By: Jessica Schley
Sometimes you just have to stop and stand still. When you have a thousand-plus bees crawling all over you, for instance.
Tonight I suited up to go feed my bees. In the Winter, bees don’t have nectar to collect from flowers, so beekeepers often feed them sugar water using a special feeder inside the hive. I feed my bees organic cane sugar. They deserve the best.
They live in a Langstroth hive in the backyard of my parent’s place. I live in an apartment, so they offered their yard with fruit trees and a stream running through it for the bees to call their home. My parents are awesome like that.
The bees hadn’t been checked on in a while, so I was curious to see how they were doing, and a bit worried the colony might be dwindling, as I had neglected them of late. I carefully opened the hive’s lid, gently prying with my hive tool. The lid was pretty tight; bees tend to seal the lids on to keep the hive more secure. As I opened the top and peered in, I saw that the hive was thriving; not only that, but they were super aggravated with me. Who was I, to show up unannounced, out of the blue, after months of nocall, no-write, no show . . .
I quickly poured in the sugar-water and gently replaced the lid. As I walked away, it began. There was a loud, eery hum. There was a crawling feeling. I looked down at my arms and body through my face screen. My bee suit, which is white, was speckled and dancing with black patches of little angry soldiers.
My Dad had come out to watch and learn. I told him to walk away, that I needed to stand still for a few minutes to let the bees calm down and go back to their hive. He did, and quickly. He crossed the bridge above the creek and shut the back door behind him.
I sat there. I remembered the advice of my beekekeeping friend, Catherine, who had the same thing happen to her early one morning. She just stood still. So I told myself, as my heartbeat rose and my anxiety level threatened to spike, that all I needed to do was trust in my suit, be still, and everything would be okay.
I had to keep my eyes open. If I closed them my imagination ran away with me. So I stared out into the dusk, watching hundreds of upset bees trying to do their job and defend their hive. They marched around and around in circles on the face screen, centimeters from my nose and eyeballs. I could feel their wingbeats on my cheek, on my eyelashes, on my chin. They wanted in. They wanted me away from their hive. They wanted vindication for the injustices of my indecency, my rude barging in of their sacred temple.
For about 20 minutes I stood there, hands out, palms up, staring ahead. It began to feel surreal, like a test. There were parallels to human life. The bees began to resemble the challenges in my personal life; if I swatted at them and lost my cool it was inevitable I would be stung. If I remained calm and tried to train that inner still, things could work out okay; you just had to trust in the “bee suit” to keep the stingers away from my skin, as it were.
So I stood there, telling myself over and over to “trust in the suit” and it felt like when I sometimes tell myself to “trust in the universe” – as if the suit or the universe is the only thing standing between me and a thousand stingers or a thousand ill-wills of the world.
They were beginning to subside; the plan was working. The majority of them had realized I wasn’t putting up a fight and they might as well get along back to their hive a few feet away. But the bravest ones, the angriest ones, the ones with the longest heritage, millions of years worth, of dying in defense of their colonies; they stuck with it and with determination.
It was exactly that moment when I felt it. Six little legs crawling on my neck, up toward my ear, into my hair. So much for that trust in the suit. Suddenly the urge to freak, scream, bat and collapse in a panic surged into me. If one bee had gotten through, more could be following. The adrenalin hit me hard. My heart was suddenly racing and I began to tremble. If it stung, I would have to brace for the inevitable flinch, and then, the melee of beestings to follow.
She crawled around on my neck. She crawled up into my hair and back out. Then I couldn’t feel her any longer. My heart slowed down. She was definitely still in the suit. And yes, I was petrified. But there would be nothing worse for me than being rash; so I stood there, and focused on breathing, and focused on the bees that were outside of my suit; how many were left, and if there were fewer. I could hear the difference as they dwindled; the pitch of the buzzing lowered and lessened in decibal. Being inches from my ears, it sounded like Daytona to me, but in reality it must have actually been very quiet.
Maybe he read my mind; I was hoping he would come back out to check on me. My Dad opened the back door and looked out. In a quiet voice I said, “please bring me the smoker and the bee brush. . .” He carefully followed my instructions to light the smoker with kindling and walked it over to me. He puffed smoke onto me with the smoker as I carefully brushed the remaining 50-odd bees from my face net, arms and legs. We walked back to the house and I unsuited. Not a single sting. Not one.
As I stood inside recounting the story to my mortified mother and my amused and heroic father (he braved the situation with no suit at all to save me), I looked down onto the dining table next to my hat.
She was slowly crawling on the table, looking for home, disoriented from the smoke and tired from the battle. I scooped her up with my hat and nudged her off into the cool evening air.