Friday, January 28, 2022 Jan 28, 2022
43° F Dallas, TX

THE WAY WE LIVE The Buzz of a Simple Man

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Beekeeping came to me three years ago in a fever. A neighbor had loaned me a book about life in the Middle Ages, with a chapter on how cot-tagers kept honeybees in hollows in the outside walls of their houses. I suddenly had to have house-bees.

What can I tell you? So much of living in the city, as we do, involves entirely human psychological battling.

The immediate factors in a humdrum daily existence all are only human-deep. Traffic. Crime. Property values. Schools. Noise. Neighbor relations. The urban world is an almost entirely human invention. But what if a person kept bees?

My only reservation was about stinging. I went to the Farmer’s Market downtown and asked one of the bee-ladies selling honey whether she ever got stung by her bees. In a small, high voice, she said quickly, “I never think about it.”

I called the city and asked if it would be legal to keep a hive of honeybees in a side yard in a neighborhood not far from downtown Dallas. The response was very reluctant and drawn out. But it was, technically and legally. . .yes.

Off to the bee races. I read every book in the downtown library about beekeeping. I searched catalogs and found a wonderful white bee-suit with a pith helmet, yellow veil and elbow-length gloves. I walked around in it on the front lawn with my hands out-held, stepping very high and slowly saying, “One small step for man…”

The neighbors were unamused. But ours is a great neighborhood in that regard. The attitude was: “We’ll let him try it first, and then if it’s a problem, we’ll disguise our voices and call the city on him.”

The bees came by mail in a wooden box with window-screen on the sides. There were about 15,000 of the little ladies in there, and they all wanted out. Badly. I got a phone call at 4 a.m. from the Yale Street post office. I literally could hear buzzing in the background, and a woman’s voice said, “I have a box of bees on my desk for you, and I would like you to come get it immediately.”

A man in East Dallas who was an experienced beekeeper had told me how to persuade the bees to take up residence in a stack of new, white bee-boxes by the side of my house. I asked him, too, “Do you ever get stung?”

He shrugged with a quick little shake and said, “I don’t really notice.”

I wish you could have seen the bees that first morning. They poured out of their new home and rose up in an insect tornado, whirling higher and higher, well above the house, memorizing their new location.

Suddenly they were off! They disappeared into the sun’s invisible spectrum of light, fanning out over a two-square-mile area, dipping into flowers in gardens, leaves on trees, grasses, shrubs and weeds, sucking up drops of nectar, packing brightly colored balls of pollen to their legs.

And then, like Jimmy Doolittle’s boys coming back from Tokyo, they buzzed back in, landing one after another in a steady stream at the front of the hive, drawn by complex and powerful instinct to the one tiny spot on the urban map where they knew their own particular queen awaited. My house! Suddenly I was bound by my bees to the metaphorical skin of the planet.

They stung my actual skin-skin a few times, and it hurt like the dickens. But I did seem to be bothered by it less as time went on. In fact, after a few times there was something oddly exciting about it.

For the longest time, my wife, Mariana, was never stung, and then this spring she started getting stings when she worked in the garden near the hive-three in an eight-week period! Her reaction seemed to get worse each time. A little bit of swelling the first time. By the third time, she experienced red streaks on her arms and flulike symptoms that lasted for days.

The kind of honeybees I bought had been bred for non-aggressive traits. They wouldn’t sting, really, unless you stepped on them or squashed them with an arm, but, every once in a while, with a lot of them around, you did that.

The human response to repeated bee stings, I learned, can go in one of two directions. You can develop an immunity, as I seemed to, or you can develop an allergy, as Mariana did. If your body is allergic, the stings can be life-threatening.

The flavor of my bees’ honey changed from season to season, depending on whether they were working the trees over by White Rock or the gardens on Swiss. The neighbors loved the honey. We made jokes about it being East Dallas honey and probably containing trace amounts of crack cocaine.

The bees were never a problem away from the house. Once they were off gathering, they melded into the densely populated insect universe, invisible among the zillions of specimens of far meaner stinging and biting species out there.

The strangest chapter involved the wizened, cane-walking elderly woman who came to the house several times to have my bees sting her hand. It was a medieval remedy for arthritis pain. She said it worked.

My wife was more in love with the bees even than I, but the third time she had to go to Baylor’s emergency room with a sting was the final straw. The admitting nurse seemed very alarmed.

Our doctor gave her a very long look the next day and suggested that a woman who was allergic to bee stings whose husband deliberately kept a hive by the side of the house had some very serious things to think about, indeed.

The man who came to get the bees was the ultimate bee-person. He was very large and very round, with a thin thatch of hair that stuck up in two little spikes, one behind each ear. He wore no suit. No gloves. I had sealed up the hive to keep the bees inside that evening after they had returned from work.

The bee-man worked quickly but in a herky-jerky fashion. He bounced the bees around roughly in the back of his pickup truck, allowing thousands to escape. The bees were stinging him right and left, which seemed to make him giggle and work harder.

Finally they left, my little medieval friends, in a cloud and a roaring buzz. As the red truck rounded the corner, I heard a high-pitched whinny from the cab, which told me that the bee-man had been stung again.

He called me the next day, said they were all living happily on his bee farm in the country. I asked him if he got stung badly the night before. He said, “I don’t know.”

I miss the little things. They were my own herd, and the city was my ranch. At the end, I was running pretty near 90,000 head of bees on this spread, all from a little white stack of boxes by my driveway. They were fascinating, industrious, wild. The plan of their lives was far more ancient than the plan of any city on Earth, and probably will endure eons longer.

Even now when I think of them, I am odd ly tempted to buzz.