Gimme a Bee

The farm I grew up on had such a variety of fruit trees, it was like having our own produce section in our yard. An apple tree, a plum tree, a cherry tree, a pear tree, not to mention all the blackberries one could eat that grew wild all over the valley. We even had a grape arbor that produced both white and purple grapes. In the summer and fall, there was no shortage of fresh fruit available to anyone that wanted to pick it.

We actually had two pear trees growing on our property. One grew at the foot of the driveway, just behind the mailbox. It was easy to overlook this pear tree because it was near the edge of the property by the road, and when the fruit fell from the tree, it either landed in a ditch or in the neighbor’s field. What was memorable about this pear tree was that in the springtime we would usually find little blue eggs in the robin’s nest that was tucked in the fork of the lowest branches.

The other pear tree – the one I always think of – was right outside the side door of the house, what we referred to as the sewing room door. The driveway turned off of sixth avenue at a right angle and ran for about fifty feet before it terminated at a wooden post with a basketball hoop at the top. The driveway used to be gravel but was paved with black asphalt in 1978, and the men who paved it thought to include a little asphalt sidewalk from the driveway to the stoop outside the sewing room. It was right next to that sidewalk that the pear tree stood.

The tree was very mature and close to thirty feet tall, it’s top branches growing over the roof of the house and keeping the side yard dark with its thick branches and green leaves – and of course, its fruit. The pear tree was very fertile, and never was there a year when it did not yield hundreds of pounds of fleshy, yellow fruit.

As a young kid, I would try eating some of the low hanging pears but would find them hard to bite into and surprisingly bitter once I did. I did not know that the fruit would ripen and turn yellow to indicate it was ready for eating. When I finally did realize this, what a delight! At its ripest, the pear was soft and my incisors glided right through the skin into the wonderfully light and refreshing fruit. They were, I recognize now, very good quality pears that grew at our house, and yet I do not remember anyone ever eating them regularly.

Or even acknowledging them.

As the season evolved and more and more of the dangling orbs on the pear tree turned from light green to bright yellow, nobody in my family was ever seen with a ladder and a basket, climbing to harvest what would have cost good money to purchase in a store. I can understand that perhaps nobody in the family actually liked pears, and the tree was so old it was clearly planted by someone who lived in the house long before we did. But wouldn’t a basketful of pears have made a wonderful gift for neighbors and friends? This was free food being offered to us, and instead of eating it or harvesting it and giving it away, we just let it hang there.

And it would hang there until it dropped. Once the bright, unblemished yellow skin of the pears started getting brown spots on it, it was only a matter of days before the strength of the stem waned to the point that it could no longer support the weight of the pear itself, and it would detach, sending the fruit plummeting to the ground below. The area surrounding the trunk of the tree consisted of the new black asphalt sidewalk from the driveway to the other, older concrete sidewalk that ran along the side of the house. The pears would fall on the ground immediately surrounding the trunk, and simply bounce and roll a bit before coming to a rest on the grass. Some of these “grass pears” were still edible, having just ripened a bit too much for the stem to handle, but they were not discolored or rotted and were still quite delicious. But the pears that landed on either of the paved surfaces suffered a much more violent end. The soft, pliable fruit would hit the sidewalk and simply explode, leaving the once-grocery-store-quality pear a horrible disfigured mess. The skin would split and the flesh of the pear would be exposed, and it would quickly darken to an ugly, diseased brown color that made them look less like fruit and more like the corpses of dead snowballs that were denied an afterlife as melted water and were instead doomed to a purgatory, frozen and misshapen.

Soon the ground below the tree was littered with fallen pears in various stages of decomposition. Some would still be yellow, having fallen within the last day or two, but the majority were black with decay and beginning to ferment. The roof of the house caught the ones that grew in the highest branches, and the gutters of the eaves eventually were choked with rotting fruit.

On a warm, still day, one could sit outdoors on the side of the house, or even the front porch, and hear the periodic THLOP of a pear giving up the stem and hitting the ground. On some of these days, one could hear the sound several times an hour, and the remains would pile up, yellow on brown on black.

The air on that side of the house at that time of year was redolent with fermenting pears, and occasionally was potent enough to cause nausea and dizziness to anyone who strayed too close to the fruit graveyard that was forming outside the sewing room.

But the mess and the smell were not themselves an insurmountable problem. Eventually one got used to the smell, and there was plenty of yard space in front and in back of the house so the side yard with the pear tree could be avoided easily. One really only needed to be exposed to it for the few seconds it took to get from the sewing room door to the car, and back. The only activity that could not be done anywhere else was basketball, but during the height of gravity’s pear harvest, basketball had to be avoided. No matter how much we wanted to play, basketball was just not an option.

Because of the bees.

They would come slowly at first. There might be one or two yellow jackets hovering over the mound of pear-goo that had began to look like a thick paste littered with stems and seeds and leaves, as though some giant took a dirty knife and spread pear preserves on the ground and left it there for a month or two. One or two bees would be seen stumbling around like drinking buddies after last call, maybe a third and fourth joining a day later. But apparently even among bees, a good thing can’t stay secret for long. After a few days, the pear zone would be overrun with bees gorging themselves on the fermenting sugar, and eventually it became an orgy of delirious, yellow-and-black segmented wasps that would become so drunk from their feeding that they flew around in lurching, debilitated flight patterns that suggested insects can’t say “when” any better than I could. These bees were clearly drunkards, and they obviously didn’t care who knew it.

