A Symphony of Bees

by Mark Brown

02/06/2013

Out off Aspen Avenue, deep in the tree streets of Broken Arrow, a very typical three-bedroom, single-family unit is going rogue. If I hadn’t gotten lost and texted the occupant for directions, I’m not sure I’d have noticed the quirks: a 10-foot stand of cane obscuring the brick mailbox, a rick of firewood parked where a car should be, the rolled up carpet and padding on the walkway, the security fence piled in the front yard. But he gave himself away.

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“Bro … it’s the house that looks like a disabled vet lives in it.” The closer you get to the door, the more clues: a waist-high galvanized tub for catching rainwater beneath a bedroom window, and four foil-wrapped potatoes roasting in a small solar oven just off the porch. Then the door opens and, however prepared you think you are, you aren’t.

“Come on in,” he says, holding the doorknob with one hand and a coffee mug with the other. A long, black ponytail falls down between his shoulder blades. His eyes radiate a rich, deep brown, like the grain on a gunstock. He’s wearing cargo pants, a black T-shirt, and a camo cap with a Velcro patch that reads, “Embrace The Suck.” The Suck is soldier-speak for the frontlines and all they entail.

Fifteen feet inside the house, the step drops down into the living room, over which a rough-hewn sign proclaims, “Man Cave.” It’s a cave, all right, but the joke is lost somewhere in the pile of houseplants, empty pill bottles, and government mail. Two hammocks tied to the rafters with ropes and carabiners provide the canopy. Two pit bulls: a brown brindle named Beau and a white one named Luke lean up from their pallet.

“They’re my gatekeepers,” says the man of the house.

The dogs are sweet-faced and docile, if not outright timid. They eat Eagle Pack Holistic Select Lamb Formula chow, cans of which sit in a cardboard case just inside the room, likely where they were dropped. Two Catchmaster glue boards sit next to them, awaiting deployment. The carpet has been pulled, exposing the concrete, exposing the habits.

“No matter how much you try to stay on top of it,” says the man of the house, “you can’t keep it clean. I am a man, I have two dogs, a goat, four chickens, and at times in this house I’ve had a boa constrictor, a Sumatran water monitor, Types of Possums, two coyotes … I mean, carpet doesn’t necessarily work out in this environment.”

If a man’s home is his castle, this is a domain of disequilibrium. Like the clutter in its rooms, its owner has been misplaced. His file:

Kenneth Elliott Ambrose Heyne (say it HI-nee), age 30. U.S. Army Sergeant E-5, retired, or in the long and withdrawn process of becoming so. Date of induction: 29 February 2000. Leap Day. Officially decommissioned: 15 October 2007. Seven years and two tours, Iraq and Afghanistan. For his work, he received an MSM, a Meritorious Service Medal. He’s also, by the Army’s definition, 100 percent P and T—permanently and totally disabled. He says it’s from sustained sleep deprivation, stress, and bombs. The Army may or may not be saying, but they admit that the guy they signed into service is not the one they discharged. They send him disability because they can’t expect him to get or hold a job, not now. He proves their point on a near-daily basis. Exhibit A: Three years ago, he brushed 24-hour paint stripper on some kitchen cabinets he meant to repaint. It’s still there.

“The reality is,” Elliott says, “I’m a disabled vet, bipolar as fuck, and I just hadn’t gotten around to it yet.”


A portrait of Elliott Heyne in sound:


What he will do, and does, most mornings is go to the kitchen, get his first of many cups of Topéca, and go sit in his backyard, where two dogs, three chickens, and a Pygmy goat commune with some 60,000 Italian honeybees, Apis mellifera ligustica, a breed with a reputation for gentleness. The chickens are for eggs—he had four but one of them got egg bound and died from the rupture; he could tell by the smell things were bad—the goat for kicks, and the honeybees for, believe it or not, companionship.

“If I’m not messing with them,” he says, “I can sit right next to the hives. Honey is secondary right now. It’s all about keeping bees alive, and whatever pleasure that affords. One of my favorite things to do is go out there in the morning, have my coffee, sit down, and watch my bees wake up. I try not to wear black stuff on my head.”

