After all of our readying and careful preparation, the hive sits outside with a What Now? feeling about it, an unnaturally bright near-tangerine beside all of the stripped-down greys and hard-fought greens that have made it through the winter.
It is one thing to make a hive ready for the bees but quite a different thing to have them fill it, and before beekeepers learned to split and breed colonies artificially one means of populating a hive was simply to leave it out like this, in the hope that a passing swarm might settle inside it. (There’s a guy I know who always keeps a hive empty in his garden, just in case.) But even then, when feral colonies were not so unusual, this strategy must have met with only very limited success. Since what were the chances, really. That a swarm of bees would happen upon this place, here, out of all other possible hollows and hidden darknesses.
There are records of rituals and traditions employed to hurry the process, or at least add a little action to it. The practice of tanging – taking pots and pans out from inside the house, and beating them around the hive – was said to attract swarms, and persisted well into the 19th century. Across the Ancient Mediterranean there was widespread belief in bugonia, the spontaneous generation of a swarm from the carcass of an ox or a bull. An account survives from Ancient Rome in which Florentinus lays out detailed instructions for this task. The beekeeper should find a building ten cubits high and the same in breadth, he writes, with equal dimensions on all sides. There should be one doorway and four windows, one in each wall:
Bring into this building a bullock, two and a half old, fleshy, and very fat. Set to work a number of young men and let them powerfully beat it, and by beating it let them kill it with their bludgeons, pervading the bones along with the flesh.
Every aperture of the animal should then be stopped with cloth, including the eyes, before the door and every window of the building are closed and sealed with clay, that there may be no entrance or vent to the air nor to the wind. After three weeks all entrances should be opened, and light allowed to pass through until the air and every thing inside the room becomes animated; then the door and all four windows should be closed, and sealed again with clay.
After 11 days the room should be opened to the air once more, whereupon it will be full of bees crowded in clusters on each other, and the horns and the bones and the hair and nothing else of the bullock left. Imagine that room, all shocked with light. Bees don’t, of course, appear spontaneously from the bodies of dead animals, and it is possible that the bees in Florentinus’ account were only swarms of flies feeding on the flesh of the dead carcass. But still. I begin to wonder if there aren’t rites of passage to becoming a beekeeper; things that have to happen, for a hive (or indeed a beekeeper) to become a place that the bees, that animating force, might dwell.
But try stepping aside from the hive for a moment, and the whole colony, which is difficult to look at in one go. I want to focus instead on a single bee. If you took out a knife and opened her body up you probably wouldn’t recognise very much. Honeybees have an open circulatory system; blood and breath are combined in that yellowish liquid you see oozing when you poke. But now look at her heart. A honeybee heart has five openings and a one-way valve; not something Florentinus nor anyone else in Ancient Rome could ever have known, at the time, without the aid of microscopes. But considered like this, beside the bee with her chest opened, his account of the room with the four windows and door appears suddenly as though it were describing a process of bodying the bees forth. Imagine that door, those windows, opening and closing.
‘I was just thinking about you,’ he says when he picks up the phone. ‘No joke.’ I’m lying on my bed with the phone balanced over my left cheek.
‘This is a good time,’ he says. ‘I’ve just ordered fish and chips; I have to wait while they cook.’ He is my friend in the Derbyshire dales and I say how are you and he lets out a long sigh so that I think for a moment that there’s no-one there, and then he speaks.
A lot’s happened since I last saw him. ‘This isn’t the life I expected,’ he says. ‘It’s not the life I thought I’d lead.’ I imagine him sitting on one of those moulded plastic chairs, the chip shop door swinging and jangling. ‘Anyway,’ he sighs, and there’s silence again. ‘How are you?’
I try to think of something that’s happening after everything he’s just said to me.
‘I dunno,’ I say, collecting myself. ‘Not much. I had a date last week.’
‘A date?’ He says, and I hear him grinning at the fish and chip counter about me. ‘And – how was it?’
‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘OK.’
‘Huh,’ he says, ‘That doesn’t sound good.’ And he starts asking questions about it. I try filling in gaps, but it’s all sounding hollow and I’m tailing off somewhere in the middle when he interjects and says, ‘But – isn’t it just about having a feeling? Something that comes, just from being around someone?’
Yes, I want to say. Yes, yes. But how often does that happen? I scratch my head, adjust the mouthpiece. I’m thinking of the windows in that room again, those things getting animated.
