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The Eros of Bees


To the bee, a flower is the fountain of life,
and to the flower, the bee is a messenger of love.

—Khalil Gibran

On the 7 Train, a friend tells you her plans to raise bees on a rooftop here in New York, in Long Island City. She says she’s done all her research and filed a notice for her urban hive, and you gaze out at the birdless, cloudy sky as the 7 curves through Sunnyside and think of bees stippling the 7 Train skyline, and all of the times you ran from bees in various countrysides. All the times you bolted from a single one as if it were a great swarm, the buzzing, zigzagging terror that sought the sweet, sticky juice of orange and melon dribbling off your chin, the wildflowers you’d foolishly pluck and put in your hair, the Texas Hill Country where your mother posed you in an off-the-highway field of bluebonnets as large eighteen-wheelers zoomed by as you ran, ran, ran from the buzzing more noise than creature. And sometimes, for no reason at all, one would pursue you for merely standing still on a patio of a friend’s house after a swim, nothing on you but chlorine, a bathing suit and towel to shield your skin—and peevish, and incensed, the bee would chase you, and only you, relentless, willful, uncompromising.

Those were your first encounters with eros.

And you would not know this until the day you saw an educational movie in school about honey bees, that worker bees are always female and collect pollen and nectar, while drones are male and do not. Both sex and gender are lost on you as you watch the swarm shrink down to a close-up of a single one, of those honeycombed, oversized eyes as the worker bee pauses its—her, your science teacher would correct you later— skittish flight and folds crystalline wings against a smooth, stripped abdomen, its— her—legs and fuzzy face dusted in yellow pollen, antennae askew and bent as your own ponytail.

Later, you’d try to explain that you did not mean it as an erasure or insult, but that the bee in its perfected strangeness had transcended the need for he and she. But you were only in second grade and didn’t have that kind of language. And your science teacher’s emphasis that women bees worked and men bees mated allowed her to take additional jabs at her ex-husband. Later your teacher would be fired; what you thought a sour kind of sweetness was nearly a year of day-drinking. She had dark black hair and darker eyes, and kept her married name because, as she told it, names no longer matter after a certain age. She committed small crimes that your other teachers often discussed right in front of their students, how she changed clothes in her car and smoked in the teacher’s parking lot. She also answered the kids new from Mexico in Spanish. No one in class ever told her that it was against the rules, not wanting to disrupt these moments of gentleness. You couldn’t imagine saying the Pledge of Allegiance in her class if you’d had her for homeroom, that dry, rigid kind of English you had to memorize, with a hand supposedly over your heart but in the wrong place—as your science teacher might have pointed out. She once said she didn’t want children, and that teaching was a much more efficient way to reach more minds. Leave feelings out of it. Have someone else change the diapers, wash the dishes, launder the clothes. And she didn’t like your answer on a test that the female worker bee’s true love was the flower and not the drone; she crossed it out and wrote: This is about a larger survival. Larger than the bee. Larger than you or me.

But when she handed back the heavily marked-up paper, she did so with a smile, and tapped a long, red fingernail to the top where she’d written: Don’t get so carried away.

You remember she squeezed your shoulder, and stumbled a little. She was showing up to class drunk by the end of the spring, but she was still coherent, and she understood you, that both in your heart and in your head were those thin, powerful legs purposefully moving around leaves, stems, the hearts of blooming flowers. Never was a creature so delicate, so much smaller than the buzz that frightened you. There was never something so complete about a real, living thing, that a bee seemed to be whole within itself and yet also a creature that nature just made up at random, made up from many creatures, given such a mishmash of anatomy, from furry thorax to bare segmented legs to slightly curved stinger. There was never a face so alien and yet familiar all at once, never a being that you could not assign boy or girl as you did with other animals—dog boy, cat girl, lion boy, cheetah girl. You daydreamed about throwing yourself, knowingly, onto a single stinger and then another, then another, feel those legs carting globs of pollen half their weight dart across your arms, your cheek, whatever price in venom to feel the fleece-covered face. To be captured again and again in their compound eyes. You wanted to be carried away, and told yourself that you did not care for survival.

How you wanted to be stung.

And yet still, in real encounters, still you ran.

* * *

Erratic Temperature in NYC, February 2016

You are still on that break, he and you, that friend you wrote about in “The Weight that Will Make Us Planets.” Yet you write each other once a week; there are no more evening Skype sessions. His emails have a pattern: short and terse one week, and then apologetic the next. You know each week brings a false start at beginning again, in a year that began without seasons. The sun sets later in the day now, and Daylight Savings Time is coming, at least for you; South Korea no longer observes it. You know you can’t go back to how easy it once was. You have no regrets.

