Guest Columns



Lauren K. Watel

“And the Amorites which dwelt in that mountain, came out against you, and chased you, as Bees do, and destroyed you.”

   There’s a bee in my room, buzzing about all herky-jerky, like a plane with a malfunctioning navigational system, ricocheting off the bare white walls in a small rage, making an impossible racket, those sharp pings of reckless collision, like sparks. I’m a tourist in a foreign country, living in a foreign room, which seems to swell as the bee darts from wall to wall, as if the impact of the bee’s buzzing were somehow moving the walls, the room breaking into oddly shifting planes, the white walls dissolving into sheets of light. Or are they solidifying? Hard to say, it’s so bright, nearly blinding, in the way of films when something catastrophic, usually nuclear or magnetic or God-wrathful, is about to occur. The only thing I can see is the bee, now black as burnt stone, buzzing still from wall to wall like a pinball or a wind-up car, engined by bee rage, with a sole purpose: to sting, to sting. To stick a barb in the skin, my skin, to cause me maximum damage, maximum pain. I swat away at the bee with great vigor, with desperation even, my heart thumping, trying to kill it before it stings me. But I can’t kill it, it wants to live, and even when I try to submerge the bee in a basin of water—Where did water come from, all of a sudden? Where the basin?—the bee won’t die. Instead, it roars like a motorboat on overdrive, careening toward my right arm, my writing arm, and I wake up.    Most of my dreams bore me. If I remember them at all, they make their excuses and slip out the door before my head leaves the pillow. But the bee. All day in that foreign country I keep thinking about the bee in the dream. I’ve been afraid of bees since childhood, morbidly afraid. This fear a sudden frenzied infilling, skin, bones, nerves ablaze, threat levels at the boiling-over point, the sort of intense sensation that usually has its roots in a harrowing formative event. A bee sting, for example, with unbearable pain, life-threatening swellings, an ambulance, a shot of adrenaline.    It’s strange, though, I don’t remember having been stung as a girl. I only remember the fear, which must have taken shape in my imagination, a bee-shaped fear formed around the pain I merely imagined, anticipated, rather than experienced. Much of my girlhood spent on the lookout for bees, with the fear of being stung like a shadow-hound at my heels. Each spring the azalea bushes of my hometown exploded in lusty reds and pinks, city parks overlaid by thick tapestries of tulips, bluebonnets transforming swathes of meadowland into starry skyscapes. Like most people I’m drawn to flowers, their colorful exuberance, their shapeliness and alluring odors. But because blooming invariably brings bees, springtime is for me a season of dread. Hidden among its sweet fragrances is an odor of menace, like a serpent lurking in the underbrush of every garden.


   Like any good tourist I drag myself out of my foreign room and down one of this city’s many hills, to visit one of its many churches. This one a small white gem designed by a famous seventeenth century architect and considered an understated marvel of that era’s dramatic style of architecture. Unlike any good tourist, however, I fail to research the hours of operation and arrive to find the church closed. I stand at the far end of the courtyard with the other clueless visitors, many of whom are resting on steps beneath the side passageways in respectful silence. The stone surrounding us seems to shimmer with a pale luminescence, and it feels as though we’ve been dropped into an elaborately carved ivory box, the space scaled to the human but canted toward the divine, the perfect intertwining of intimacy and awe.    The church’s unusual concave façade blends ingeniously into the pair of arcaded walkways siding the courtyard. Two stories of white rounded Moorish arches cover the walkways, these topped by a third story set back from the arches below and punctuated by small square windows. Between these windows and the roof are bees. Smaller bees resting on the decorative scrolls above the cornice of each window, larger bees inside a row of circles inset into the brick, just below the roofline. Bees again, exquisite bees carved in stone. And looking rather regal, their bodies striped in delicate rings, wings arrayed as a velvet cloak, legs splayed, starlike. I wonder what precisely the bees symbolized when the church was designed, and which eminent personage or patron they were meant to evoke when encountered by the worshippers approaching through the courtyard.    