Bees will attack black, but it’s mostly what’s in his head that raises flags. Something’s gone missing in the Broken Arrow hive of Elliott Heyne. Primarily, Elliott Heyne. The discharged Army sergeant who used to be a voracious reader with the patience for Melville. The neat freak who had a place for everything and everything in its place. The infectious smile and laugh personified who can’t remember the last time he was around somebody in an intimate fashion. Because that guy is long gone.

“I went from a period in my life where I was in control,” he says, “or at least I thought I was, and all my actions had to reflect a specific intent. I had to have the proper motivation outlined. These days, none of that even enters my head. I’m off in my own world 90 percent of the time.”

The other 10 percent his presence is desired in other places, but the stress of deadlines—where he actually has to be somewhere at a given hour—can deter him. Among more physical ailments. “If I’m in pain, my neck or back’s hurtin’, or like today, when I’m passing a kidney stone, deadlines just aren’t fun. I’ll get there when I get there. Until then, I’m gonna be where I’m at.”

That’s likely here, under the maple trees of South Aspen, among his beehives, in his bubble, mostly out of the way, and quietly embracing The Suck.

* * *

The world over, bees are dying in mortal combat. The hive is in shock, and the enemy has overrun the perimeter. Make that enemies: hive beetles, roaches, wasps, for starters, and unseen invaders—varroa mites that latch onto a bee’s exoskeleton and suck out her hemolymph, and myriad insecticides, like the new-wave systemics applied at seeding. Foraging bees ingest them and, rather than die on the vine, carry the poison back to the hive. The more noticeable invaders, Elliott squashes under his thumb. So far, in his three hives, the thumb’s been enough.

“No fungus, disease, nothing out of the ordinary,” he says. “It’s hard to say how strong they are. We’ll find out pretty soon, won’t we?”

He baits them by pouring feed syrup on their doorstep. The bees take honey for primary nourishment. The syrup is insurance. Their keeper gets paranoid that they might store the syrup, though, instead of the honey.

“They’ll go back into their hive and do their little shaky dance [1] and that sugar water’ll be gone.” Five gallons before the sun goes down. The bees suck the syrup off of the cane tops that Elliott snips and places into 5 gallon buckets. This keeps the cane from seeding and taking over his cul-de-sac. And it allows the bees cling to the fronds to keep from drowning in the sugar water. It’s no random symbiosis, to hear it explained.

“If you look at how things have been going in the world lately, with the temperatures doing what they are here in Oklahoma, the flowers are pretty much done by June or July. Their ability to obtain nectar through natural food sources is disrupted. To supplement their diet, to make sure I maintain good healthy hives throughout the winter, I supplement with sugar water.”

One of Elliott’s roles as a sergeant was the training of Afghan National Auxiliary Police forces. His Form 214 service record lists four “achievements”: four assignments in establishing, facilitating, and executing training programs for local militia. None of which reads like the charge up San Juan Hill. But modern warfare doesn’t work like that, says Elliott. Modern war is routine mismanagement, contractors soaking off the backs of soldiers, an Army culture of unnecessary stress, and other things that suck. The hive affords no room for such disturbances. Any bee acting this way would have his arms ripped off, his abdomen gutted and his striped ass booted from the colony. Because the colony lives and dies on a collective adherence to one principle, that of the common good.

Honeybees fly sorties in and out of home base in search of nectar, which will become honey, but not in his hands. With its proboscis it angles for the sweet spot of the flower between the sepal and petal, for the flower water, fills its sac then flies home full up. To become honey, nectar is thickened with a collective flapping of wings—the water evaporates and the nectar thickens—by honey processors, bees born to the task. Division of labor [2]is alive and well in a beehive. There are nurse bees to care for the queen. (One of their roles is the decontamination of returning workers.) Guard bees for keeping out undesirables. Cleaning squads. Heating and cooling teams. Comb builders. Honey, thus, is born, like all sorts of sweet things, on the backs of workers.

“You can join the Army thinking you’re going to be in personnel, or water filtration, or fuel supply, and the next thing you know you’re going to be operating an entry control point into one of your camps, and you’re going to be checking for vehicle-bound IEDs without any of the real training that job requires.

