Colony

Colony

The first installment in a group of three.

I found a great source of punky wood from a fallen canyon live oak on the edge of the property. I was splitting it for firewood when instead of splitting, the piece just splintered and sent the dusty punk up in a cloud around me. I gathered up as many of the mid-sized pieces I could find, shoved them in my pockets, and brought them back to the garage, where I laid them out first in order of dryness, then in order of size. I wanted as dry as I could find without it being dusty; the dust could harm the bees. The pieces dry enough that were smaller than my thumb I put directly into the smoker; larger pieces I broke apart and put in a jar for later, and wetter pieces I laid on the shelf next to the three-day-old pile of pine needles.

-- -

Jennifer told me that night, and my wind escaped me, taking my fine muscle control with it. Tears welled as she held the little plastic rod, and she wrapped her arms around my neck and sobbed. It took a second for me to return the gesture, maybe out of shock, or joy, or terror, or all.

After so many years of trying, somewhere inside telling you it wasn’t going to happen.

-- -

The next morning I took my jar of black walnut wood chips and sprinkled a few small ones into the smoker on top of the oak, then took my pile of pine needles and lit the ends. When they were sufficiently smoldering, in they went, and overtop them a single layer of burlap. This was a recipe I’d perfected over the past eighteen years: The canyon oak as the main fuel, once you got it burning, mimicked the bees’ habitat well enough that the smoke was believable, the pine allowed the oak to light, the burlap kept it smothered and not aflame. The black walnut was new as of last year—good evidence that its oils carry some narcotic properties to the bees, and I’d found that whether or not that’s true, it certainly interrupted the pheromones better than oak, pine, and burlap alone.

I wear the veil out of basic regard for safety, but I’m careful enough that I don’t bother with the rest. The hive is at the end of a slate path that I laid ten years ago, arcing out from the steps of the back porch that I built, down through the flower garden that I sowed, and behind the hedge that I sculpted into a perfect crenellation. A stack of three white plywood boxes, the center of Eden, around which buzzed hundreds of happy creations, bouncing from flower to flower carrying and multiplying the fruits of my labors. I’ve had dozens of projects in my life, but the hive is my fondest. The bees landed on my arms and hands, scents familiar to them, as I placed the spout of the smoker carefully into the hive entrance and gently squeezed the bellows. Once, twice, that’s it, then the smoker was placed on the ground and bees returned en masse to the hive, carried by the scent on the wind.

When they’re inside the hive, distracted, sucking honey, I lifted the outer cover and laid it on the ground beside me. Next was the inner cover, where I took a small knife and pried away from the glue the bees had made to seal it from the inside. Below were ten frames slatted vertically down into the hive; I took the one closest to me and gently brushed the bees off of it to inspect it for abnormalities. Carefully turned it in my hands, then replaced it. The honey flow hadn’t started just yet, but it was definitely close. I worked through the process with the next frame, and the next, each time the bees retreating to another frame, oblivious or indifferent to my presence.

When the ten frames were done I lifted the top box and set it gently beside me, followed by the thin wire gate that keeps the queen separated from the honey. The middle box was identical: Ten frames slatted vertically, though this time containing the brood and royal jelly. I slid the first frame out and checked the health of the brood, then the next frame, and on. It’s a huge brood: Each frame was filled corner to corner with occupied honeycomb in the bottom two boxes, and I thought for a minute that the workforce is far too small to maintain this size. When I finished the inspection, I replaced the frames, then the wire gate, then hefted the honey box back into place, inner cover, outer cover.

Then a sharp pain on my finger—the first sting I’d gotten in almost two years. I lifted my hand to my eyes and scrape the stinger out with my nail. On my hand were two more drones, both quite young. I took the buckets of honey and the smoker and started back up the slate path.

-- -

The days following Jennifer’s test, we bounced along in a happy daze. Colors were bright, edges were soft, we moved in a Monet through the garden together looking at the life we had constructed with our hands and our sweat, looking at what we would pass on.

-- -

“Your workforce is young,” said Marco.

“I noticed that last week.”

“Keep an eye on that,” he said. Marco’s in his mid-seventies, thin and baggy like a worn-out garden hose. He replaced the covers on my hive, cracked his knuckles and sighed. “Has anyone ever told you-you've got a terrific garden here?”

“Only myself.”

“I doubt that."

“It’s taken me years to build.”

“I remember when you started it. How many hours a day for upkeep?”

“Quite a few.”

Marco and I headed back to the house. “Get little disc of baking fondant, put it on the inner cover and make sure the bees eat it. If they don’t, you might have a problem.”

-- -

It’s taken me years to build.

The colors returned to normal; the Monet turned back into a Corbet and life rolled steadily onward with a buzz of doctor’s appointments, consultations, confirmations. We made a list of everything we needed to be done between now and then, divided into columns for specific baby-related things and other home improvement projects that we wouldn’t have time for otherwise. Jennifer set to the first column and I to the second.

My first task was the construction of a crib, a crucial part of childrearing. Critical, even. Then there was the leaky pipe in the basement, the deck needed to be sanded and re-stained with some of the boards replaced, then the bathroom re-tiled, the front lawn re-sodded, the roof re-shingled. And none of this was factored into the budget we had yet to make. And the honey harvest.