Returning to my foreign room, I’m tempted to do a deep dive into the historical symbolism of bees in architecture and other art forms. Extensive research would undoubtedly lead me to an array of informative facts, illuminating the rich cultural significance of bees throughout time. I could incorporate this data into the essay, to bolster my narrative and lend the piece an aura of scholarly authority and historical facticity. However, after a cursory wade into “bees symbolism” leads me to the biblical passage in the epigraph, I abandon the undertaking. I’m aware that my impulse to gather facts is fundamentally a form of avoidance, a detour, a distraction from my real curiosity about these bees, which is, at heart, personal. Seeing bees, of all things, carved in stone over the walkways of that radiant church courtyard brings back the bee in the dream. The bee buzzing away in anger, battering the walls of my foreign room, and the bee of the dream bring back my fear. Seeing bees has always plunged me deep into my most primitive self, a panicked animal intent on self-preservation, mouth warped from shrieking, head whipping wildly back and forth, legs practically running out from under me as I try to flee in all directions at once, arms flogging the air with the desperation of a wingless creature trying to fly.    It’s humiliating. The panic, the loss of control, the loss of dignity. As soon as I spot a bee, I am gone, emptied out, and the fear pours in. Through every opening, every pore, it pours in, it fills me up, spills me over. The fear, which I never seem to outgrow. It follows me from childhood to college, follows me from city to city and into middle age. The older I get, the more ashamed I am of the fear. Therefore, I hide it from everyone I know, myself most of all.    Yet, somehow, I seem to have passed the fear on to my own child, who is more terrified of bees than I am. As if fear were genetic, rather than learned. But if fear is learned, perhaps you can pass it on without meaning to, even to the person you love best, pass it on silently, unknowingly, despite your best efforts at concealment and repression. Just by being close to someone you can infect them with your fear, the way you can pass on a gesture or a manner of speech. Or a virus, and whatever you do to keep the fear from spreading, they end up with the same symptoms, the same imagined pain.


   Across the ocean, back on familiar soil I visit a neighbor, a mathematician. His area of expertise is something called Topological Quantum Field Theory Invariants of Knotted 3-D Objects. He attempts to explain this complicated field to me in the simplest of terms, via an analogy in which a fire ant walks on a big table for a very long time, and the many paths the ant walks somehow result in the study of all possible table tops. Alas, beyond a low-level degree of abstraction, my brain develops a cramp and starts limping, so the mathematician’s kindly dumbed-down explanation ends up explaining nothing about his complicated field.    What it does explain, however, is why years ago the mathematician’s wife decided it would be a good idea for him to get out of his head and out of the house and take a course in beekeeping at the city’s botanical garden. And why he ends up one of the rare people who takes a beekeeping course and actually becomes a beekeeper. He gives me a tour of his hives, which he’s set up in a secluded corner of his backyard. Several simple white boxes, which look like short filing cabinets, rest on squat wooden stands. I take a few pictures, and some footage of the hives. It’s a sunny afternoon in November, a relatively idle time of year for beekeepers in our part of the country. But the bees, he says, are quite busy inside the hives, keeping the queen warm, surrounding her in a fluctuating cluster of beating wings. A few stray bees waft around the entrance slits at the base of the hives, and I swear I can hear the dull drone of their buzzing. The mathematician assures me it’s an airplane, high overhead. Nonetheless, I keep my distance.    Unlike me, the beekeeping mathematician is not afraid of bees. On the contrary, he is fascinated by them, respectful of them, awed by them. Those simple white cabinets in a corner of his yard hold a complex alien world, an alien species with an alien biology, which the mathematician tries to understand, little by little, year after year, by observing it in action. The unit of that alien species, he tells me, is not the individual insect but the entire colony. Bee behavior, and bee survival, depend on the hive functioning as a collective. A bee by itself will die overnight, but thousands keep each other alive. Because an individual bee exists not to think or act for itself but to serve the larger unit, the mathematician thinks of bees as essentially altruistic. Biologists have an instructive name for bees and other social insects: Superorganism.    