Honeybees captivate me. I spend hours watching them, thinking about them, writing about them, worrying that the world has become too toxic for them. I do what I can to keep my own hives thriving. But I make mistakes. A few weeks ago, on a warm Midwestern summer afternoon, when I was grading papers on my back porch, I looked up and noticed that the honeybees from one of my beehives were incredibly agitated. I cringed. Busy with teaching responsibilities, I had neglected to add another box to the hive a few days earlier when I had noticed the bees needed more space. But I couldn’t put it off any longer. I dashed inside and grabbed my veil and a box of frames. I strode out to the hive without securing the veil, without a smoker, without focus. I charged through the chaos of insects and cracked open the outer cover. The insects began flying at my face right away, and I soon realized they were actually being robbed—another group of bees was attacking mine in order to take the honey. This frustrated me. The bees were up against so much already. The bees were frustrated, too. I was sloppy and fast as I moved the boxes, and then I dropped a full box of bees. Hundreds of honeybees rose like smoke around me.
Being stung by honeybees is different for everyone, but for me, the sting experience is a deep stabbing pain that radiates outward, blossoms like a hydrangea, and throbs for hours. I’m not allergic, but when I’m stung, I still react. A friend, upon seeing one of my hands when I was stung last spring, said my hand looked like an inflated latex glove. So I try to avoid getting stung, and over the years, I’ve had pretty good luck.
That day, the first sting was on my hand. The next on my right thigh. The pain was already intense. Then one on my left calf. Next, on my other hand. I was rushing now to get the hive back together, slamming the covers back on. Then one on my neck. They were getting inside my veil. Another on my collarbone. Pain pulsed. Adrenaline flooded in. Fifty or sixty irked honeybees swarmed around my head. When I left the hive, they followed. I have been in many clouds of bees, but this time, I really lost my cool for some reason. I quickened my pace, but they persisted. Another sting. At last, I threw off my veil, ducked into my house, and slammed the door. I barely made it inside without them. Tremors flooded my body. I should have known better. I know that bees need respect and slowness.
For several weeks, I did not go back in the hives. I kept putting it off. I started telling myself that maybe I had lost my touch with honeybees. I should have recognized they were under attack, and then I had attacked them further. And then many of them lost their lives protecting themselves from me. I felt guilty, but I was also suddenly afraid as I had never been before. Being with honeybees had brought solace to me for many years.
Finally, the desire to know how the hives were doing compelled me to move past my anxiety. I gathered my strength and went to the first hive repeating mantras to myself about honoring the bees and slowing down, but I was scared. I spoke quietly to them as I opened the hive cover and was engulfed in the smell of honey and wax. I slowly pulled one frame and then another. They were gentle, healthy, productive, gorgeous. This summer has been rich with flowers so the hive was packed with honey, the flavor of our landscape. I even pulled a couple of frames so they would have more space. I have heard that real beekeepers are chosen by bees. Only mindfulness and a correct heart will make me worthy.
Photographs are all the work of Heather Swan, 2015. They may be reproduced with permission from the author.
Heather Swan’s narrative nonfiction about honeybees has appeared in ISLE and Aeon, and is forthcoming in Resilience Journal. Her poetry has appeared in many journals including Poet Lore, Basalt, Cream City Review, Green Humanities Review, and is forthcoming in the Raleigh Review. She earned a PhD in English and an MFA in poetry from UW-Madison, where she is currently teaching environmental literature and writing. Contact.