My morning started out like anybody’s morning: I took out the trash, cleaned up dog poop, filled the bird feeders, and checked on the two ponds to see if the raccoons had partied in them the night before. Then I hauled out my treasured five-dollar, garage-sale Crockpot and put a chicken up to cook. I paid a few bills, cleaned the kitchen sinks, and brushed my hair and teeth. And that was the end of the normal part of my morning.
Carter had gone out fishing for the morning, so I pulled out my bee suit from the closet and put it on. It is a combination white jacket and wide-brim, veiled hat. When my granddaughter sees me in it she bursts out laughing and says, “Gramma-Gramma, you look really silly!” When I tuck my pant legs into my socks, I imagine I look even sillier. In the bathroom, I dug through the drawers until I found an emory board and a nail file. On my way through the kitchen, I stuck my oldest, least-often-used wooden spoon in my back pocket…
Outside, the autumn morning welcomed me with foggy, dripping skies. A few tiny patches of blue peeked through, and the air was sweet and welcoming. I headed for the garden shed and grabbed a hand clipper because I always grab a hand clipper anytime I go into the yard. You never know…
I grabbed a small plastic stool and climbed the few steps to the upper yard where the beehive rests. Plunking down the stool right next to the hive entrance. With the handle of the wooden spoon, I closed off the entrance to the beehive so that it was small enough to only let a few bees pass through at a time. It is a safety precaution for fall. You’ll see why in a moment. Then I sat down and readied myself for war. Yes, that is the term I’ll use for it. War.
Our yard has been invaded with yellow jackets in the past few weeks. Mostly, I could care less about these predators, but they have decided that my hard-working bees make quite the fall buffet. Beneath the hive, the yellow and black, missile-shaped marauders cruise, back and forth. Back and forth. Should a honey bee tire and fall, and not make it quite all the way to the hive entrance, the yellow jackets snatch them up and bite off their heads. I read that they suck the nectar out of their bodies, then move on to the next and the next and…well, you see where this is going. My bee teacher told us that she has lost entire hives in one afternoon to armies of yellow jackets.
All summer, I watched the yellow jackets cruise beneath the hive, clearing away the dead and dying bees beneath. All summer, the numbers of dead and dying bees were few, and the yellow jacket numbers were smaller, too. I felt we had a sort of uneasy equilibrium going. Nature’s Way, and all that.
Suddenly, the weather turned cold and wet. The blooming flowers died back or fell over. The bee hive is making its last valiant effort to collect as much pollen as it possibly can in these next weeks, because when the pollen stops, the bees must depend on whatever the collected in the summer to get them through the long and dark winter months ahead. Bees are flying in cold and drizzly weather, exhausting themselves on their foraging flights. These forager bees literally work themselves to death to get the pollen back to the hive. It is estimated that once a honey bee reaches the foraging stage of her life, she probably has only two weeks or less of life left. In this time span, she may fly up to 500 collective miles. That’s a long way to go for a creature who flies in spite of all the physical evidence that claims that such a feat should not be possible. In the past week, I’ve watched many, many bees fall down exhausted before they make the last two feet to the hive door.
So I sit with my eyes on the hive entrance watching this fall pageant of winged industriousness and joyous increase. Hundreds of honeybees come and go from the hive, literally tumbling over themselves to get into and out of the hive. I am reminded, humbled, that we humans, too, have our autumn season of harvest. We, too, have to collect as much as we can to make it through our winters. Sometimes, we harvest food. But most of the time, we harvest the end results of our hopes and dreams and efforts, and hope that we have gained enough of these moments—and that they are healthy enough moments—so that we may feed on the wisdom of our soul’s harvest during hard times. Some people never learn, never reflect on what they have harvested from life, and so when hard times come, they cry and wail and blame and suffer. Some do not survive intact.
And so these bees are not just bees to me, but metaphor and mentor for me in my own struggle to become more every year, to harvest experiences that will feed me in those times of inner winter. My own life, in my own mind, imitates a small piece of the valiant struggle I witness before my eyes on the wooden landing board of the hive. Here is effort, dedication, loyalty to a higher calling (the hive itself), selflessness—the good kind, and plain hard work. What person would not benefit from these qualities in any season of any year?
To the right-hand side of the hive I sit, holding tightly to my weapon of choice—the emory board. In the blur of brown and grey bees, I see a flash of yellow, and I spring forward with my emory board and smash a lurking yellow jacket just before he grabs onto the legs of a pollen-loaded honey bee. One down. For the next hour, it is me and the bees and the emory board and my gloved fingers. The bees race past me, the sound of their humming like the rush of wind past my ears. Sitting so close to them, I can feel the vibration of their song in my chest and throat. Many bees land on my arms and legs to rest, and I lift them gently to the hive door.
Every few minutes, scanning around my feet and at the hive entrance, I see that damned flash of yellow, and I leap into action. I kill four of the bastards. Then eight. Maybe a dozen in the full hour. I think of how I must look sitting up there: a gray-haired woman on a green stool, yelping, smashing and calling out, “Take that, you rotten bastard! You won’t get another of MY bees! Not on MY watch!”
Honestly, I can’t help but feel a rush each time I thwart a kill. This is not a feeling I believe Nature knows—this intense dislike for the “enemy.” And I know that what the yellow jackets are doing is what they are made to do. But I made a choice years ago to insert myself into the equation of life in my yard when I feel called to do so. Sometimes, I can watch Darter finish off a small, wounded mouse; or watch fledglings on the ground find their own way into life or death without intervening. Sometimes.
Other times, I say to myself, “Not on my watch” and I step in and do whatever I can to take one small life out of the mouth of another life. Some days, I decide who will live, and who may need to go hungry that day. And I do not question my decisions.
I am far past the days of serious activism. But I think that tiny interventions—taken when we feel called to them—are a big deal. At least a big enough deal. So while I am not stopping Monsanto in its tracks today, I did stop a dozen yellow jackets from making autumn a lot harder for an earnest bunch of bees. And I helped a banana slug out of the street this morning. In small steps, the world is healed. I really believe that.