‘And how are the bees?’ He asks.
‘Oh, we’re still waiting to collect them. Spring is so late this year, it’s not warm enough yet.’
Even now, with our systems of production, payment and collection, we’re still held in sway to the weather.
And then I practice my bee anatomy on him. Honeybee brains are not just in their heads but spread in collections of ganglion cells throughout their body, so that maybe even their kneecaps think. There are thousands of tiny crystals inside their abdomens (salmon have them too, and monarch butterflies) that have been shown to hold a steady magnetic orientation when in the presence of an external field.
‘What, like the earth’s field?’
‘Yeah, like the earth’s.’
Or like some people, or particular places, or things; the way we’re drawn towards them. But then I’m not thinking about the bees anymore, and I’m supposed to be thinking about bees.
‘Earth magnets,’ he says. ‘Nice.’
I ask if the fish and chips are ready and he says yes, they were ready ages ago; he is not inside the fish and chip shop anymore, he is at the top of a hill, and all of the fish and chips are in his stomach.
To get a colony of bees these days you don’t have to play around with windows and light or metal pans, you just have to order and collect it, and I order mine from a couple named Lucy and Viktor who live on a farm near Banbury. When spring finally arrives my friend Luke comes down and we drive out to collect them together.
Luke is a beekeeper himself, with hives across London. We were introduced by a friend a few years ago, and during the time that I lived there I became a kind of apprentice to him.
‘I’ve been dreaming about hornets all week,’ I tell him now, as we fiddle with the Satnav.
‘And bees. I keep dreaming they’re in the house, or in a box, and I’m looking around for my bee-suit, but I can never find it.’
We can make the Satnav work but we can’t find its voice, so I look down at the route and up out of the window as we drive, which keeps me from feeling sick and us on the right road, until the GPS fails, then we’re on our own in the middle of an ocean of oilseed rape.
Luke pulls up at a lay-by as I reach into the back for the hand-drawn maps and scribbled instructions we brought with us as backup.
‘We’re supposed to follow the signs; Lucy said follow the signs.’
We follow the road until we’ve definitely gone too far, and then we follow it back again. Everywhere is a primary-colour haze of field and sky, and at one point we think we see a hive ahead, but it’s only a fencepost.
The honey farm is a small island of concrete and corrugated iron in the undulating yellow, and we reach it only after Viktor has driven out to come and find us. There are deeply grained chestnut trees beside the gate with their tips just beginning to find their leaves, and we spot a row of weather-warped beehives at their base.
‘We didn’t see any signs,’ I say to Viktor as we clamber out of the car. ‘Lucy said follow the signs.’
He shrugs. ‘There are only signs on a Saturday.’
The yard is scattered with pieces of farm equipment in various states of disarray. There’s a barn and a row of crumbling outbuildings with their windows dusted over so that I can’t see if they’re in use. ‘Where I keep my honey,’ Viktor says, seeing me eyeing a large shipping container. He points to a large padlock on the front: ‘For the thiefs.’
He has a Polish accent so thick that I wonder if he’s putting it on. He’s wearing a full-body bee suit with the gauze hood flipped back over his reddened face, and the front unzipped to waist height. It’s deeply spattered with wax and pollen, which gives the impression of some kind of slaughter having taken place, or of an oversized playsuit.
‘So, who’s the beekeeper?’ He asks, looking us up and down.
I point to Luke, and Luke points to me.
Viktor turns and disappears into a shed.
‘You want tea?’
The inside of the shed is piled high with pieces of hive, and it stinks of wax and wood. There’s a desk at one end where a man in glasses and a boiler suit raises his hand to us, and a set of shelves with a kettle and a microwave at the other.
‘Honey?’ Viktor pours tea into brown-rimmed mugs and drops a large spoonful in each.
‘How long have you been keeping bees?’ I ask, looking up at a poster of a shiny motorbike leaping over a mountain ridge and wondering where Lucy is.
‘Since I was birthed.’
‘His parents were bees, weren’t they Viktor?’ shouts the guy in the corner.
‘Shh.’ Viktor says, and smiles to himself. ‘Don’t tell my secrets.’ And then he gestures to me,
‘Come – we get your bees.’
Behind the shipping container the ground is dusty and there’s something in the air that catches my throat like there might be particles of pollen drifting over from the rapeseed sea. There’s a box between us, closed. ‘You’re not wearing gloves. Won’t you get stung?’ His hands are red and swollen like his face was when I could see it.