“See … when you’re in the military, you can be ordered.”

* * *

The only thing keeping Elliott’s backyard his backyard are the privacy fences. That’s because he believes that a healthy ecosystem is a diverse one, and the zip code be damned. The more complex, the better. Three maples toss their twigs to the ground below. The Bermuda is thick, green, and wild. Elliott leaves the mycelium—the ground-feeding fungus—that you would root out. A Lifetime compost tumbler stands in the middle of the yard, awaiting its next meal. On the back porch, birds have built a nest in the fixture of a security light.

In Elliott’s world, it can be difficult to tell outside from in, like over the threshold to the backyard, where cracks in the living room foundation—visible because, remember, he’s ripped up the carpet—blur with the encroaching stalks of grass and weed. The barnyard he keeps seems all the happier for it. Three hens, one goat, named Jules, three beehives—“I can have four in Broken Arrow,” Elliott says—and two pit bulls, Luke and Beau. “I haven’t named the hens. I don’t think it’s proper to name things you might end up … dining on.”

Jules, after the homicidal, jheri curled Jules Winnfield of Pulp Fiction infamy. She’s about knee-high, with eyes that shine ice-blue with black New Wave slits. She’ll run between the porch and the hives, bouncing across the rooftops as if they were mountain crags. Theoretically, if she’s jumping on the hives and agitating the bees enough, she could die. But she hasn’t riled them yet.

“She can leap up to a windowsill,” Elliott says. She’ll jump over his head if he’s bent down. A Pygmy wouldn’t eat a lot, he thought, and wouldn’t be large enough to knock over a hive. “It takes about 1,800 stings to kill a human. But she was cute, adorable, and for sale. I can be incredibly impulsive at times.”

He calms such impulses by volunteering at Wild Heart Ranch Wildlife Rescue. There, holding a baby deer or feeding a skunk or charming a pair of baby barn owls, he’s a man of calm and inner peace, a condition he struggles with among humans.

“Elliott’s passion stems from his having been broken down completely as a human being,” said Annette King Tucker, Wild Heart founder and director. “His determination to heal himself has allowed him to see the world from another perspective without all the pointless daily clutter that most people carry around.”

However comfortable he is among bees, I’m still a novice. You have to resign yourself to getting stung, and the lack of a memory for this pain is what makes such resignation possible. Either way, we’ve now been standing in the same spot long enough to draw attention. Nervous bees will alert an enemy by orbiting and occasionally head-butting. “I’m in black,” Elliott said, grabbing at his T-shirt. “We’re gonna need to move.” Bees suspicion black. He could be a bear with an appetite for comb, for all they know. He’s taking morphine for his kidney stones and doesn’t want to push it, the cocktail of opiate and venom. “Anyway, we’re about to crack into ’em and we don’t want ’em to be angry.”

By nature they aren’t. Happy, docile, working, active is how he describes his honeybees. Stinging you is hardly priority one. “We’re hard-wired to be afraid of what we don’t know, and the first emotion we feel is fear. But I’ve always thought bees were cool. When I’m working with them I feel at home, comfortable, a part of something. Listen … It’s a little symphony all by itself.” Indeed, the pitch changes, the music intensifies, the nearer you get. Elliott reaches onto one of the hive boxes and lifts off a dead worker. “This guy’s a fresh one. He’s just from last night.”

A colony of bees will lose a quarter of its population in a season, from causes natural and violent, known and mysterious. He pulls it in close to examine. When he squeezes its abdomen, bee venom shoots out in a stream onto my sweater. “Sorry, dude,” he says, with not a little sincerity.

* * *

A hive is a mass of wax, glue, honey, brood, enemies, and bees. Like anything thriving and organic, it’s kind of a mess. But the bees know their way around it by instinct.

