It’s been a whirlwind spring full of adventure and blossoms (and yowza is it summer already?). Tales of THUNDER to come, but in the meantime, a little shout out to my girls in Shangri-La who we thought requeened themselves last fall and now we have proof. In short (just to blow your mind if you don’t know too much about bees/love Shakespearean-style epics): a beehive always knows how their queen is doing. Much like in any period drama, a small scrim of bees called the “retinue” surround the queen at all times and groom her and feed her and generally worship her. Only a few bees at a time comprise the retinue and they swap in and out so many bees have a chance to get close to the queen. Once the bees closest to the queen have swapped out, they then are able to send the pheromones of the queen to every ladybee in the hive in a complex game of telephone, so that every bee in the hive knows exactly what the queen is up to at all times. This is super important to all bees, as the health (and fertility) of the queen is necessary to the hive’s survival. If something happens to the queen, the hive can immediately tell. If the queen dies, if she gets squished by the beekeeper, if robber bees kill the queen, if her pheromones start to get weak, if the queen is just getting old, the hive will know. A very strong and intuitive hive (disclaimer: beekeepers are infinitely desirous of anthropomorphizing their hives. I do it, like, one million percent) will get the sense that their queen is failing and they will pick a part of the hive where the current queen seldom goes and they will start grooming a replacement to overthrow her. I put this Shakespearean cloak-and-dagger impulse in italics because it is truly incredible. Various factors (brood pattern, queen cells) led us to believe that we had this exact “re-queening” situation in Shangri-La last summer. Like her sister queen in our other hive, the old queen in Shangri-La had a red mark on her, so the only way to be sure that the hive had, in fact, re-queened itself, was to spot a new, unmarked queen in her place. This spring, we saw her, in all of her huge, beautiful, un-marked glory. Proof. Proof that these crazy divine bees know what’s best for themselves and proof that (on however small a scale) by keeping bees we are helping the species overcome the obstacles that we as humanity have set up for them. She’s in the bottom right corner, with a shiny exposed thorax (where a store-bought queen would normally be marked) about twice as long as the worker bees and surrounded by cells of larvae. Long live the Queen.And in case you have trouble spotting her, here’s an image with an arrow:
Spotted in Xanadu, the Queen Bee.
I’ve always loved plants, flowers, blooms. Made forts in boxwoods, learned and loved the evocative names Mama had planted in the gracious swooping beds surrounding our house, onomatopoetic almost, Bleeding Hearts, Johnny Jump-ups, Naked Ladies, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Poet’s Laurel, St. John’s Wort, Harry Lauder Walking Stick. I held dear The Secret Garden, Peter Rabbit, and a book called “Flower Fairies of the Garden“ (my copy of which my Mama brought back to me recently for use as a research tome). I’ve always loved plants, but it’s been like how you love Paris or how you love Vermeer or how you love Virginia Woolf. You love them from afar, through the lens of where you are, they’re distant, somehow, you appreciate their beauty and softness and worldly majesty when you are lucky enough to brush by it, but Paris is not yours, the Vermeer isn’t in your care, and you will never truly understand Virginia Woolf, no matter how many times you re-read To The Lighthouse. I’ve always felt the same way about plants. I love them, but that they are not meant for me to understand. And when I try, one of us usually ends up a shriveled brown mess.I think this has a lot to do with our relationship with time. Talking about this crazy winter, the forsythias straggled in just last week, leggy and blown like a horse ridden to far too fast. In deciding whether to cut it back drastically or let time take its course, the words got tossed around we’ll just have to see how they do next year. It’s unfathomable for a person of 25 to be thinking about what a plant is going to do a year from now when they don’t know what they’re going to be doing six months from now. The rare young birds that do have very old souls indeed. You have to be in a place where you’re ready to put your own roots down before you can be worrying about anyone elses.
Understanding a plant takes commitment, the delicate pruning of the lilac, the blooming off of new-wood-old-wood argument of the Azalea (what, that takes 3 years to understand?), and the dauntless perennial bulbs that are springing to life right now, a testament to the staying power of loveliness and perhaps proof of the rightness of civilization. Miss McKay says that her mama told her that if you see daffodils in the country, it means a house used to stand there, the plants become the record of the people, and are still there after decades. And this is the, ahem, root of it. The best kind of plants have a kind of permanence (like Paris, like Miss Virginia) that, literally, takes root and hangs on for years, you are their steward, you have to be in it for the long haul, and if you do your job well, the roots you put down will outlast you. I discovered a stand of daffodils in the back woods, near where some mysterious stone columns have sat, fallen for years like an Appalachian Ozymandius, the dark green shoots bursting from bramble, proof that someone cared here. And I care here now.
