The world was abuzz as I worked around one of our farm’s lilac bushes, their spring bloom fully under way.
The buzz was a constant drone in a variety of keys, with honeybees, bumblebees and a couple hummingbirds doing their morning business on the blossoms of violet shades warmed in the spring morning’s sunshine.
It was easy to know what drew them to that bush. The sweetness draws me toward the lilacs each spring, my variety of choices plenty when it comes to finding an excuse to be near such goodness. Most often, though, I’ve had to admit that my reasons for being near the lilacs were more for pleasure and leisurely contemplation instead of for real work.
I simply enjoy being around the lilacs.
Such simplicity isn’t what draws the flying buzz to the lilacs, though. Their work is of the sort that provides them life-giving nectar and pollen There is no leisure in their presence and me lazing around them too long always has made me feel a little lazy. And, over the years, my presence even has seemed a little irritating to the flying buzz machines
I heard in the morning’s buzzing a reminder of a similar morning when I’d gotten in the way of honeybees’ work along the edge of a cranberry marsh.
On that morning so many years ago, I’d assigned myself to a newspaper story about honeybees that were contracted to pollinate plants – mostly agricultural – across the countryside. I found at that central Wisconsin cranberry marsh some bees that each year were carried in their hives to the South during winter and then hauled on trucks back to the North during summer.
I interviewed the father and son who owned the cranberry marsh, them having been among the growing number of cranberry producers whose harvests depended upon the plants’ pollination by bees managed by a contracted honey producer. Morning warmth massaged my shoulders as we leaned against my truck and talked, the truck’s hood serving as a traveling desk for the notebook in which I excitedly scribbled a record of their stories.
The faint-but-still-distant light buzzing could be heard from the bees, the sunrise already having excited them into full productivity.
The interview completed, I wanted to take plenty of photographs of the farmers, the stacked wooden hives and, of course, the bees working on the cranberries’ blossoms. While I made the photos, I asked the farmers how close I could safely get to the working bees.
“Oh, you should be able to get right down next to them on the plants down at the edge of the marsh,” the father casually replied.
I walked to the edge of the marsh and lay down on its edge, a foot or two from the blossoms’ colors. My old Nikon quietly clicked as I used its macro-zoom lens to pull the bees’ images in closer – and then, closer, and closer and closer.
The bees modeled poses for me, but with a distancing disdain that might be seen in the blank faces of runway fashion-models. They were doing their work; I was doing my work.
But then, a sharp flick snapped onto the back of my neck, just at my hairline. It snapped with the sharpness of a misused rubber band in the hands of an eighth-grade school bully.
And then, another snap on the back of my neck.
I’d gotten in the way of the honeybees’ work, and their rule enforcers were using their stingers to let me know that fact.
I knew I had to remain calm and to not further disturb their efforts. I slowly stood to leave the area, attempting a nonchalance that contrasted the pain growing on the back of my neck.
I turned and started toward my truck and the farmers.
I remembered how panicked bees released pheromones to call upon winged, stinger-wielding friends to defend their territory.
The count of snaps was disappearing in the water running from my eyes and running on the water flowing down my cheeks. The formed pain was found in the histamine-induced mucus flowing from my sinuses.
The farmers understood my anguish in the language of my histamine-induced sneezing.
Finally, I reached the safety of my truck and the farmers.
The father and son were laughing at me and the situation; I might have been laughing, too, had it not been for my worry that I might be heading toward the sort of allergy-caused death about which I’d so often heard and read. I wondered whether it would have been a good idea to carry one of those antihistamine-shot pens when I travel to interviews on farms.
“It looks like you got stung a few times,” the father said, pulling from his pocket a clean handkerchief to wipe my face.
“I thought you said the bees wouldn’t bother me if I got down there to take the pictures,” I mumbled through the handkerchief.
“Hell, I guess I was wrong,” the father said. “I didn’t really know for sure, but that’s what somebody told me a while back. Well, I guess we know, now.”
The farmer pulled out the jackknife he carried in his pocket, me making note through my discomfort that he’s a good farmer because all good farmers carry a jackknife in a pocket.
He offered to use the knife’s blade to scrape from my neck any stingers the bees might have left there. I accepted and my physical systems started to return to normalcy as he worked.
My right hand was massaging the back of my neck as my mind returned to the sweetness and buzzing within our farm’s lilac bush. A smile formed on the corners of my mouth with the silliness of my memory and the foolishness of judging the fellow’s advice about photographing those bees.
It was time, I reminded myself, to walk away from the lilac bush before I got into the bees’ way the same way I’d gotten into the way of the bees working at that cranberry marsh.
“Work well and travel safely, friends,” I said to the bees, and then headed to other work in the farmyard.
— Scott Schultz