‘Me and bees; we same blood.’
We’re both cocooned in bee-suits now, with the hoods up and the masks down so that I can’t tell if he’s smiling anymore. More boxes are arranged in neat rows around us, stained rough reds and greens and looking a bit like improvised towers in a miniature and makeshift city. These are nucs. A nucleus is a small colony created from a larger one; each box contains a queen and a body of workers along with a series of wooden frames packed with eggs and larvae and honey stores – not that we can see any of this yet.
When Viktor takes a tool and prises the lid open there’s a sound like a thousand nerves tightening and stirring. He moves fast, without stopping. Takes a few frames out and empties them by jerking, so that the bees change from clinging solid to thick dark liquid pouring back down into the box. We’re disturbing them. Dark points of agitation fly up, away from the hive or straight for us, and my gauze mask thuds as one hits and holds, buzzing. They are blurring. There are more of them. I can’t see them separately anymore; can only feel the size of the disturbance spreading until it surrounds us, and then we are inside it, and the air is alive with them.
When the one-way five-entranced heart of a honeybee dilates, blood enters and is forced up into the head, creating a pressure that flushes it back down into the body. Without a backbone or in fact any internal skeleton at all, the bee’s insides are composed of a series of organs and gaps, which the blood-breath fluid surrounds and fills.
As we drive home with a box of bees in the boot I try to find words for the feeling. ‘It was like – a warmth. Like there was a warmth coming from them. Have you felt that before?’
Luke isn’t into mysticism but he gives room to experience, and he likes to wonder about things. ‘Well, it would’ve been warm in the hive – the bees have to keep it at around 35 degrees for the brood to develop, and it’s cool today; perhaps you felt heat escaping?’ Which makes sense, but doesn’t fit with the feeling. It wasn’t coming from the hive itself, it was coming from the space around me. Perhaps warmth isn’t right; I can’t match my words to it.
The limits of our world are set by our own bodily experience, writes the philosopher Martin Buber, who in I and Thou sets out to describe a particular quality of experience. When I encounter Thou there might be a person or a place or a creature before me; what matters is not the thing itself but the quality of the dynamic between us, which acts with a directness such that categories of inside and outside, self and world collapse; I have entered a world of pure relation.
Buber draws on the Ancient Polynesian concept of Mana to help elucidate his meaning. Mana has been characterised as a supersensory force that moves into people and things and imbues them with an effective force. This force cannot be touched or seen, less even described; it can only be bodied forth. In a culture where objects could possess spirits and households find themselves visited by the dead, there was nothing supernatural about Mana; it fitted neatly within a worldview which considered that bodies could be acted upon by things they couldn’t touch or see. The limits of our world are set by our own bodily experiences; and also our categories for them.
When we stop at a service station I open the boot and crawl inside to put my nose up to the metal grille where a hundred upside-down bee feet are clicking and tapping. They are beautiful, I want to say. I am amazed by them. I say it to Luke when we’re driving again, but my eyes are too wide, it sounds overblown, and silly. This multitude of tiny legs, each one no more than a hair’s breadth.
Back at home we take the box and open it again, and the bees lift up as we slip the wooden frames out and place them inside the waiting hive. The opened cavity seems impossibly vast after the tight-packed box, and the frames don’t fit; they’re too square and wide to hang widthways down the tapered sides, so we rest them like a stack of playing cards along its base and I catch sight of the queen, then, before replacing the lid.
That week it turns unseasonably cold. It is so cold that people stop in corridors and on buses to mention it. ‘So strange,’ they say. ‘What’s happened to the spring?’
I walk around with a lightness in my stomach, stopping at windows to peer out at the clouds roiling until it rains, a lot, so the bees can’t go out to gather food; and what about that steady inside temperature they have to keep?
I start checking online weather reports every few hours, and they start warning of freezing temperatures. So then there I am running out at night under a bitten moon, heaving blankets and string just like the old beekeepers who brought things out from inside their houses and held them up to hope with. I’m standing in Wellington boots and I’m wrapping and tying around the barrel of the hive and I don’t open it up to look inside because I don’t want to take any more heat from them.
Like this the hive sits and it looks just like before, except now with the blankets around it and those frames inside like an organ grafted. And I watch it, for a week; not believing they’ll make it through, not knowing how they could; wondering at the shock and the cold and the violent displacement of arriving here, coming to this place.
‘Bee’ is an extract from a book-length work in progress
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