This has been our first bee-winter, and, as the weather channel fear mongerers/anyone with eyeballs can tell you, it’s been a real beast. Weeks at a time stretched with the hives covered in snow, with me just watching from the kitchen sink, hoping it was like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “The Long Winter” when they live in the rickety store-bought-wood house in town which, unlike Pa’s hand chinked log cabin in the Big Woods, was always drafty and freezing UNTIL the huge snow, when the drifts rose to the top windows and the girls were finally snug as bugs in rugs… or snug as bees in a hive? Aaaanyway, when the temps slowly started to rise, we saw them making forays out of the hives, sweet bumbling little flights on wobbly wings, proof that they had made it through their own long, hard winter. And, bless them, they would return to the hive, woozy, riding low in the water, laden with pollen. Full saddlebags of bright yellow alder and maple’s greenish grey or dun. In the spring, this pollen is used to make bee-bread, a heady ambrosia of pollen’s protein, a little bit of honey, and some probiotics from the bees themselves that is the stuff that baby bees are nursed on to rear them strong and mighty in time for the coming nectar flow. So, seeing our bees heavy with pollen, we knew that the Queen was holding court, and that the next generation of honeybees are being groomed to flourish. Signs of spring indeed.
Found this little guy in a patch of dark rich soil that had accumulated at the corner of the woodshed, in theory from years of sawdust and leaf mold and right in the spot where the badger knocked over the grill last summer. Maybe that was the tipping point. Ash and leaf and earth and dirt and dust become soil. It takes a while for the hard clay of this ground to turn into the kind of fertile anything that will encourage growth beyond wild asters, but, like most things, with the right combination of work and the fortune of circumstance small wonders can spring forth. Can you call it luck? I’m not sure what is more miraculous, that a tiny patch of delicate clover sprung from the nothing of a cool and shady previously inhospitable corner of my world, or that I noticed the little shoots yesterday in the midst of my big-doing-striding-purposefully-around the domain rehanging a broken clothesline and picking up the wreckage of winter… and that the tiny majesty stopped me in my tracks and I turned around to bend over the patch and take in its sweet small gentleness, and among them, there was this: a tiny four leafed clover. Good things are happening and good things are going to keep happening.
So, yes, I know that Valentine’s Day was over a week ago, but but but there were literally FEET of snow on the ground on the actual mostromanticredrosebannerdayoftheyear so, I wasn’t allowed to actually break out my valentine until just this weekend, when the temperatures inexplicably were in the low 70’s. Let me just say: after an incredibly long winter of incessant snow-fall, shin-deep city sidewalk slush, and muddy-pawed squirrels tirelessly breaking into my birdseed, 70 degrees on the naked skin feels totally, utterly, soul-rising-in-the-body-like-sap-in-a-maple incredible. But, I have to say… it doesn’t feel as incredible as the revving and rumbling motor horsetremble of my very own gorgeous gas powered lady sized Stihl chainsaw. Which is what I got for Valentine’s Day this year. To be fair, Sweetheart and I actually got it for each other (and we’ve decided this is how we’re going to roll on Valentine’s Day from here on out: an excuse to buy the big-ticket-thing we’ve both been jonesing for together), but, per usual, even though it’s “ours”, he’s letting me take the reins, letting me wear the orange-kevlar-pants, only yelling from the side (he has to yell since I’m wearing safety ear-muffs) “PLANT YOUR FEET! DON’T SWITCH YOUR HANDS WHEN YOU TAKE OFF THE CHAIN BRAKE! DON’T LET THE CHAIN HIT THE GROUND”. Bellows which, honestly, are sweeter than any sweet nothing whispered into a naked ear by a moon-eyed-cassanova. Be still my beating heart, it’s revving at 2.3 HP, fully oiled up, and ready to take on the world.
This weekend we hosted an 18 person slumber party at our house, friends flung back into our orbit from New Orleans and New York, Washington, Richmond and Los Angeles, all to come see us and the horse races, to toast champagne, try their hand at moonshine, eat fried chicken and enjoy the glorious southern spring in all of its almost-unbelievable beauty. The air was crisp, the sky was clear, the horses were swift, and the company was excellent. What more could a girl ask for? Oh yeah, for the day to end with 30 people singing and playing music around the campfire.