Sunday morning was the kind of morning that makes you feel better about summer’s end and reminds you of just how beautiful autumn is. The air is so fresh and every conscious inhale is a delight; your lungs snap into each breath like teeth biting into a cool, crisp apple. The light is changing, the sun’s slanted rays cascade clean and bright bringing a figurative life to all the browning flowers and fields, and the smell of organic decomposition mixes with fiery color.
I’m thinking all this from the passenger seat of a pick-up truck driven slowly down an unpaved road and through a cranberry bog in West Wareham by a beekeeper named Linda who was kind enough to take the time to show me the Tao of keeping bees. Linda was in Marion on Saturday giving a talk on bees, and I was there at her house on Sunday in pursuit of a cover photo for this week’s edition.
We are wearing matching white bee suits to protect us from an unlikely swarm of agitated bees, and I have a mesh for my head if I found myself tensing up in trepidation, although to avoid that effect I had my zoom lens already attached to the camera.
Just walk with purpose and confidence, Linda advises me, as she leads me behind the stacked wooden hive boxes. That advice would run on a continuous loop in my mind for the next half hour.
A steady stream of smoke billows from her shiny metal tin full of smoldering twigs already acting as a calming elixir to the bees flying around us.
With winter approaching, Linda explains how she has to bolster the colonies by supplementing their food supply with a natural sugar water to keep honey production going and to strengthen the bees for the cold months when their natural food supply dwindles before disappearing altogether. It’s an intervention of sorts, essential for the survival of Linda’s bees. She says the bees are already slightly agitated by the drop in pollen and nectar production as cranberry blossom season is over and flowers are dying off.
So attentive is Linda as she gingerly lifts the lids and slides out the frames of honeycomb just heaving with bees to inspect the bees’ progress since she last checked them yesterday. As I stand here taking in the scene, spellbound by the mystery of it all and energized by the adrenaline, I think about my boy … and how he would absolutely hate this.
As a child on the autism spectrum, his sensory dysfunction disorder and hypersensitivity to sound means he’s got sonic ears. The stingers on the bees aren’t the main reason the insect provokes his extreme phobia; it’s also the buzzing that (over)stimulates a strong sensory response, causing a physical pandemonium to spread from head to toe and a flight response that is so strong he would likely jump off a cliff or back into traffic to avoid it.
As Linda speaks about bees, how they ‘group think’ and respond as a holistic entity to stimuli, she explains the different aspects of caring for a beehive – controlling parasites, keeping the entrance blocks clean, and finally harvesting the honey – and I feel enthralled and inspired. As honeybee populations struggle for survival in the millennium, so do the keepers of bees as they scurry to strengthen the colonies, these priceless pollinators of crops like Linda’s cranberries.
I watch Linda practice her ‘beecraft.’ She talks about the bees, unaware, as if they are her children almost. She knows when they are getting agitated and what to do in response. She soothes them with gentle puffs of smoke and talks about how, when in a docile mood, you can almost pet the fuzzy back of a bee.
She says as a beekeeper she is guaranteed to be stung on a somewhat regular basis. Naturally, I start to see the figurative similarities of motherhood.
Every day now she mixes her sugary formula for the bees so that the next generation of baby “winter bees” can grow strong enough to endure the winter.
She pours the golden liquid into the first clear glass canning jar, flips it over, and carefully affixes it to the outside of the front entrance to the hive. As I watch, another thought is superimposed in my mind. I see my own hands pouring a mixture of liquid nutrition into a bag, securing the cover, and hooking it onto an IV pole.
And sometimes Linda puts the sugar water into a large plastic zipper bag, carefully places it inside the hive, and cuts a slit so the bees can crawl inside. A vision of me taking my plastic enteral feeding bag of supplemental formula and, grabbing onto the tube and threading it through an automated pump, in my mind I attach it directly to my son’s g-tube.
I’m always amazed by the manifestations of parallel symbolism in life … like the Universe is keeping it real and reminding you of the things that matter most at the time.
At home, much like in the hive, keeping the boy’s weight up and his nutrition adequate has been a struggle wavering on war. With such a limited food intake due to sensory aversions and preferences for certain textures and tastes, we can barely keep a calorie in him long enough to store any fat because all the boy wants to do is ride his bike and his scooter. And as we are now in the throes of adolescence, the virtual winter of his childhood, this is my chance to bolster the boy up as much as possible to send him strong into adulthood.
I’ve met with his school, the food service director, the lunch ladies – all in an effort to try to get more substance into the boy during school hours. I’ve had open discussions with people close to the family, asking them what they see and where they would make changes in the routine to benefit the boy. I have books and Internet articles and finally the support from another person living in the house whose dedication to the boy matches my own.
With all of this in place, you’d think the ‘boy hive’ would be teeming with metaphorical honey – but it’s not. And, just as if Linda were to stop being so attentive and devoted to the bees the buck would stop with her, it would stop with me.
Someone told me she thought the boy needed me home more, especially at night, and that perhaps I should find a regular 9-to-5 job. Another suggested I just needed to manage my time more effectively. And I say maybe it’s a bit of both that is needed to avert the painful sting of failure and the reward of a hive drenched in honey – the reward of the beekeeper.
I feel at this point in the season I have to take off my protective bee suit and tend to my hive “with purpose and confidence” as Linda suggested, and trust that there will be honey enough to keep us all going forward into the next season of life, whatever that will be.
I thanked Linda for the thrill of the introduction to her bees, the hives, and for the great cover photo. She gave me an information booklet and a special plastic cup for the boy to catch a bee with and study it beneath the magnifying lid, thinking perhaps it may help him overcome part of his fear. I didn’t mention how she had somehow helped me reckon with my own fear – the sting of failure in my boykeeping and the collapse of the proverbial colony. Instead, I told her how inspired I felt after observing her beekeeper’s ritual.
Linda and I plan to reconvene after the winter to discuss the progress of the bees. And hopefully, by then, the literal honey of the beekeeper and the figurative honey of the boykeeper will be flowing, and marching into spring with “purpose and confidence,” we’ll avoid another sting. Our colonies will thrive.
By Jean Perry