I ask the mathematician if he’s ever been stung. Of course, he says, rather dismissively. But bees sting for only one purpose: to defend the hive. The clichéd B-movie image of an angry swarm of killer bees is a figment of the human imagination. He goes on to explain that when a hive becomes overcrowded or inhospitable, half or all of the colony will leave with the queen. Bees “swarm” not when they are on the attack but when they’ve departed their old home, en masse, in search of a new home. A swarm of homeless bees is docile, he tells me, and will rarely sting.    In the same way some people love driving motorcycles for the adrenaline rush, the mathematician loves catching swarms and resettling them. He particularly enjoys walking through a swarm. It’s like being inside a cloud, he says. A cloud made of bees, tens of thousands of them. I try to imagine it, this cloud of bees, a cloud thick and dark with their flight, the sound of their buzzing like a storm. It sounds terrifying, I say. On the contrary, he says with a smile. Standing in the swarm, that spectacular display of the species’ instinct for cooperation over self-interest, is a great comfort, a privilege. Though not a religious man himself, he can understand why people think of beekeeping as a spiritual enterprise.    The beekeeping mathematician is not afraid of bees, not at all. But he is afraid for bees. Capitalist innovation, he ruefully informs me, causes devastating colony loss every year. Agricultural pesticides kill bees. New commercial developments in what were once safe habitats kill bees. Migratory beekeeping kills bees. To help pollinate the massive volume of almonds grown on the West Coast, for example, over a million honey bee hives from the southeast are loaded onto trucks and transported across the country in the dead of winter. The bees wake from dormancy unnaturally early, feed only on almond blossoms instead of a more diverse diet, and are exposed to a different region’s toxic pests and pesticides. This journey over what the mathematician calls Death Road is for millions of bees a one-way trip, a fatal dislocation inflicted upon them by humans in the name of profit.    The mathematician shows me some honey frames from the previous year, thin wooden oblongs filigreed in the intricate hexagonal lacework of the honeycomb’s amber-colored wax. He encourages me to come back in the spring, when the city is in bloom and the bees are buzzing from flower to flower. I tell him I’ll think about it. Just before I leave, he hands me a small jar of honey harvested from his hives. Creating a single drop of honey takes about 1500 flights, according to the mathematician. Think of the number of trips, the tremendous effort by so many bees, required to fill a five-gallon bucket, he says, shaking his head. It never fails to amaze me.


   I force myself to watch videos of swarms. Swarms in flight, the frantic electricity of their communal passage, as if the air were awash in buzzing embers. And swarms at rest, noisy seething clumps clinging to branches and eaves and fire hydrants and bicycles. What is it that most alarms me about these images? The ominous rumble of the swarms’ wingbeats, for one thing. The nature of their flying, its chaotic zigzaggy suddenness. And their sheer, overwhelming numbers, the teeming mass of them, angry seeming, each of them with the potential to sting, like a vast force of tiny soldiers piloting tiny fighter jets.    All this footage, which I find terrifying, even menacing, has been captured and narrated and posted by enthusiastic beekeepers across the globe. Unlike me, they are far from terrified or menaced; quite the opposite, they are exhilarated, awed, grinning like children. Most extraordinarily, they talk about getting stung with the amused matter-of-factness of someone getting caught in a passing rainstorm. “A couple of good ones,” is how one beekeeper describes some recent stings. Apparently, if you are not one of the rare people with an allergy to certain insect bites, getting stung by a bee is unremarkable.    