Likewise, there is a logic to Elliott’s living room that evades the eye at first glance. A lot of what you might call half-assed is actually fairly thought out. Where you might hang shelves, he’s bolted black milk crates and stuffed them with everything from plant food to surgical gloves. Where you might set a CD rack he stores a Shop-Vac. Ivy grows not on the house but in it. The bucket of coal and ash next to the fireplace is what he uses to heat his bathroom every morning. Next to the fireplace are the bookshelves. Before the ringing in his head made it nearly impossible, Elliott read. His shelves hold a small but inviting selection: Chuck Palahniuk, Helena Blavatsky, Hunter S. Thompson, Alice Bailey, Herman Melville, Mark Bowden’s Guests of the Ayatollah. In the middle of the room is a table and, on it, a scattered inventory that includes King butane, Avant gauze, Tai Sriracha hot sauce, many spent Walgreens pill bottles, vascular clamps, BernzOmatic blowtorch, cork from a magnum of Chimay Grande Reserve, 1000 milligram DHA omega-3 fatty acid, 10 Plus Cortizone, 3-inch Lodge cast-iron skillet, blue Sharpie, Gorilla superglue, much unopened mail, some opened, and a single synthetic flower, a camellia maybe. Rising up out of this mix, an Apple computer. About to fall off the table, a carton of red Thai curry with an inch of sauce in the bottom. Elliott prefers to eat out, but, “When you get a good swerve on, it’s just easier to go to the fridge and pull out some Pad Ped.”

Stuck to his fridge are several tasty looking recipes for juicing: Lemony Apple, Beety Beauty, Apple Green Grape. He juices because of benign prostatic hyperplasia, or BPA. Elliott carries around with him the usual disabled vet’s set of acronyms—PTSD, TBI—jargon he drops as a matter of fact. To explain how he got there, how it all went awry, he makes a lattice of his hands, the fingers hatched to represent the brain’s patchwork of synapses. Then he rotates his hands to relate how they became, through the pummel of war, disconnected.

* * *

Much has been written lately of CCD, or Colony Collapse Disorder, a complete disabling of the honeybee hive. A lot of it has been alarmist rhetoric designed for nightly news titillation, but Hannah Nordhaus, in The Beekeeper’s Lament, provides a solid account of the concerns by following one John Miller, a fourth-generation Mormon beekeeper whose bees summer in Idaho before being trucked to California in winter to pollinate the almond crop. Nordhaus’ chronicling of Miller’s frustrated efforts to keep bees alive enumerates the hurdles (chemicals, predators—everything from mites to thieves—government policy, poverty, small-farm exodus) encountered by the alchemists in this ancient art.

“One of the very first things I noticed,” said Greg Hannaford of CCD, “it occurred in the beginning almost exclusively with commercial beekeepers, versus hobby keepers. But that doesn’t tell us a whole lot.”
Hannaford is a longtime keeper and member of the Northeast Oklahoma Beekeepers Association. He notes that commercial keeps have their bees forever on the move, but admits that’s nothing new, that bee transporting goes back to the era of the Model T and even train travel. That leaves him looking at chemicals.

“We do have a new class of pesticides out there (systemics) and they act differently on organisms than traditional pesticides. They don’t necessarily kill the organism, but they disrupt its behavior. As an application, they’re as safe on bees as any other.”

Which is what scares him. The government, Hannaford said, doesn’t look at sub-lethal effects when determining agricultural policy. Unless bees fall dead from insecticides, the burden of proof remains with the beekeepers versus the chemical companies. Big farming and bees make odd bedfellows: Without bees, crops would lose valuable pollinators. Without chemicals, there’d be no big ag. We’ve made the bed, Hannaford said, and now we’re lying in it.

“Our food culture was developed in the ’50s. After World War II, agriculture and food consumption in the U.S. fundamentally changed. We went from an agricultural economy to an urban economy. To feed everybody, farms got bigger. And we got more consumer-oriented. That’s why we have to have new car models every year. Advertisers learned they can shape our perceptions.”

With cars, and with honey. “Commodity honeys—the Walmart, off -the-shelf stuff —is all remarkably similar. It all looks like what ad agencies have taught us honey should look like.”

* * *

Every spring, when Greg Hannaford’s hives grow from a solid 70 to a robust 400, Elliott goes out to a farmer’s field in Jenks to lend a hand. The hives occupy a fenceline that runs for yards and yards. Out past Karma Street, down Aquarium Drive, out in the amber waves of the Arkansas River bottoms, the twin stacks of a PSO power station lend an industrial foreboding to an otherwise rural idyll.

