In 2008, my garden was decimated by a small twister that took out over 30 trees. One of the trees, a stately black walnut, was home to a colony of feral bees. The trunk had been ripped in to several pieces, and the intricately constructed combs were in disarray. A beekeeping friend, Jon, attempted to rescue the colony, with the intention of hiving it somewhere on the property. His best efforts to find the queen and move her with her courtiers were thwarted: it appears she died on impact leaving the colony to dwindle and, already weakened, to die. Unable to save the colony, Jon removed big clumps of comb and our children sat around the increasingly sticky kitchen table squeezing pounds of oozing honey into a bowl. We bottled the honey and it is the best I have ever tasted.
This brush with bees inspired me to become a beekeeper myself. It was not a straightforward path: first, the night course I was to take was cancelled, another to be offered in the spring. When spring came I could not take the course as I was a little preoccupied with a very sick son, Gregory, being treated at Johns Hopkins for Stage IV Lymphoma. Eventually, however, Gregory made a recovery and returned to school.
Another spring came round, and the bee keeping course was offered again: I signed up immediately. Coincidentally, my children’s third grade teacher, Rosie, took the course too. She had been Gregory’s teacher when he became sick, and took a particular interest in his sister, Alessandra, when she joined her class a couple of years later. She has an excitement and enthusiasm that is almost childlike, certainly infectious and, on April 19th, 2015 Rosie and I successfully hived our very own colony of bees, and have tended our “girls” this year with increasing fascination and affection for these extraordinary creatures. In addition to co-parenting several thousand 6 legged delights, we have become fast friends, working together more and more smoothly as we open up the bee hive, examine each frame of comb for eggs, pollen and honey.
Rosie’s family has health challenges of its own, and we can speak to each other about our experiences in a kind of shorthand, a waggle dance of sorts. Having that implicit understanding of each others day to day difficulties, the exhaustion of continuing to function with as much grace and gratitude as can be mustered, having that inner knowledge, it takes the weight off our shoulders, if only for an hour or so. Having borne witness to how painful, frightening and fragile life can be ensures that Rosie and I are not great dwellers on the unhappy and we both tend to look for the joy in life, even on days when it is particularly elusive.
This beekeeping business helps us in that endeavor, watching these industrious, collaborative insects drawing out their beautiful comb, hexagon by hexagon, filling it with pink, yellow, even blue-ish pollen, storing honey to nourish the tribe in the depths of winter, keeping house, spic and span, each with a defined job to do, carried out efficiently, coherently, elegantly. I find myself talking to my bees when I am near their hive, or if they are working next to me in the garden foraging for nectar and pollen, their legs and abdomens liberally dusted with the good stuff. When we break open the hive and disturb their good offices, they fly up and around us and it is not fearful, but provokes a feeling of great warmth as we are enveloped in their thrumming cloud.
As Rosie and I continue our journey of care for family members with a chronic illness, on an often bumpy and rocky road with unexpected twists and turns, we have found a happy place, one we occupy together in empathetic companionship, striving to find the good, the pure, and the joy in life with our girls, our bees.
Laura Leach was born in England but currently lives in Baltimore. She is a horticulturist, a fundraiser, and freelance writer. She is married to Paul and is blessed with two children, Gregory, now 13, and Alessandra who is 10.