So where does my fear of bees come from? Surely a traumatic bee sting lies locked away in the vaults of my repressed childhood memories. I call my mother, hoping she’ll shed some light on my bee terror. Was I ever stung by a bee? I ask her. No, she says without hesitation, not that I can remember. What she does remember is a vacation she and my father took long ago. Somewhere tropical, she says. We were in the car, and your father was driving, and a bee flew in through an open window and stung him. Oh, so it was Dad who got stung, I say. Not me. On the privates, she adds. Really? I say. I’ve never heard this story. Oh, yes, a bee stung your father on the privates, she repeats, her tone more than a little gleeful. I imagine my father clutching his crotch, reeling in pain, panic-stricken, swerving, losing control of the car, crashing into a palm tree. What happened? I ask. Nothing, she replies. It hurt and then he was fine.    Since I’ve never been stung, what am I really afraid of? Why did I dream about a bee in a foreign country, and why did I remember that dream? Why did I so badly want to kill the bee in the dream? Because I thought it wanted to sting me, is the obvious answer. Why did the bee in the dream seem angry, and how did I decide that a bee could even possess emotion? Why was I certain that I was under attack, innocent me, the target of a small, pointed, elemental rage? Now, of course, I know better, this is my scary B-movie idea of bees: angry, vengeful warriors coming at me with an intent to harm. Real bees neither angry nor vengeful but cooperative and communal. Stinging is what a bee does when threatened, and in the dream I’m flailing and swatting away at it, trying to drown it. I can hardly blame the bee for wanting to sting. Bees sting to protect their home, their food, their young. They act only on the instinct for self-preservation, perhaps the most elemental instinct that exists.    As most people know, when bees sting, they leave behind their stingers. They also lose part of their intestines, along with other crucial viscera; therefore, bees sting only once. Then they die. The mathematician likens a bee’s sting to a sort of suicide mission, a sacrifice for the greater good. For some, the instinct for self-preservation proves fatal. It certainly did for my father. He may have recovered from his bee sting, but he was far from fine. For much of my childhood my father was on a suicide mission of his own, a long, slow vanishing, which he finally accomplished with a bullet to the head in our back driveway, days after I left home for college.    In the long years leading up to his death my mother wore herself out trying to keep my father from disappearing. She ferried him to doctors, including an old-school psychotherapist who didn’t believe in medicating depression. She attended a transcendental meditation seminar with him and said nothing when he closed his eyes during family dinners to meditate. She searched for him when he didn’t come home, on one occasion finding him parked at a lake, a gun in the passenger’s seat. She threw that gun in the lake. When he couldn’t bear being home, she checked him into a psychiatric facility; when he couldn’t bear the facility, she brought him home. She drove him to electroshock therapy, after which he forgot for a while that he was depressed. She babied him, bullied him, begged him, threw up her hands, cried. Everything she did, everything she was going through, she kept from my siblings, but she told me. I was still a child, more or less, but I was her eldest, responsible and capable, more like an older sister to her than a daughter. When she confided all this to me, my mother, without meaning to, infected me with her fear. I barely remember that fear now, but I know it was there, a father-shaped fear formed around a pain I couldn’t imagine and didn’t dare anticipate, a pain that, however desperately I tried to flee, would sting me soon enough.    Given that his instinct for self-preservation ironically compelled my father to self-annihilation, it’s hard to see his act as a sacrifice for the greater good. If anything, as soon as my father pulled the trigger, he sacrificed any hope for the greater good, leaving us with the lesser good. Without my father, my family felt radically diminished, deserted, dimmed, as if a dense cloud had drifted over us. Heavy and gray and wet, that cloud, and it never left. Without even realizing it was there, I lived under its shadow, its constant pressure. Pressure to fill the hole my father had left in my family. Pressure to put a good face on it, as my mother miserably advised, to make the best it. Pressure to be responsible, capable, reasonable, remarkable, invincible.    