They were also mean drunks. As long as you stayed out of their way, you were fine, but if you even came within a six foot radius of their feeding plain, they would rise nearly in unison and begin the dive bombing. How such inebriated beings could launch so deadly an attack was beyond me, but their aggression had a singleness of purpose that suggested flocks of migrating birds – they were clearly communicating with each other as they took off after a fleeing family member, and I could just imagine one of them instructing the others “head him off, he’s going around back!”

Would they display the same bickering and infighting that humans all-too-often demonstrate when they get to drinking? It would be easy to imagine that a bee hive is one big dysfunctional family when there’s an alcoholic – or several of them – in residence. And there would probably be that one wasted bee that finally crossed the line, getting all up in the queen’s face and calling her out. “Lissen, you – you ain’t no queen. Yer nothin’, y’hear me? You ain’t nothin’ but a painted housefly, you bug– no, lemme alone, I don’t care who hears me!” It’s not unthinkable – they are a society, after all, and every society has its troublemakers.

Anthropomorphizing these insects made it easier to deal with them and pretend that they were there simply by our good grace – that we could be rid of them whenever we wanted. But the truth was, the family was locked in a power struggle with the bees, and we feared for our safety on a daily basis. Due to the proximity of the pear zone to the place where we parked our cars, every day involved at least one, and likely more than one, confrontation with the hopped up yellow jackets.

Eventually, every season, there would come a time when the human inhabitants of the property would be forced to run the Bee Gauntlet when we left or arrived home. Most days we were successful, reaching the door safely and avoided any stings or horrific moments where the unseen bee’s legs could be felt crawling over our skin. But not all days. Every once in a while the drunk little fuckers would anticipate a dodge or a turn and would land on bare skin and gleefully (I always imagined them doing it gleefully) sting the shit out of us. Sometimes it would happen without the victim knowing it, and eventually they would notice an itching at an ankle or wrist or shoulder, only to find upon inspection that the area was inflamed and swollen, and in the center of the ugly red blotch, a little calling card from the culprit – the stinger, no more than a millimeter in length, sticking out like a quivering sliver of wood but a hundred times more irritating.

Other times the pain was immediate and intense and just flat out wicked. It is easy to label creatures that dispense pain as “evil”, but it is even easier when the creatures doing it are so drunk they won’t remember it in the morning. In truth, the bees were just doing what bees do (what ill-bred, emotionally starved, socially stunted bees do, anyway) and, truer still, if we didn’t like it, there was always an easy way out of the situation.

Why it never occurred to anyone to simply pick up the rotted fruit before it became a Bee Death Camp, I don’t know. Picking it up became less of an option over time, however, because by then, instead of just having some gross rotten fruit to contend with, any clean-up crew would be dealing with an army of angry junkies with weapons, and generally speaking, when you’re dealing with an armed, angry mob you call out the National Guard.

Eventually, the bees would drain all the sugar from the pears and go away – either that, or they ate themselves into oblivion and would just drop. I often saw bee carcasses amongst the ruins, so it was possible that they would overindulge to the point of no return and just decide to lie down and die. Whatever the reason, at some point the bee population would thin out, and somebody would come along with a shovel or a rake and make the mess go away, but I never saw who did it.  

Today we’re faced with the mysterious disappearance of bees across the earth. It’s a serious problem and scientists still do not all agree on the cause. I don’t know what is behind the sudden global die-off, but I’m willing to bet the cause is alcohol-related. I hope the apiculturists of the world can figure out how to save them, but they should be warned that the bees have to want help: Nothing will change until they admit they have a problem.

Stars on Parade

It’s delightful to find something that you had forgotten you’d lost.

Growing up in rural Oregon, I remember sleeping outside under the stars on the hot summer nights. Laying in a sleeping bag on the lawn of our farmhouse, looking up at a sky full of stars, and the band of milky whiteness that cut its way across the sky – I suppose that’s why they call it the Milky Way. I remember being hypnotized by the glow of the starlight, and nearly overwhelmed by the massive amount of lights dotting the sky overhead. And every once in a while – the ecstasy of seeing a shooting star.

And then, moving to Southern California, all of that gone.

Decades of living near sprawling metropolis has made me forget how majestic a night sky can be. Periodically I have found myself in places where I am far enough away from urban areas that more stars are visible. But it had been a long time since I’d seen the Milky Way.

Last night, up at Glacier Point in Yosemite, after the sun set, I was treated to a spectacular view of various constellations that were out and flirting with the seductive power of gods and goddesses and I was transfixed, unable to look away, drawn in completely and falling in love under their spell. And amidst it all, cutting across the sky in a vast and immeasurable path, the Milky Way floated above me like a massive caterpillar crawling along the biggest leaf of God’s favorite tree.

I came down from the peak to the valley floor, feeling an afterglow, the images of the stars still dancing in my eyes, and reminded of those nights thirty years ago when I was too young to understand all the different ways that light can enter the soul.