The pendents—translucent, violet, and sea-glass shades of blue—swung from the tent post in the soft breeze that skipped across the hot asphalt lest it burn its feet.
It was one of those June days in Michigan that warns of a scorching August.
The squat white tents that lined the quirky streets of Eastown were blinding in the sunlight my wintered-over bones craved. Folky live music meandered and excused itself through the crowd. It was polite music, anxious not to be intrusive. The kind of music that was made for backgrounds, that you don’t notice but would miss if it wasn’t there.
Missing like now. Like this past year.
My eyes were caught by what looked like shards of glass, bumping against each other where they hung on the tent pole, glimmering in the light.
The belly dancer jingled as she approached me. I’d seen her perform earlier.
So this was her booth, I thought.
The booth had the usual craft-festival things, candles that smelled of earth and crystals that sparkled like heaven. And then there were these necklaces—small baubles of resin with fragments of flowers suspended inside with the delicate body of a bee.
“Do you make them?” I asked the belly dancer.
“Yes,” she said proudly. Then, anticipating my next question, she added, “I don’t kill the bees. I have a friend with hives. Bees lay their dead outside the hive. So, I just go and get them.”
Much of life is buying and selling—the busy work of hoarding up honey. But that June day, prophesying of heavy summer weather, has stuck in my mind like pollen to a spiny Apis limb.
I bought a necklace for my little sister.
The bees of a hive are all sisters, born of the queen, fathered by nameless drones. There is a strange beauty to the industrious sisters who bury their dead in the wind.
I’ve long been fascinated by the customs of bees.
Once, my mom and us kids watched a swarm of bees—about the size of a car tire—from my parents’ bedroom window. The swarm moved like a school of fish through our narrow backyard.
The bee in resin is eerie. Nowhere else have I seen a bee stand still. They are always moving between. Perhaps it is their transient nature that led many ancient cultures to believe bees moved between our realm and the supernatural. They gave Apollo his gift of prophecy.
And since the Middle Ages, people have believed that bees have an interest in the current comings and goings of humans, as well as in their future. In Wales, where my maternal ancestors hail from, the people kept a tradition of “telling the bees.” After the stuttering cry of new life, or the careening fiddle song announcing two becoming one, or the soft departure of a last breath, a goodwife would take her shawl and settle a stool in the dirt at the base of the garden where the hives stood. She would tell the bees about the grandchild, the exchange of golden bands, and the soul that had departed in the night.
If you didn’t tell the bees, it was thought, they would stop honey production—insulted—or even die, or swarm away to some more well-mannered farm.
But I think people told the bees because we must tell someone.
After the great moments of life, we are just the sort of creatures who would make a ritual of taking a few steps away from the house and all the people and feelings it contains to narrate the dramas of the domestic world to the serene sisters of the hive. We gain perspective, I think, from the telling.
When I bought those beautiful bee coffins at the craft-fair, I could hear the hum of things changing. I had a new job, a new apartment.
But since then, I lived through a pandemic, got a different new job, returned to my parents’ house. If I had bees, I’d also tell them that my sister is coming home soon.
And some parts of the world are cautiously taking steps, testing limbs, like a break freshly healed. I think if we’re honest, we know this is a new chapter and not a return to an old page. Wars, pandemics, movements, disasters, events—things do not end so much as they change forms. In society’s honeycomb, moments, feelings, thoughts, and actions gathered up over a year ripen from thin nectar into the honey of history and memory.
Maybe bees make honey, or maybe the production of honey uses up bees, and their bodies are left to be carried away by a breeze or baked into tiny, decorative tombs.
Speaking the change we observe makes it feel less like time is flowing over us, using us. That’s why we tell the bees.
Emily Stroble is a writer of bits and pieces and is distractedly pursuing lots of novel ideas and nonfiction projects as inspiration strikes. As an editorial assistant at Zondervan, she helps put the pieces of children’s books and Bibles together. A lover of the ridiculous, inexplicable, and wondrous as well as stories of all kinds, Emily enjoys getting lost in museums, movies old and new, making art, the mountains of Colorado, and the unsalted oceans near Grand Rapids. Her movie reviews also appear in the Mixed Media section of The Banner and her strange little stories of the fantastic are on the Calvin alumni fiction blog Presticogitation. Her big dream is to dig her hands deep into the soil of making children’s books as an editor…and to finally finish her children’s novel.