“Any volunteers? It’s full of protein,” said the beekeeper, holding up two small globs of larvae on something that looked like an exotic fork or comb.
“I’ll try it.” A woman raised her gloved hand and unzipped her bee hood.
A murmur rippled through the similarly suited crowd at the Los Angeles County Beekeepers Association Beekeeping 101 class.
We fell silent as she chewed.
“It’s…not very good…it tastes like leaves,” she said.
The larvae looked alien and white and we looked alien and white. It’s impossible not to channel a lonely B-movie robot when stepping inside the bee suit, with its strange square veil stretched over a “Dr. Livingston I presume” style hat and Jackie-O inaugural-length gloves that are heavy leather, not satin.
My dear friend Lisa is starting her very own hive and needs a friend to help her, so I travel to a beautiful rambling spread beneath the Wildlife Way Station once a month and learn about smokers and drones and excluders.
There’s no more useless feeling sometimes than being a poet. I space out while the master beekeeper explains how to clean the smoker without lighting oneself on fire, but will take up these weird fragments of trivia to my grave:
“Do NOT use powdered sugar and water in your feeder. The bees will become constipated. Use C&H cane sugar.”
That a bee might become constipated is almost as wild as a bee having mites. Today the beekeeper pulled the frames out of the bee box and held them up to the light to check the swarming brown bodies for parasites the size of half a rice grain. Passing a couple frames to a pair of eager students he exclaimed, “Get some sun in those cells!”
The students held the frames toward the sky, like weird amber mirrors. I imagined that his command involved some impossible scientific feat, that we had to allow the sun into the most forgotten, hidden and most obscure parts of ourselves.
I hoped he might say it again.
It’s easy to lose someone in a crowd of net-headed beekeepers, but I found Lisa and we crowded close to watch a drone birth: a single antennae waving from a plugged up cell.
I learned that the living bees eat the dead—another marvelous protein source.
A few weeks ago, I’d been deathly afraid of being stung when I finally donned the bee suit. Although every “I’m afraid” experience is preparation for the shark cage, I still remember getting stung when I was 12 years old, reading “A Catcher in the Rye” on our screened in front porch in Massachusetts. I remember the pain and then the cold. The ache in the arms and back. But today the bees swarmed around me. The sound is really sort of mesmerizing and wearing the bee suit gave me some odd power of invisibility, as if I lived in a cone of silent strength. And besides, I’d been told that these were polite bees with good, gentle, decent bee genes. And they were slightly loopy still from being “smoked out” of their hive, which dulls their aggressive hormones. The hormones smell like bananas.
The beekeeper who wore a hood but no gloves, opened the pollen drawer at the bottom of the hive, a tray overflowing with gold nuggets of dust and a few marauding ants. (Ant invasion can be stopped with repellent called Tanglefoot–a word I liked).
The pollen drawer! Nature doesn’t have to try. It’s gorgeous and practical, functional and mysterious.
I felt sad when I had to leave early, change out of the bee suit Lisa had loaned me and drive all the way across the city to a workshop on “Ulysses” and the stream of consciousness technique. As I drove through the green, pollen-rich canyon, on my way to experience another kind of richness, I felt that being a poet was a pretty good thing, a way to inhabit a lot of worlds. As the great poet Frank O’Hara once said:
“Grace to be born and live
as variously as possible.”