The Beekeeper’s Wife

My partner Kellie keeps bees—a lot of them. Actually, she does more than keep them. She catches swarms, she cuts colonies out of walls and re-homes them into hives, and sometimes, when she gets a call about some honeybees living in a tree that the owner wants to cut down, Kellie drives on over with a chain saw, and comes home with four feet of the trunk—a ready-made beehive complete with a well-established colony.

Log Hive We’ve got three of these trunk-hives on our property, and I’ve often tried to convince Kellie that she could sell one or two of them for big money—I mean, who wouldn’t want their own bee log? Of course, there’s no way to maintain the trunk-dwelling colonies. You can’t put on a bee-suit, break into the hive and see how they’re doing. You just have to let them do their thing. Then, when a colony dies, they leave behind a ready-made honey-smelling home for the next swarm that comes along.

Spring has come early in Olympia and for the last two weeks, whenever the sun comes out, Kellie’s phone starts ringing. People call because they have swarm in their yard, or they want to borrow a frame of comb, or they can’t tell if their queen is laying.

I’ve learned about bees by osmosis, from hearing Kellie on the phone and watching her suit up and go to work, but I’ve never handled the bees. Someone’s got to watch the kids, and even on the days when Kellie is capturing a swarm in our neighborhood, I have my hands full trying to keep Stump from running into the middle of the action. Over the years, my knowledge has expanded but my competence is limited.

This is why, last Friday afternoon, Kellie surprised me with her request. She had called me at work to let me know that she had a couple of swarm calls in a neighboring town and wouldn’t be home until after dinner. “When you get home will you look around the backyard?” she asked me. “One of my hives is fixing to swarm.”

“Sure,” I said. Checking is easy. I’ve come to love the thrum and excitement of a swarm as they depart their former home, followed by their steady silence once they’ve clustered on a branch. “But what do you want me to do if that happens?” I was expecting that she would explain to me where the nearest bait box was, but she had a different idea. “Catch them,” she said, like it was the simplest thing in the world.

I was as flattered by Kellie’s faith in me as I was bewildered by the suggestion that I would intuitively know how to guide a swarm of honeybees into a nuc box, and that I could do so with a toddler at my side.

Frame of BeesAs it turned out, there was no swarm that afternoon, but her suggestion haunted me through the weekend, and every so often I asked her a question to clarify what she had envisioned for me.

“So you really think I could do that?” I asked her.

And later: “You mean I wouldn’t even need a bee suit?”

And later: “I don’t get it. I would just shake the branch and the bees would magically settle in the nuc?”
“Yes,” she said, “or you can always scoop them out with your hands.”

I kept thinking about an interview I’d read with Ann Patchett many years ago about her novel The Magician’s Assistant. She explained that her impulse for writing this book came from her observation that spouses gradually acquired the skills of their partners. Over time, we take on traits of the person we’ve married. We can channel them, imitate them, become them.

I remembered this on Monday, when temperatures reached 72 degrees—swarm weather. I came home with Stump at lunchtime and put him down for a nap. The evening before, one of Kellie’s colonies had swarmed and gathered high in a fir tree, way up at the edge of our line of vision. She couldn’t catch it, but she’d been keeping an eye on the cluster, hoping the scout bees might discover one of her baited boxes. When I called her from home that afternoon, she asked me to go outside and see if they had moved.

I could no longer make out the cluster, but I could see dozens of bees darting around the same tree. “They’re going nuts up there,” I told her. “Is that the same swarm or a new one?”

“Can’t say,” she said, and instructed me to look in all the nucs to see if they had settled into one of those. I reported back that they were empty. I was disappointed. I so badly wanted to be the one keeping things under control.

Log Swarm
Thousands of bees in flight. Can you see them?

Ten minutes later, as Stump still slept, I got curious and went outside again, but before I could make it to the back of the yard, I was distracted by a loud, insistent buzz. They were right outside the gate, thousands of bees darting through the light. Though I know that swarms aren’t angry, I find their motion and noise—which carries the volume of a thousand unified intentions—intimidating. I called Kellie again. “You’ve got a situation,” I told her. I cautiously opened the gate and stepped to the edge of the action. “They’re outside that log hive by the road.”

I was preparing myself to follow her instructions, to step into the role that she had imagined for me, the role where I wasn’t a bystander, but an apprentice, a fellow beekeeper. “What should I do?” I asked.

“Are they flying toward the log, or away from the log?”

“Toward it–Oh!” i said realizing that this particular log-hive had been empty for a while. Are they making a home?”

“You tell me. Are they going inside?”

“They are!” I said. I couldn’t believe it. “It’s that swarm from the tree? They’re moving in? I don’t have to do anything?”

Twenty minutes later, when Stump woke up from his nap, I took him outside to verify. The bees had settled into their new home and now just a few of them buzzed back and forth from the entrance. I was half relieved that the bees hadn’t required my assistance, half disappointed that I’d been denied my chance to rise to the occasion.

bees in hand
Bees in the hand.

Later that same afternoon, after discovering yet another swarm in our cherry tree, I placed Stump on my hip and watched as Kellie tenderly scooped a handful of bees into the nuc box. Though dozens of annoyed bees darted past her face, the ones on her hand crawled quietly into the new home she had prepared for them. After repeating this three times, she climbed down the four-foot ladder, took off her gloves, and trusted that the rest of the colony would follow.

Now that I’ve seen how it’s done, next time, I swear, I’ll be ready.

The Sweet Bee

When people learn that we keep bees, they think we’re in it for the honey.

That may have once been our intention–a pantry filled with honey jars–but so far we’ve only harvested enough to sweeten the occasional pot of tea. As you know, the bees are fragile these days, weakened by pesticides, nosema, climate change, and so we let them keep their honey; when there’s extra, we share with weaker hives, hoping they might make it through the winter. Honey is sweet, it’s true, but we’ve learned the bees have other things to offer.
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When I was a child, insects existed for squashing, for running away from in fear, or for burning with the white-hot eye of a magnifying glass. I never learned to distinguish the bumble from the hornet. As far as I was concerned, bees were mean, and honey came from the store.

But Smoke, my five-year-old son, knows bees. On sunny days, he says excitedly: The honeybees are out! He knows to inspect their legs for pollen, and that busy bees are good news. Today was one of our first sunny spring days, and I watched him approach the hive, carefully, and drop a rock in their water tray so that they would have a place to rest as they drank. When he finds a dead bee on the ground, he picks it up and holds it tenderly.

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These bees have made their mark on me too, have helped me to appreciate the beauty of spring in a newly functional way: flowers are food. In our yard, plum and cherry blossoms seduce our bees and we witness them drinking nectar, gathering pollen, helping to ensure that my family will eat fruit from our own yard this summer. With the bees’ help, there will even be a surplus, and I will remember them as I preserve the plums and berries, storing away sweetness for the winter months.

And I’ve come to respect the bees for their inherent selflessness. The bee does not live for the bee. The bee lives for the colony. They don’t share our self-absorption, don’t fret over how to spend their limited days, over how to balance family time and me-time. They serve. That’s all.

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The queen is in the middle.

When I travel now, I look for honeybees, and am surprised and relieved when I find them. Seeing a bee perched on a lavender plant in Waltham, Massachusetts, or on an ocotillo in Phoenix, Arizona tells me: this place has been bee-approved. Wherever you smell the thick scent of wax and heat, nectar and propolis, you are home.

As it turns out, honey is a minor perk compared to the gifts the bees have delivered to my world: their steady hum, their motion, their treatment of beauty as a purpose, not to conquer, but take and give at once.