Body, Soul, and Bees

Facing this blank page, I’m a bit cowed. It’s been months since I wrote anything but a FaceBook post, and with the calamities colliding in my life, I’m not certain my ability to write has survived. Let’s see:

“Are you sitting down? You should be sitting down!” My husband’s voice crackled over the phone, his call reaching me in the middle of a weeklong stay in at a mental health facility.

Behind the quilt live thousands of sweet bees.

For reasons that were unknown to me then, my moods had been cycling crazily for sometime, and I thought a stay at an inpatient facility where I could try to get my medications stabilized would bring me back to some sort of mental stability. I was wrong.

John’s voice continued excitedly, “You have bees! A swarm flew into the wall hive today!” Bees…bees!? I sat down heavily. The facility, advertising itself as a place where folks like me could come for help, had lied. It was a dumping ground for terrified psychotics off the street, and I’d been stalked over several days, and a patient friend of mine attacked. The assurance of “a Safe Place” had been fraudulent and I was torn between heading home and trying to make the place work for me any way I could.

John’s news hit me with a double whammy of startlement and utter joy. The wall hive had been vacant all winter, but was filled with honey from the previous colony that had perished late the past summer. Now, new bees had found it and made it a living wonder again. I cried, sitting here, phone clamped to my ear, sputtering, “Really? REALLY!!”

I imagined them there, in the wall of my room, glittering amber in the yellow combs. On their fairy-like wings, they carried the first breath of hope I’d felt in a long time. John told me his story of seeing them, massed on the wall of the house as they marched into the small bamboo entrance tube that led to the hive I’d had carved into my wall several years ago. On the face of the hive was a pane of glass, covered with a dark quilt. When I came home, I would be able to watch their lives quietly and imagine myself part of their coherent, happy community.

I came home a few short days later. John had suffered a terrible fall with broken ribs and bruised everything-else, and while I felt unstable and unsteady, I needed to be home.

The bees were there to greet me, as exuberant and industrious as bees are. I slept at night to the sound of their humming, and to the scent of ripening nectar in the combs. The small screen at the bottom of the colony allowed sights and sounds and scents to fill my room with the songs of their joyful increase. 

Gobnait moves in!

Only five weeks later, the bees had filled the hive to its capacity, and were sending out their own swarms. The first launched high and away, and I blessed them as they left the yard. The second two swarms that came only ten days later landed at MillHaven, both in our Bartlett pear tree.

I’ve been gathering swarms for years now with confidence and grace, but everything had changed that year. It seemed like every system in my body was failing, quickly, for reasons none of my doctors could discern. My body no longer wanted food so I simply had to force it. My mind was becoming more and more addled and foggy. Some days, I could do nothing but lay in a fog and grieve over whatever was becoming of me. My fatigue and lethargy were staggering, and I had energy to be up and about for only a few hours a day. Recently, my hands had begun shaking and my feet—once as sure as goats hooves on steep ground—stumbled on my hillside, throwing me off balance onto my knees.

As I reached up to begin scooping the swarm bees into my palms, my hands were fluttering so badly that the bees seemed as confused as I was. Balanced on a short ladder, my body seemed to sway with every little breeze. I can’t do this anymore. My heart cried inside my chest. What has happened to me that I can’t do this anymore?

A simple swarm collection that should have taken me minutes took hours, and it was only with the help of a friend that I was finally able to move the last of the bees with a special vacuum into my Gobnait skep on the hillside. Because of my deep affinity with bees, I’d rarely been stung in the collection of swarms. But not this time. My hands and cheeks bore the stings of agitated, confounded bees as I’d emptied them into their new home. They felt the difference in me, and I felt it, too.

Medicals tests galore over a span of three years had shown nothing. By this time, I figured my doctors had decided I was a hypochondriac and didn’t much listen to me. I was the only one who was still asking “Why??” I asked it of myself every minute of every day.

Schiffer Tree bees claiming their new digs!

The gathering of the second swarm was easier because I did not attempt it without help. This small swarm I placed in my Schiffer Tree hive (which mimics a log) out in our front yard.

Over the summer, my life and my abilities spiraled. I tried to not leave home because even a short trip to the grocery store felt like a climb up Everest. There was little I could do, and so the “little” is what I did..

And therein was the unexpected grace.

 Reduced to watching clouds and bugs and pollywogs in our bathtub pond, my intimacy with the small began to blossom and deepen. As much of society faded for me, nature crept in and filled the gaps. 

I had believed I knew the natural world. But in my physical and mental collapse, I came to understand I knew very little. Being forced into a life of sitting, mourning, and struggling, the glint of sun on a fresh spider web, the sound of a squirrel munching a nut outside my window, the flash of a beetle’s wing all took on a sudden importance and a sudden—how to say this—holiness.

Eckhart Tolle says that if you can’t come into presence, it may be because you have not suffered enough. Now, I was suffering enough, and presence was pouring herself into my life through the breath of a breeze, the sight of the hummingbirds on our many blooming flowers, the sound of bumble bees in the tomato plants. All these things I’d witnessed many times in my life, and happily! Yet I had not truly “seen” any of them.

