Thursday, October 31, 2019


I'm immoderately squeamish about insects. The sight of an unwanted leggy creature in my apartment makes my throat constrict and my pulse race. I have to summon a hulk-like energy to smash the intruder decisively with a wadded tissue, because if it survives the onslaught I will—guaranteed—flail my arms involuntarily in self-defense and send it flying to safety. In my adopted city, wolf spiders bearing mandibles the size of breadboxes show up unexpectedly indoors, and I've had more than a few run-ins with an ant colony gone rogue.

Growing up on the prairies, the plagues of grasshoppers that came in the dusty days of late summer filled me with revulsion, and I was in constant terror that one would inadvertently slip down the collar of my long-sleeved shirt (something that [at least] once happened to my dad, who reacted much as I would at the sticky cling of its limbs and the pudgy body trapped convulsively under cloth). On summer nights, I'd pull the covers up above my face so that the pervasive abhorrent coffee-brown moths wouldn't crawl into the cocoonlike safety of my ear canals (something that had allegedly happened to my grandmother). And the inexhaustible swarms of prairie mosquitoes left my limbs misshapen with allergic swellings, which I could never manage to avoid scratching raw.

Still—or perhaps consequently—I have a profound fascination for the kind of insects that form a collective unit, like ants and bees. Their nanobodies and mechanical workings are like nature's version of an alien crossed with a robot, governed by the mysterious and compelling force of the hivemind. If there was ever any logic to the old belief that animals are mere machines [thank you Descartes, you lunatic], surely it would hold truest of all for insects.

When I was growing up, we had a fantastic playhouse with a missing wooden slat in its siding, which left a hollow opening that was quickly adopted by bumble bees for a number of years. I was skittish around them, and crept in as unobtrusively as I could in the sure expectation that they would rise up and attack if they noticed me. But I only remember them ever stinging my brother; I don’t recall much of the episode, but in my mind is an image of him prodding at the wounded wall with a broom, followed by an image of him running surrounded by angry little specks (and me running just ahead). The siding has all been replaced by sheets of tin by now, so the bees’ reign of terror is over.

Bees became my personal meme during the last year of my undergraduate studies. It’s a little disconcerting just how much I refer to bees in old journals from my creative writing classes (which my prof initially misread as ‘beer’ for most of a journal entry). They also make a major appearance in a short and silly silent film I made during that era.

Happily, at some point I ran across east coast artist Ruth Marsh’s bee taxidermy project, and gained some gorgeous miniature art pieces in exchange for found bee corpses. I like the idea that the little creatures I mailed her found a new, ‘repaired’ existence in art form. If your time on earth is brief, it’s nice to have some kind of reach after it ends. Probably the bees don’t care—but I’m happy for them on their behalf.

My dad kept bees before I was born, and revisited it in recent years. Quietly watching the hives as the bees came and went, peaceful and unconcerned about my presence—I liked bees before, but this was a glimpse of something unified, something simultaneously primal and civilized, that tugged at me strangely thenceforward. They were so surprisingly gentle that I felt totally comfortable standing next to my properly-suited father while he worked with the hive, me not wearing any protective gear.

Several winters ago, I was out and about on my parents’ farm on Christmas day, and stopped by the bee hive. It was one of those glorious, sun-warmed afternoons you get on a clear prairie day, which meant there were a few perfect-looking dead bees freshly ejected out front of the hive on top of the crisp snow. I took a quick photo that ended up being one of my avatars online, but later it was a natural step to have a tattoo artist use it as the basis of my 2nd tattoo:

This year marked the (likely) end of my dad’s return to beekeeping. Both his hives were winter-killed, and I was on hand this summer when he finally cracked open the 2nd hive to take it apart. Absolute horror. As soon as he removed the lid, the beady eyes of a mouse greeted us amid thousands of ashen bee corpses. The mice had chewed a large living space in the lowest super, and forged some tunnels between the frames. Insects are one thing, but mice… the stuff of nightmares. I always associate them with that bit in Ender’s Game where he beats the giant by chewing out its eyeball, in the mind game where he’s a rat. And there were at least 5 mice in this hive.

There’s also something post-apocalyptic about bees, to my mind. Not just because of collapsing colonies (which is plenty apocalyptic enough). It was in Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood that I came across the notion that bees embody some kind of link between worlds:
“Bees were the messengers between this world and the other worlds, Pilar had said. Between the living and the dead. They carried the Word made air.”
That’s an imagery that appeals to the literary theorist that still lives inside me, and that tries to make sense of life through animal metaphor. I don’t think I’ll ever stop being fascinated (and petrified) by pondering temporality. I’m not sure if the timelessness of a beehive is comforting or disquieting, in that respect. Because to my mind, a hive is certainly alive—but it’s also in that otherworld. It’s renewing and dying; it’s a state of turnover. Bees come and go, but the hive (ideally) endures.