees don’t want to sting you. Their lives depend on not stinging you. Once a bee stings, it dies, and bees, like cows or horses or birds—or any other animal of the field—want to live.

My fascination with bees grew well into my teens. I learned just about everything there is to know about bee morphology, anatomy, and behavior. I dreamed of one day running my own apiary. The money an apiary demands never concerned me. As far as I knew, every beekeeper managed bees in his or her backyard. They went about their hives quietly, tenderly, like monks praying. They gained some innate satisfaction or even redemption from their interaction with the bees.

Even during my decades of sordid alcoholism and self-destruction, I would daydream about bees. Bees and being a writer stuck with me through the dreck and self-loathing. I don’t know if wanting to raise bees determined the trajectory of my life as much as wanting to be a writer did. The desire to raise bees, however, must have had an influence, no matter how slight, on how I’ve come to be where I am today.

The thing is this: Beekeeping demands of me capacities I don’t have or possess innately. I’ve managed bees now for four years. My first experience occurred with Zeke Amador, a neighbor who kept the bees in the community garden. When I discovered he had bees, I sidled up to him as a gold-digger does to money. I wanted what he had. Not just the bees, but the patience and understanding of self that bees demand.

I was 48 years old and finally secured a piece of my life’s dream. But having bees taught me more about myself than I had gained from life’s big adventures. Sure, I had proven myself to me again and again. I’d written, taken long journeys, and canoed a mighty river. Bees, however, made me look into the quiet corners of myself. In managing the hive, I find the intestinal fortitude to put me, my problems, and my worldly concerns to the side for a minute and be present. When I am with the bees, I am with them. That is all.

I call them my “girlies.” They, however, possess me. I don’t own them. When I am standing above a buzzing hive, taking in that beautiful flower-pollen-musk smell that emanates from only a beehive, bees mandate that I be at peace with the world. A few times, I came to the bees laden with my personal baggage, my melancholy and anger and disappointment. They knew I wasn’t at my best. They felt a threat to their house and family. They stung to protect their own. The interaction between human and bee demands discipline. I cannot be angry and work with the bees. The bees won’t stand for it. If I want to play with the bees, I have to do it on their terms.

Zeke and I have had our disappointments. A few years the bees took flight from our meager housing. We’ve had to buy new colonies and re-people our hives. This year, I set up two hives outside the garden, one near a lake and another in an urban backyard. I manage them with Zeke and Matt Tomasic, a cop and another freak who, from the time he was a kid wanted bees. Together we have five hives.

We do as little to the bees as possible. I talk to other beekeepers. In their obsession, they fiddle with their hives. They inspect them, move them, open them to see what’s going on. I’ve found, for me, that when I mess with them too much, they fly away. Just as when I disturb or bring my problems to another human being with something else to do, they leave or avoid me. I have to stand on my own with the bees. I have to see nature as something that gives, not a thing I take from. I have to see the world their way.

I am a writer and keeper of bees today. My dreams came true. I live them every day. From the bees’ perspective, that’s not a bad view.

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