A former contractor, Hannaford makes his money selling not honey but bees. Bees and whatever intrigue they bring.

“The bees are as much therapeutic to him as anything,” Hannaford said. “He’s very intelligent, but his mind is so scrambled that he can’t function in a normal work environment. He can work with those bees all day long and it just calms his soul. And I get some really good help.”

Last summer, re-queening Hannaford’s hives, Elliott took several stings on his gloveless hands. They were stings from partially Africanized bees bought in Texas, then married to Hannaford’s Italians. When the African honeybee, Apis mellifera scutellata, cross with European honeybees, the latter become so-called Africanized hybrids. They tend to be more aggressive than the Euros—our summer heat gets them hot under the collar—but they’re still way more interesting in pillaging a queen and hive than they are you and yours.

Anyway, a dozen of them stung Elliott on the hands and arms. But, he says, “It did not have the effect that you would anticipate.”

When the stinging sensation faded, he noticed his energy levels were “a little amped.” For being in the sun all day, he had not one inkling of a headache. His mood was peaking, even before he got home.

By the time he’d settled in and the venom had coursed through his body, he started noticing the stingers still in his arms. He felt a vibe behind the eyes and his lips went tingly. That’s when he began to see bees, heard their buzzing, felt their presence in their venom.

He takes Flexeril and Motrin three times a day for the neck pain he manages from getting thrown onto the roof of a vehicle on Jalalabad Road in Nangarhar Province near the end of his deployment in Enduring Freedom.

But not that summer day he didn’t.

* * *

Even a cursory knowledge of honeybee behavior will guide you through five poems Sylvia Plath wrote four months before she took her life. The five were written in one week—October 3–9, 1962—likely as the hive was winding down for the season.

Plath found something favorable in the suits and veils of the local beekeepers. She was also drawn to the hive itself and its infectious vibe—bees are said to happily hum in the key of C—that turned treacherous in her ear: “I am not a Caesar. I have simply ordered a box of maniacs.” In “The Swarm,” the bees become Napoleon’s battered army, running for cover to find solace in Flanders’ muddy fields. A hive swarms when its queen deems the colony too large or endangered in its current hive. Swarming is typically a spring thing. In “Wintering,” the drones are dead and the workers hunker down for the long winter’s nap.

Before it was over, Sylvia Plath stuffed wet towels under the doors of her Primrose Hill flat and leaned her head forever into a gas oven while her brood slept down the hall.

* * *

It’s warm, not hot, and Elliott’s bees are thriving. They hover around the hive opening where the keep has strewn thick sugar water for sustenance. Occasionally, one will dart over the privacy fence to forage, perhaps, somewhere in the vicinity, off into the smoky evening sunlight of a crackly November, Indian summer, that cascades over the 1970s rooftops of Aspen Avenue. When it’s hot, the bees spread out and all cling to the hive and buzz their wings, drawing air from the bottom of the hive and pushing it out the top. The lids have holes for aeration. Some workers will fly off for water, which they use for evaporative cooling. But the relentless hundreds of June and July have receded.

Approaching the hive at this hour is what I think it must be like to enter a meteor shower without a gravitational field. I kneel down within a few feet of a box to study activity. A box is three sets of frames stacked atop each other, the top one covered with a peaked, copper roof. Elliott gets his hive bodies online from Brushy Mountain Bee Farm because, in his words, he wants the best. Out of the Brushy Mountain Estates emerge a steady stream of lovely bees. Two or three begin to orbit my head. One hits me in the back. I move off trying not to panic, wondering if that thing about bees smelling fear is real.

Back by the porch, Elliott is fanning the flames on a small smoker filled with tree bark. “Smoke sends a signal of imminent threat,” he said, pumping the bellows. Consequently, a beekeeper becomes less of one. Before he put his bee suit on to go into the hives, Elliott looked pretty threatening. With his Manchurian facial hair and the black rag holding his hair back, he reminds me of a young Alain Jourgensen, Ministry frontman, before the heroin bit him. Suited up, he’s a spaceman, all baby steps and pre-programmed movements.