He asks after your orchid, which still seems to be simultaneously wilting and blooming; some new buds have shriveled up without blooming while the others are radiant, full. Once he spoke to the orchid over Skype, to coax her to make up her mind. It seems now she’d rather be in her state of funk. You’re going to repot her any day now—remove the dead, wilted parts of her. But she’s not waiting for you to do that.

You don’t tell him this; instead you write to him about your friend’s future urban hive, and mention that you are writing about bees, that they’ve always been dear to you, but you’ve never written about them. You don’t know why this is. You consider all the layovers you’ve ever had, all those places you’ve never been, only passed through. You send him a video of a close-up of the transition from larva to bee. Today it is raining. It’s cold, but not cold enough for snow. Oddly, the sun is shining beneath dark clouds. You are still floating on the year that’s passed. It hasn’t passed yet. Every day is transition. You no longer know just how long this has been.

Your friend replies with no words, only a video of how South African female carpenter bees change the frequency of their wingbeat to hit a middle C so that their flower of choice will give up its pollen. You watch a man do this with tuning forks, and you watch the bee do this naturally.

Eros, the life instinct.

Eros, a brief moment in a field of you.

Eros, selection and survival, all that came long before you.

* * *

And as he plucked his favored flower
A wild bee stung his finger.
He screamed with pain, and stamped his feet
With rage, and quickly flying
To Aphrodite said, “O mother sweet,
I perish, I am dying!
A little winged serpent me
With its sharp lance has wounded,
‘Twas what the peasants call a bee —
I really shall be soon dead.”
She fondly soothed his pain,
And bade him cease his crying;
“Thou soon, dear, wilt be well again,”
She said, with smiles him eyeing.
And added, “If such pain the bee
Inflicts, sly little duffer,
Think of the many hearts by thee
Stung, and how much they suffer.”

— “Eros Stung by a Bee,” from The Anacreontea

It finally happened, when you were in grad school, while you were walking around the wooded area near your Nob Hill apartment in Ann Arbor: a bee staggered in flight, scudded across your face, only to get caught in the place between your sunglasses and the top of your cheek. Both you and the bee were terrified. And you saw everything: you saw the insect panic and tense up its body, you watched it sting you, just beneath your right eye, twice. Upon the second time, the stinger lodged in your skin. You watched the bee fall away, as you bent down over its tiny corpse. Your cheek swelled up right away, but you carried the bee home where your right eye had then swelled shut. You carefully examined the bee under your desk lamp, holding it carefully in your hand, stroking its fuzzy and smooth body. It was not a wasp or carpenter bee; it was not a hornet or bumblebee. This was a honey bee, and you could see the tiny sacs of orange pollen around its legs. No doubt it had been on its way to hive. You’d forgotten that worker bees, once they sting, die. You’d forgotten the stinger was still in your skin.

With some difficulty, you remove it with tweezers. Half your face is on fire. It was dark outside when you buried the bee outside the apartment on Nob Hill. Digging in the dirt attracted a few neighbors who urged you to go to the ER. You ignored them, and went on digging. You can see yourself, your thin-limbed, scrawny self—the self that some of your classmates called praying mantis, you’ve always been all limbs—digging in the dirt, tears falling from your own good eye, the other not giving anything up. You weren’t happy in Michigan, where it was cold most of the time with a very brief spring—maybe a day or two—followed by a humid summer. You stopped believing in seasons when you lived in Michigan. You stopped believing in everything: how Ann Arbor didn’t seem real. Your father was born in Detroit. His house is gone. It burned down long ago, during the riots. When you buried the bee that night, that humid night a week or so before you’d leave the summer for Jerusalem, you wrapped the little body carefully in tissue. You thought the bee would be be fuzzier. How did she stay warm in the Michigan winters? You looked at it under the dim light of the porch light outside the apartment. You rubbed your swollen cheek and went inside, while your neighbors still called after you to go to the hospital. The pain keeps you awake, and the image of its crumpled body, and you never really fall asleep.

In the morning the swelling hadn’t subsided and you walked into the ER at the university hospital. The doctor there lectured you: why hadn’t you come sooner? What if you’d had a much more serious allergic reaction that led to anaphylaxis? These words frighten you, and you don’t tell him that you carried the dead bee home or that you buried the body. You do tell him it was a honey bee.

