02 Sep 2020

The morning stretched, and yawned. In all corners of the city people put on their shoes and skirts and masks and tentatively left their houses, looking for the life they’d left behind. Looking for the life they’d promised themselves, some time ago. Cars followed their weighted paths throughout the city. The speed of encounters in the system quickened. And O set off on his bicycle towards the university.

Boulder was a city of bike paths. In the North, where O lived, paved and dirt-covered bike paths snaked from the canyons to the plains, following the creeks and weaknesses in the landscape, along the edges of forests and around lakes. They tied great elaborate knots upon the surface of the earth. By following the bike paths, one could get anywhere in Boulder, and even as far as South Denver. It was this path network that O navigated, exhilarated, before reaching a small and unspectacular plot of land just north of Boulder Creek, near east campus. There were a few signs, declaring the land fit for university use only. There was nothing but an innocuous little rectangle of brown fencing hidden beneath a stand of old cottonwood. O parked his bike. It was the apiary.

O’s friend Gabrielle pulled her car up along the dirt road that just skirted the river south of the apiary. “Hey!” she said, hopping out, walking around to the back. “Want to help carry the food?”

“I found it this time!” O replied. The entrance was so non-descript he’d missed it even on a bike, and she had been waiting just outside the entrance, along the erroneous route she knew he would take, to guide him back the right way. “And sure!”

He skipped to her side. She smiled and handed him the half-suit of protection that he’d need to be her assistant. The mesh covering over the face reminded him of an astronaut helmet. O put it on and tucked his socks into his pants.

“Take these,” Gabrielle said, gesturing to a box of six old juice jugs. Each was full of a slightly opaque colorless liquid. “I’ll meet you in there, I just need to suit up. Thanks for helping out!”

“No worries,” O said. He took the box and watched for a moment as Gabrielle donned the full body bee suit. She was fully an astronaut in its confines, meshed and covered head to toe. He took her keys and headed to the apiary, unlocked it, and set the food inside on the ground.

The air was vibrating, ever so gently, as though a soft heat wave was pouring from a subterranean geothermal vent. Here and there O spotted bees lazily spiraling through the air.

“Let’s get started,” Gabrielle said. She handed O a set of hive tools: half hook, half lever, each coated in old beeswax. “Watch me first.”

With practiced hands, she unwound the straps securing the first hive to the ground and opened the metal lid. The vibrations in the air intensified ever so slightly. Atop the open hive, a thin and incomplete layer of bees danced about.

“These are the honey supers,” she said. “We’ll take these off like this - with the prying end.” She inserted the hive tool in the slot between the first and second boxes atop the hive, and pried the box upward. With a satisfying chunking noise she dislodged it slightly.

“Help me with the other side.” O quickly tried the same maneuver on the two opposite corners and soon the box was fully dislodged. He carried it off and set it gingerly on its side, so as to avoid crushing any of the bees passing in and out of the slats.

“This one next. We’re looking for the queen, and she can’t be in any of these top two layers because of the queen guard in between,” Gabrielle explained. “These are just for the honey. It’s an old beekeepers trick to add more boxes on top like this so the bees are compelled to make more honey. They are driven by an evolutionary knowledge to fill their homes with honey so they can survive the winter - the more space, the more furiously they work.”

The second super came off easily. There were more bees visible now, buzzing upwards and circling through the air, dancing and wobbling across the exposed surface of the lower hive, vibrating with an intense, synchronized vitality that seemed to penetrate O’s suit and shake his bones. Gabrielle was unphased, but she caught O’s eye through the mesh of their masks, and smiled.

“It’s pretty intense, right?” Bees crawled across the mesh in front of her face. Bees flew off into the air and disappeared, and more bees took their place. Bees were everywhere, surveying and understanding these great newcomers in their clothes and suits and big bodies.

“Yeah, but I love it,” O said.

“Me too.”

The third box was crawling with bees. Gabrielle carefully lifted each frame individually from the box and inspected it closely.

“I’m looking for the queen now. You can help me look - she has a longer abdomen than the others.”

Each frame was covered in brood cells, little hexagons sealed with wax, each holding the future of the hive deep within. Atop these cells bustled hundreds upon hundreds of workers, tending to each other, fixing broken cells, feeding any brood in open and already hatched cells, maintaining a constant state of motion. To O’s eyes it looked like there was water made of bees flowing down the surface of the frame as Gabrielle held it aloft.

“They’re beautiful.”