He lifts the lid, and then a metal screen called a queen excluder, which keeps her and her stable of drones out of the honey supers. If she were to lay brood in the honeycomb, it would make for a messy harvest. Bees crawl in and out of the narrow spaces between frames. He smokes them and they scurry.

Seventeen of the United States claim the European honeybee as their official state insect, including Utah, which was called Deseret by the Mormons who landed there. Later, the Mormons acquiesced to the tribal Ute, hence Utah. In the Book of Mormon, “deseret” meant “honeybee” in the language of the Jaredites, a tribe believed to have escaped to America during the construction of the Tower of Babel.

Up close, it’s easy to see why humans laud the industry of bees. They accumulate their nectar, pollinate much of nature, tend their hive and support each other with great energy in their few months of life. “Socialism and communism are based theoretically on the concept of the hive,” said Greg Hannaford. “Everybody working together for the good of the whole. The difference being that honeybees have no concept of self-interest. With humans, that’s kind of an ebb and flow. We like to think we’re community-minded but, when it comes down to it, we’re all about self-interest. That’s just the way we’re made.” As Elliott says, “It’s hard to relate nature with the world of man.”

This is Elliott’s first year of harvest. He cut his first hive out of an apartment at 21st and Olive. [3]His therapist likes to get him into anything he can do solo, [4] though he helps Hannaford in the spring, when his hives number in the hundreds. “From what I can tell,” Elliott says through his netting, “beekeepers are generally my kind of people.”

A scraggly shoot from a nearby tree dangles over the hive and he hacks it off with a Gurkha knife. The same knife he saw an Afghani butcher a goat with in short order. He’ll use the blade to pry open hive frames stuck together with propolis, a sticky resin of sap and other botanicals that bees use to shore up spaces in the comb. He’d use his hive tool if he could find it. “Bee glue,” he says, poking at the golden-brown goop. “A month to themselves and they’ll glue a box tight.”

He pauses to poke into a spun web of silk and a spider fritters out: “Look at that, he’s sacking my bees.” He flicks it away and pulls the frame up by its edges. A mass of bees navigates its way around each other and over the surface of the comb. He looks for and fairly quickly spots the queen—her body is long, like a worker with a worm attached to it—then another predator.

“A freakin’ hive beetle … that really twists my titties.”

A single frame of comb will hold about 10 pounds of honey. A super will weigh 100 pounds, with honey and hive. He lifts and replaces them at an even pace, and not without grace, taking care not to crush anybody. [5] “That’s another cool thing about bees. They’re all girls.” Most, anyway. The drones—the bees who would be king—exist for the sole purpose of impregnating the queen. But if they’re not already dead (we didn’t spot any) they soon will be. He leans in face first and breathes into the hive. “Carbon dioxide really flips their switches.”

* * *

Elliott shot a video on his iPhone late last May, when the Jenks hives were hopping. He zoomed in with his camera, onto a pile of bees whose activity, if you could slow down and study it, would alarm you in its precision. Mostly what you see is a mass of busy bodies. It’s what you hear that haunts.

“They say static is the leftover radiation from the Big Bang,” Elliott says into the mic. “There’s something about this sound that reminds me of that. Nature, and the laws of nature. The hum, the buzz, the frequency…

“This is almost like a religious experience out here, and I am not the religious type.”

About halfway in he turns the camera on himself and begins to rhapsodize. Among beekeepers, even ones in bee suits and veils, this is not an uncommon occurrence.

“When you’re around a lot of this buzzing like this,” Elliott says, “usually the bees are testy and territorial. It can be intimidating. But it keeps me calm.”

Not to say they don’t go nuts, he says. Sometimes, when he lifts the lid off a hive, the bees will dive-bomb his veil, aiming at the face behind it. The bee bombing is more tranquil, he maintains, than the roar of fighter jets overhead. In mid-sermon, a single bee lights on his shoulder and pauses for the camera.

“I so dig this. Can you hear that?”

He wishes you could hear the wings that buzz his ears. There’s a pattern, he says—a symmetry to the sound—but still an element of chaos.

“To be home, and comfortable, and a part of something.” He preaches it through the veil, a pair of sunglasses hiding the light of his eyes, searching for the words that must stand in for the sound that is all around. On the ground, in the air, piled onto the side of the box in what looks like a bee orgy until you look closer.