This was the weather of my adulthood, an endless low pressure system. Overcast with possible showers was the forecast for most of my days. Often the pressure overwhelmed me and there were storms. The storms of my twenties, when I eloped and got pregnant; the storms of my thirties, when I had an affair and got divorced; the storms of my forties, my fifties. Before I knew it, the storms had moved inside me. The storms of my self, or my non-self, as the case may be. Those storms still raging, still trapped inside this aging cage, storms always whipping me into a frenzy of bolting light, the smacking blades of air, one against the next, battling temperatures, and all the pressures, God, it’s grueling, the storms ever-senselessly roiling, and with such a dramatic banging about, no wonder I’m always exhausting myself.    No, it’s not the bees, real bees or dream bees, who feel the anger. It’s me. All the time, under the surface. It’s me who’s intent on harm, on stinging any time I feel threatened. I am the dream bee, the B-movie bee, ever the bee, the bee wearing its stinger like a sword, the bee tapping at the window glass, wanting to get in, get out, get even, the hectic flights, the flitting from flower to flower, bee flatter, bee bright, bee buzzful, the bee in me coming at anyone I perceive as an enemy, like a bomber, a bomb, a torpedo. It’s me I’m really afraid of, angry me, responsible me, capable me, ricocheting off the white walls with small electric pings, me the one dying to unwall the room, to light up it up with the majesty of my rage. If only rage were so useful, if only it could move walls, worlds, anything at all.


   On a cool spring morning I sit on my porch, my computer and my notebook at my elbow. A dogwood tree, an azalea bush in desperate need of a trim, a mammoth gardenia shrub, and a scrappy peach tree are all flowering in my front yard, but no bees in sight. I search the internet for images of those stone bees I’d seen above the white church courtyard walkways. In a close-up photograph I discover a detail I hadn’t noticed: stone flowers, all the same size but each slightly different from the next, as if a garden of assorted blooms were budding along the bracketed cornice on the underside of the eaves. The flowers arrayed in a neat row just above the bees, as if enticing them to pollinate, the bees pointed upward toward the flowers, as if at any moment each bee might lift off from the stone and take flight, poking its proboscis into the center of the petals to gather nectar for honey.    In the back of my cupboard, I find the beekeeping mathematician’s gift, unopened. I dip my finger in the little jar. As honey drips onto my tongue, I imagine the thousands of flights made by thousands of bees in service to its making. I taste the intense floral sweetness of those flights, their stickiness, their golden tang. A few species of honeybees pollinate a majority of the world’s food crops, but the human species has become increasingly careless with their lives. And for what, exactly? However favorable the profit margins, there is no greater good for which it would be worth sacrificing this remarkable Superorganism. In a sense the term “beekeeper” must move beyond the merely descriptive to the aspirational. We must, all of us, be beekeepers. We must keep bees on the earth, keep them thriving, keep them safe from extinction. If we don’t, we will soon follow.    The barb-ended bee, for much of my life a persistent terror, but a small nuisance for most, fairly easy to shoo out an open window or, with a jar and a CD box slipped over the opening, to capture and release outside. Funny, in the last year I finally get stung, twice. Though the experience is painful, a pulsing sharpness out of nowhere, like a bit of hot glass wedged under the skin, it hurts and then I’m fine. I survive the shock of the sting, and I survive the imagined unbearable pain. Which turns out to be eminently bearable, just as the beekeepers claimed, nothing at all to write home about. Though here I am, writing about it, that reasonable, bearable pain, like most pain encountered in an ordinary day, an ordinary life.    Now I don’t dread the sting as much as I once did. I’ve gained at least a bee-sized portion of perspective, made a bee-sized hole in my fear, which isn’t much, but more than nothing. And as if on cue, as if the words unspooling from my pen were a summoning spell, a bee zigs by, swerving over my notebook, careening like a balloon fast losing air, and zagging off out of sight. In and out a second, a third time, this bee, the only bee I’ve seen today, as if to remind me that bees are always nearby, as is the prospect of a sting, the promise of honey.