I wandered off into the forest in search of the perfect wood: another canyon live oak, maybe, something gnarled and textured.

-- -

A month went by without a visit to the colony, even though the honey flow had now begun.

-- -

Another month and I still hadn’t found the right wood for the crib. I was certain now that it had to be a canyon live oak: animated, twisting, dynamic, in contrast to the stately and silent, perpetual oaks elsewhere. It was the live oak, after all. Effectual. Jennifer had set to work reading all of the necessary books on parenthood and then depositing them on my workbench for me to do the same. Until I’d found the right wood and finished the crib, there was nothing that could be done about them.

-- -

“Oh boy,” said Marco. “You’ve got more trouble than just your honey harvest.”

The entire honey flow had come and gone, and the frames were almost too laden to lift. Together we hauled one up, then another, putting them in the wheelbarrow to bring inside and harvest the honey. The disc of fondant had hardly been touched yet, and no workers were crawling over it. I checked the hole in the inside cover to make sure it wasn’t occluded, that the bees could come and go freely, but it’s wide open. We set the honey box aside and removed the wire mesh to get access to the brood boxes.


“Yep,” Marco said, “look at this. Where’s your damn workers?”

Marco’s right: The brood was packed wall to wall, the queen was busy, despite it being the end of spring and into the summer, but there were few workers. Usually the hive was alive with activity at this time of day—usually, Marco and I wouldn’t even dream of coming out here now except that it’s the only spare moment I had—but there were fewer than three dozen crawling along the frames, and the ones that were are young. All of them were young.

“There’s not enough workforce,” I said.

We took the honey frames into the workshop, and I pushed a stack of childcare books, wood samples, and tools off to the side to make room for it. There’s precious little space in the shop now, growing smaller each day, constricting me. Suffocating.

“Not enough workforce or room in the hive,” said Marco. “They want to swarm right now, but there’s not enough of them.”

“So what then?”

“Well, they’ll abandon the brood and the queen.”

-- -

Without the perfect wood for the crib, I set that project aside and start on the rest of the list. Every morning I kept the garden and clipped the trees, then I set off into the forest to hunt for the right wood. During the day I chipped away at the projects little by little, and every evening as the hive settles down I headed outside to do what I could to coax it back into health. I clipped the queen’s wings to prevent a swarm, I bought fumagillin to put in the syrup feeder.

Ten hours, twelve hours, fourteen hours. There’s no time for reading the books, and Jennifer noticed, but for weeks she didn’t say anything about it. A tension built. I knew I hadn’t read the books, and she knew I hadn’t, and she knew that I knew I hadn’t. This recirculated again and again in the air between us, laying down a small line of wax each time it bounced back and forth, building a cap over the little brood cell of our life. But we said nothing about it.

The baby hit all of its benchmarks every month. It got its fingernails, its heartbeat, it started kicking and sneezing and bumbling along like it will all throughout its life. We declined to learn the sex early. It’s taken me years to build.

* * *

Jennifer’s first noticeable contraction wakes her up at four in the morning. She’s excited, I panic. The roof still needed re-shingled, the leaky pipe in the basement still needed to be tightened. I get up, throw on some work pants and run down to the shop, now packed full of books, unfinished projects, honey frames, drying materials for the smoker, wood samples for the crib. What had once been a clean, Spartan workspace is now a hoarder’s den with a narrow use trail carved through the very bedrock of scrap. On the workbench itself, in the two-by-two clearing made in the piles of tools and books, are the schematics for our basement plumbing where I left them the day before. I grab them and a few wrenches and set to work.

Four hours of plumbing, irregular and minor contractions which Jennifer could handle relaxing on the porch swing. The basement is done, I put the schematic away, grab the roofing materials and the ladder, and throw it against the gutter in the dawn glow.

Three more hours, the sun crawling high in the sky, and the contractions have
become regular. There’s still so much to do.

How many hours a day for upkeep?

My head still down, the metronome of the nail gun. Thack. Thack. Thack. Thack.

Next shingle. Thack. Thack. Thack. Thack.

Jennifer groans through another contraction as she tries to calm her breathing. Thack. Thack. Thack. Thack.

Another groan: Closer now, more severe.

How many hours a day for upkeep?

I hear a scream coming from somewhere on an adjacent property. I look up to see my neighbor’s daughter, no older than ten, hands cupped over her mouth staring at the family car, around which thousands of bees roaring in discord.

How many hours a day for upkeep?

“No!” I look over at the hive: no activity. I bound dangerously down the ladder and along the slate path that I laid with my own hands.

A groan, loud and pained.

Past the garden that I planted with my own hands. Through the hedges that I trim with my own hands. All clattering or weedy or overgrown, disheveled rags of old projects, the corpses of freedom, of individuality. The hive is silent. I haven’t done enough. Eighteen years gone, and I am unprepared, left scrambling over my lost livelihoods and unable to turn a page to see what happens next.

No, no, no, I mutter as I tear off the outer cover, inner cover, pull the frames out of the brood box. The brood is there, capped, infantile, helpless. The queen is there, left alone to rear them all. There are no workers to be found.

It’s taken me years to build.

How many hours a day for upkeep?

I hear Jennifer calling my name in a panic. Screaming it. She appears hobbling at the hedge, holding her back. My water broke! She’s saying.

Quite a few.