Trying to Save the Honeybees
Light glistens through the mason jars of honey on the cabin shelf. Sun speckles the wooden countertop worn with decades of knife veins. This summer's yield is six jars. Crystallized gold coats the bottom of each.
The cabin has the aged scent of wool sweaters, jam, and mothballs. It is the scent of my grandmother's skin, tough and weathered, but warm.
My dad's mother, Annie, is determined to save the honeybees. Her letters and emails often mention startling facts about their rapid decline and the ensuing agricultural disasters this will cause. Usually something she heard on the BBC, which she listens to alone most nights in the cabin in the woods.
Some experts claim a mysterious virus is to blame for bees' mass decline. Others point to the widespread use of dangerous pesticides on crops pollinated by bees, or "colony collapse disorder," which makes me think of a house of cards folding into a pile of scattered Aces and Jacks.
The first year, most of Annie's bees froze in the first fall frost. She didn't know about proper insulation techniques.
Dad jokes that his mother has single-handedly killed more bees than any virus, scourge, or disorder.
As I walk across the unmowed lawn to the cabin door, I hear Annie call my name, muffled and far away. I turn towards the woods. Afternoon light reflects off the patches of pond visible through the trees. I am still afraid to swim in that pond because of leeches; the idea of their black slippery bodies sucking my blood gives me shivers. She calls again, and I follow her voice past the tool shed to the long-unused outhouse where she keeps the bees.
She taught me to carve wood, make jam, sketch with charcoal and paint with oils. She taught me how to make something new from nothing, something beautiful. She taught me to work for the honey.
I read somewhere that 37 million bees were killed by pesticides spread on a GMO corn field in Ontario, north of where we live in Vermont.
Annie is on her knees behind the outhouse no one has used since the early nineties, when she installed an indoor toilet in the basement. She calls my name again, between muttering what I assume are swear words. She wears long sleeves to protect her from stings, her usual stretch pants, and a fencing helmet that is too big for her and rattles like a bobble-head doll.
She tacked flypaper to the ceiling of the old out-house, where she keeps the bees, upside down. She'd read you could use flypaper to catch the wood mites rotting away the outhouse and threatening the bees' fragile hives. Unless, of course, you tack up the paper upside down, in which case most of the bees will stick to it.
Bees wretch and squirm on an old baking sheet on the ground, where she's laid the sticky paper on the flat surface, which is splotched with burn marks like ink blots from decades of oatmeal cookies and homemade crackers. She scrapes off their wings with a spackling pallet, trying to wrest them from the viscous-sticky surface of the flypaper to which they are stuck and wriggling on their backs.
She is the only grandmother I knew who had no address, wore home-sewn clothes and hummed constantly to herself, the only grandmother I knew who slept in lofted shacks she built, drove a rusted pick-up truck and was always on a mission. Annie traveled the world, spending half the year in southern France, and the rest of the time split between the cabin and her late father's house at the beach in Rhode Island.
She once told me, "You can't get old if you never slow down enough to let time catch up with you."
Annie persists with various useless tools—a spatula, a paint can opener, a wooden spoon—trying to gently peel the bees that are still moving from the sticky paper she has laid on an old cookie sheet to use as a flat surface for leverage. It's not working. Their fragile bodies are coated in thick mucus and peeling apart.
It's clear early on that this endeavor is pointless. Hundreds of dead bees lay, thoraxes exposed to the sun, their tiny bodies shriveling in the August heat. Those that managed to survive the flypaper struggle uselessly, each of their six hairy legs running in place, the wings that have managed to remain adhered to their owners' bodies flapping helplessly. The rest glint in the sun, unattached in shimmery bits that look like glass on the sticky cookie sheet. "Just stop," I plead with her. I feel tears rising to the edges of my eyes, though she shows no signs of affectation. There is nothing to be done.
Begrudgingly, she finally gives in to my insistence that brutalizing what's left of the bees is doing more harm than good and agrees to leave them baking in the sun-speckled patches of the woods while we go in for tea. Reports of millions of bees dropping dead somehow seems less offensive to me than the broken bodies left wriggling on the sheet in the woods.
The decline of honeybees limits growth of fruits, vegetables, and nuts like almonds, and reduces the global food supply.
We trudge through the woods to the comfort of the cabin, her arm slung around my waist. We will talk about poetry – mine and others' – and world news and our outrage, and family and places she's been and my travels and the places I should go, one day. We will not talk about bees or death or the things we cannot change.
I'm not sure why, exactly, my mother doesn't get along with her mother-in-law. The tension between them has been present as long as I have. My mother's mentioned that Annie thinks she's a corporate sell-out, as a real estate attorney in an affluent town. "She doesn't know how much pro bono work I do," she's said. My mom never liked the way Annie would show up, unannounced, and stay for a week or more. Mom once told me that Annie had offered my dad money to have an affair. Still, this discord long predated that alleged offense. For years, my mom has pretty much avoided her altogether. Their relationship is a mystery to me.
We drop tiny dollops of precious honey into our mugs, watch the gold melt and drip, somersault as it slowly sinks to the bottom of the cup. The golden globs cast prisms that catch the lazy sunlight bouncing from the water on the pond, through the old, smudged windows and into our cupped hands.
Erika Nichols-Frazer is the author of the forthcoming essay collection "Feed Me" (Casper Press, 2022) and the forthcoming poetry collection "Staring Too Closely" (Main Street Rag, 2023). She is also the editor of the mental health recovery anthology "A Tether to This World" (Main Street Rag, 2021). She won Noir Nation's 2020 Golden Fedora Fiction Prize and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in River Teeth's "Beautiful Things," Emerge Literary Journal, Bright Flash Literary Review, Bloodroot Literary Magazine and elsewhere. She has an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and is a staff writer for her local newspaper. She lives in Vermont.