“Can you hear that?” he asks again.

It’s like wind, until one of them whips by his mic, then it’s like fire. He smokes them, they scurry. He sets down the smoker, picks up the iPhone, and then…

“Can you hear that? Is that a little different!”

The bees are in orbit, an interstellar hoedown promenading around the moon that is Elliott Heyne. A lone white tuft of cloud floats on a blue sky. The bees are going ape shit, as the keeper might say, a smile lighting up his face. Bees are raining horizontally, driving diagonally, skating out aerial figure eights, punching the silence with their winged symphony. The sound, the sound … it’s something you want to swat at in a past life, until you learn what the bees are up to, until you know.

He yells in that guttural U.S. Army way of his: “Idn’t that the fuckin’ tits, man!”


Footnotes

1. In The Dancing Bees: An Account of the Life and Senses of the Honey Bee, legendary bee man Karl von Frisch documented his discovery of the “waggle dance,” a movement among foraging bees to indicate to other hive members the direction and distance of nectar-bearing flowers. “What makes it so particularly striking and attractive is the way it infects the surrounding bees; those sitting next to the dancer start tripping after her, always trying to keep their outstretched feelers in close contact with the tip of her
abdomen. They take part in each of her manoeuverings so that the dancer herself, in her madly wheeling movements, appears to carry behind her a perpetual comet’s tail of bees.” The dance done, the dancer leads her frenzied charges out of the hive.

2. Von Frisch warned of the tendencies to align busy bees with human work. “We have already mentioned in passing that there exists a strict division of labour among the workers of a bee colony: some of them tend the brood while others see to the cleanliness of the hive; others again build the combs, defend the hive, or collect either honey or pollen. One is tempted to draw a comparison between these conditions and those prevailing in human society; we feel compelled to think of a human community with its teachers and policemen, street-sweepers and carpenters, bakers and confectioners. But the analogy remains only superficial.”

3. Von Frisch: “A colony of bees will sometimes escape from the beekeeper and settle in a wood in the hollow trunk of a dead tree. Th is is the original dwelling of the honey-bees; and as there were then many more hollow trees than in our own days of improved forest cultivation, no housing problem existed for bees in ancient times.” When the colony gets too big to feed itself, the hive will swarm. Half of it will follow the queen to a new home elsewhere. The other half will remain and re-queen the hive. Swarming bees, until they find a home, are likely to ball up anywhere. One last June, in New York City, congregated on a side-view mirror of a Volvo station wagon.

4. There is precedent for this. “Beekeepers are not, typically, ‘people people,’ ” writes Hannah Nordhaus in The Beekeeper’s Lament. “They like to be outside, working with their hands, alone. After World War I, the U.S. and British governments promoted beekeeping as a career for disfigured or shell-shocked veterans because they could work on their own. A bee yard is a good place to hide from other people, and for that reason beekeepers are often secluded souls. This is ironic, because the creatures that they tend are so existentially social. Bees live and die in communities. ‘Honeybees can flourish only when associated in large numbers, as in a colony,’ Lorenzo Langstroth wrote. ‘In a solitary state, a single bee is almost as helpless as a new-born child, being paralyzed by the chill of a cool Summer night.’ ”

5. Rev. Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth received a patent in 1852 for a movable-frame hive. His design is essentially the hive in use today. “Langstroth was a minister with some emotional problems, and the bees helped calm his mind,” said Greg Hannaford. “He focused extensively on bees, and a lot of his discoveries weren’t original, but he did manage to state them in a practical way.” Prior to Langstroth, harvesting honey was deadly work, and not on keepers. Von Frisch certainly found comfort in it: “Thus, whenever there is anything to examine or to repair inside the hive, each comb can be lifted out separately with its frame and then put back again. Also it is possible to remove each separate framed comb when filled with honey, and to replace it with an empty frame without unduly disturbing the colony. With the old types of hive, extraction of honey meant destruction of the dwelling, and more often than not, annihilation of the whole colony.”


Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4, Issue 2. Jan. 15, 2013.

Also check out a special video segment on Elliott Heyne and his Symphony of Bees.