A GIFT OF BEES
ON a bright spring morning, I arrived at my house to find a cluster of people in my front garden gazing into the pink blossoms of a Camellia japonica as though gazing into a burning bush. The camellias were glorious and deserved notice, but this seemed a bit much. A neighbor walked over to the car to greet me. She had an open book in one hand.
``You missed the excitement,'' she said, walking into the garden with me. ``A swarm of bees has settled in one of your camellia bushes. I'd seen you out working in your garden earlier, and I wanted to warn you, although according to the encyclopedia, they aren't dangerous when they're swarming.''
Her young son, in a state of high excitement, motioned me over to the bush. The bees had arrived flying ``straight down the middle of the street like a big balloon,'' he said.
I approached the bush tentatively, less than enthusiastic about the tiny visitors. There, in the center of a camellia bush, was the swarm: a moving, pulsating mass about the size of a football that glistened darkly in the midst of pink waxen blooms and shiny leaves.
My neighbors and I watched the bees for a while, then I went inside to work. I'd only recently moved into the house, and while all the boxes had been unpacked and the bird feeders put up, my computer (which I hoped held the beginning of a new book) had been sadly neglected.
The move itself had been a wrench. I'd left my narrow town house in Savannah's historic district to move to Ardesley Park, an area of spacious older houses, live oaks, and old gardens. I'd loved my other house, but I began to long for more space, light on four sides instead of the back and front views of a town house, and a real garden. I wanted the scent of old roses, the blue haze of larkspur, and a mint bed growing in a cool spot under a spigot.
From my desk, I could see the camellia right outside my window. But at that point, the industrious little bees were beginning to seem a nuisance. All during the day, people stopped by to look at the swarm. I don't know how so many people knew about them so quickly. Little boys in particular seemed fascinated, and one even threw a stone at the swarm before his mother grabbed him and hauled him away. My work was not progressing, so I decided to read about bees.
I learned that swarming bees can be handled easily, as my neighbor had said, and were not a threat. Before they swarm out of the hive, they fill up on honey and carry as much in their honey sacs as possible. This makes them quite gentle, and I assume heavy, and they seldom sting. I read this with some relief, since at that moment two ladies and a teenage boy were standing in the garden only a foot away from the swarm.
Bees like to cluster on young trees while they're finding a place for the hive, but I had to assume that since the camellias in the garden are quite old and range from 10 to 15 feet high, that to the bees, they qualify as trees.
THAT evening, at a local restaurant, I saw a friend from my old neighborhood and told him about the bees. ``I used to keep bees,'' Mike said. ``Your bees are migrating, looking for a new hive.'' He explained that at the end of winter, bees experience a population explosion and outgrow the hive. ``A beekeeper would be delighted to have them now.''
``Do you want them?'' I asked, offering a gift I wasn't sure I had the right to offer. Perhaps bees are in the public domain. He declined my offer; he was on his way to Switzerland, testing a new plane. He did say, though, that according to tradition, the one who finds the bees, claims the bees. ``You should consider keeping them,'' Mike said. ``You'd love it.'' A gift of bees, I thought, how strange.
It was dark when I returned home. I walked over to the camellia bush, peered inside, and looked at the swarm. In the glow of the streetlight, the bees looked like an elegantly beaded evening purse: black, gold, and shiny.
Later, lying in the darkness, I thought about how what had seemed merely a nuisance early in the day had become something of value. It was as though straw had been changed into gold, the transmutation effortless. The nuisances had become my charge. I felt proprietary and, in a way, responsible for the bees.
My telephone rang early the next morning. A neighbor who was concerned about the bees had called the local science museum, which was sending over a beekeeper to collect them, unless I had someone else in mind. No, I said, I only know one beekeeper, and he's busy testing planes, working with bigger wings.
I went out to check on my bees. In the soft morning light, the swarm was still in place, but a few bees were flying in and out of the bush and seemed agitated. Sometimes bees stay in a temporary place for weeks; sometimes only for hours.
I realized that I didn't want them to leave. There was something unfinished in my mind about them, something intangible that was caught in my subconscious like a delicate fabric caught on a thorn. I couldn't place it, but there was something I needed to understand.
Then, I remembered. I realized what had been worrying me, what the connection was that I hadn't been able to put together.
SEVERAL years earlier, I had been trying out my wings as a writer. I was earning my living as a journalist for a small-town paper, but trying to get my own work published.
My editor had sent me out to do an article about the Trappist monastery in Conyers, Ga. Stopping work in the late afternoon, I stepped out of the bright sunlight and into the shadowy chapel where beeswax candles scented the quiet air. Light shafted through stained-glass windows and pooled onto the floor in brilliant colors.
When I left the chapel and walked down the shaded path to the gift shop, I could hear the bells of the cattle across the fields. I bought bread freshly baked by the brothers, along with miel de fleurs honey, a fragrant mixture gathered from the myriad wildflowers that grew in the surrounding fields. I wrote my article and then I wrote a poem, called ``Benison.'' It was about honeybees, honey, and complex empires. It was my first poem to be accepted by a major publication.
The circle was made. I realized what the connection was, and was amazed that it took so long for me to remember. I watched the bees for a while, then went back in to work.
When my doorbell rang a little later, it was with a sense of dismay that I answered. I wasn't sure I wanted the people from the science museum to take my bees. After all, I was the finder. Shouldn't I be the keeper? But I'm not an apiarist, although the more I learned, the more intriguing it became.
In the 10,000 years that humans have been harvesting honey, our sense of wonder at the complex geometry of bees has never ended. But I had a reprieve. It was not the beekeeper at my door, but a neighbor, welcoming me to the neighborhood. The bees had reaffirmed my presence once again.
WHEN I went back out to check on the bees, the garden seemed oddly deserted without any watchers. But even before I looked, I knew they were gone. Only a few stragglers wandered in and out of the abandoned bush. I had missed it: The swarm had vanished. I walked around the bush, unable and unwilling to accept the loss. Yet, I knew they weren't mine to keep. They had been a gift, and like all unexpected pleasures, unwarranted.
I looked around my garden. The camellias were in full, glorious bloom. A mockingbird sang from the top of the chimney, and redbirds had found the bird feeder. And the link in the circle had been forged.
``Between the feast that we may share, something shining hovers there, the word unspoken, fair and morning.'' The bees had been a blessing, mine for a little while, and then gone. Like a benediction, bestowed.