Stopping to watch deeply, because I could honestly do little else, I began to feel as well as see the wonder of every simple moment. Outside of my own skin, the world was vibrantly alive and pulsing. And I was beginning to understand myself as a part of that vibrancy and pulsing in an entirely new way.

For everything that was taken from me, something much more valuable was replacing it. I’ve been a spiritual seeker for all of my life, but only now was all that work and study beginning to bear fruit. And I knew deep in my bones that if I had not had nearly all of my life collapse around me, I would never have voluntarily slowed down enough to allow in the deep and sacred silence.

After the wall hive sent out her last swarm, I was crestfallen to find she had not replaced her queen, and I watched from May forward into late summer as the number of bees dwindled. Fortunately, her daughter colonies in Gobnait and the Schiffer Trees were thriving beautifully. 

I felt deeply connected to the affairs in the wall hive, sensing they were mirroring my own journey into some kind of oblivion. Yes, they were failing, but as I watched them in the cover of evening, I could sense their continued enthusiasm for life. They continued to bring in nectar, continued making propolis mounds at the floor of the hive, continued working the combs. The vibration of their hum was something I now felt more than heard, moving through my body with a gentle current.

Where the doctors had been useless in finding any answers to my health challenges, my husband stepped forward with the sobering lost key: he sent me a study of the long term effects of radiation to the head and neck. More than thirty five years ago, I’d had the expanse from my lower jaw to my upper chest radiated for cancer that was supposed to be terminal. 

No one spoke to me about the problems with this sort of radiation, because I was never expected to live long enough to experience them. While cancer remained clear in my medical chart, no doctor had ever brought it up. I took a copy of the study to a neurologist, who told me he believed radiation was most likely responsible for most of the problems I’d been suffering, from body through mind. He said this before I could even mention the study in my hands.

I instantly adored him for his insight, even though he told me that while he could trace radiation as the source for most of my mind/gut/body problems, there was little modern medicine could do to address it. I would continue to worsen over time. That would be my path. 

It has taken me a few months to assimilate this. Mostly, I’ve reconciled what is happening to me, but on many days, I still feel so very frustrated by all that I cannot do. On these days, I go deeply into my meditations, and deeply into the small vibrancies of the natural world. We have house spiders in our bathroom to whom I offer water on Q-tips. I feed peanuts and seeds to the many birds in our yard, and marveled at the small face of a juvenile raccoon who showed up at my open bedroom window just a few nights back, paws on the sill, and trilling softly.

In August, I noticed the first change with my wall hive. For no reason I could imagine, there were more bees. In the evenings, the vibration of their hum became slightly more pronounced. At first, I figured that the daughter hives were robbing their mother’s larder for honey, yet the number of bees living overnight in the hive continued to grow. 

For a few weeks, I didn’t look behind the quilt to see what the bees were up to. I was too tired and too low—a wave that comes over me and lasts for a time, then leaves with no reason, returning to me a clearer head and a few hours of energy.

But the wall hive is full now, bursting with bees and lush with ripening honey! I spoke with my bee colleague and friend, Jacqueline Freeman, about this perplexing turn of events, and she said, “Oh, my gosh! I have the exact same thing happening in one of my tree hives! I’ve never seen this before!”

We spoke of ways the bees could have accomplished this with no queen in the hive. There are a few possibilities: First, the hive may have had a queen who chose to delay laying eggs for four months. Unheard of, but possible? Then, there was the chance of a very small swarm moving in late in the summer. Unlikely, as I am bound to my room much of the time and I should have seen such a thing. The last possibility is the oddest, but most compelling: in rare instances, worker bees (we call them “maidens”) can lay an egg and grow it into a fully fertile queen. Maiden bees are unmated, yet the mystery of bees allows them this miracle now and again. Immaculate conception, for real.

Scientifically speaking, we of course cannot say what has occurred in our two resurrected hives. Regardless, it is truly amazing to us, and a testimony to all that we can never fully understand in and of this world. They were failing, both hives. Now, both have been reborn unexpectedly.

Last week, I discovered that I have heart problems to add to my list of other maladies. I have no idea what the future holds for my body, but the wall hive bees show me that we truly can never know what the future may hold, against all odds.

Speaking to my counselor about all of this, about how stunned I am to be moving through all this with fortitude and gratitude for the teachings of trauma, I asked him if I were simply losing my mind and not seeing reality at all anymore. Harry said, “No, Susan. You are moving beyond your mind. Many people never do. It is not an easy task.” He went on, “I wonder if your bees have something to do with all of this. They steep you in a totally different kind of consciousness, and may be helping you along this path.”

For the past few nights, I have watched a tattered bee with a missing leg and wing stand solidly on the floor of the wall hive, fanning moist air out of the bottom screen with her one good wing. Her sisters stand in fluttering unison next to her. It is honey time, and there is much evaporating of moisture needed to cure the honey.

Even in her small, broken life, there is still good for her to accomplish, and she is doing it. May I be as courageous and reconciled as she to what is.

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