He sighs and tells you that you were lucky: when a honey bee stings it gives off a scent, a signal, to other bees to join in the attack.

As they ready you for an IV, you begin to drift off from lack of sleep. They want you to stay awake. You struggle. You struggle to say: I think if I were an insect, any other kind, I would still love bees only.

* * *

Tell the blighted elms, and the young oaks we plant instead.
The water bug, while it scribbles
a hundred lines that dissolve behind it.
The lichen, while it etches deeper
its single rune. The boulders, letting their fissures widen,
the pebbles, which have no more to lose,
the hills—they will be slightly smaller, as always,

when the bees fly out tomorrow to look for sweetness
and find their way
because nothing else has changed.

—“Tell the Bees,” Sarah Lindsay

Despite the global crisis of Colony Collapse Disorder, bees are faring better in Israel than you ever did. You learn that “the Syrian bees native to Israel are aggressive and uncooperative. The Turkish bees, by contrast, are more docile and much more efficient at honey-making.” For some reason, you take pride in the Syrian bees. You side with them—even though there’s nothing really to take sides on. You just like that they aren’t team players, that although human think they fully understand the bee’s purpose in nature—to pollenate and foster ecosystems—there are bees that cannot be coerced into doing so.

* * *

Never Stop Watering the Plants by Laura Hernandez
Never Stop Watering the Plants by Laura Hernandez

The summer that your science teacher was fired, you caught a walking stick that wandered into your aunt’s house. You don’t know if it was young, or perhaps a kind particular to the Rio Grande Valley, but it was light green, not brown like the ones you’d seen in your textbook. It had a long green body, with long green legs and antennae. It had feelers near its mouth that moved in all directions, and large yellow eyes with a black line for a lid and black dots for pupils. You wandered if these eyes were fake. Your teacher had often warned you of fake eyes, on insects and otherwise. You didn’t know then that she had been dismissed from the school. You would never find out what happened to her. Even now, when you ask your mother if she’s ever heard anything, your mother grimaces and only shakes her head. There’s never an answer.

You carried the walking stick outside to the small, front yard and cradled it on your hands, giving it a choice when it would like to go. The walking stick crawled all over you, and you almost passed out because you held your breath, not wanting to scare it away. You were giving it a choice, but you wanted it to stay.

Your young head attempted a question: Is that the kind of love your science teacher has for her ex-husband? Is this getting carried away, when one is this kind of still?

It crawled up your arm and stood very still in your chest. You could see its eyes, false or not, peering at you. You wondered it if had directly descended from trees, that it couldn’t let go of what it once had been, a generation of newborn trees that chose to walk over inheriting the secrets of their ancient parents.

What would you give up?

You don’t remember if you eventually moved or how it got away, that precious moment is now lost from memory.

* * *

You close your eyes when you sing, what’s behind those eyes when you sing?
someone put a house there, its honey lights

All those gorging feelings, how do you bed them down?
wolf, wolf

“All Those Gorgeous Feelings,” Carolina Ebeid

Somewhere, there is a part of you lying in the fields with your friend, a field of really long, tall grass and wildflowers, and you are as silent as can be, as you listen to the swaying of stalks in the wind, the calls and cries of birds, the buzzing, the eternal buzzing of bees, always heard before seen. Somewhere, being silent with him is the greatest thing you could ever do. The closest you ever came to this was when you were still Skyping and you read him “All Those Gorgeous Feelings” by Carolina Ebeid. You read it him to twice. You knew he didn’t get everything, the language barrier being what it is, that poetry even for native speakers can be difficult. But you saw in his eyes, in his eyes on the screen and over the great distance between you, that your friend knew it even then, what you meant. And neither of your eyes were false.

That this is all you could ever give to him.

This morning you receive a message from him that is short but not terse that friendship if nothing else can come, will be enough one day, and you understand to wait? Even in silence now.

And somewhere, and this morning, and somewhere in that field you’ve already risen; arise first, ahead of him.

You’ve lost him.

And you won’t remember that moment when you had to leave his side and find your way back to your train car, to your birdless skyline. But you know this is what the walking stick wished for itself—herself—on the day she broke away from the trees, and a time too will come when the flower will ask more from the bee. It will want more than the flitting beat of her ever-efficient wings, the ancestral, intrinsic middle C. She will be asked to stay, make a home within a single blossom. That even if it means the end of their lives and others, they will never be apart again.

It will come, that strange-weathered spring evening, when a single bee experiences eros for the first time, and undoes its entire being. And then another. And another.

It will collapse entire colonies.

It will destroy the world.