Saturday Excerpt: The Honey Bus by Meredith May
A touching story of family and growing up, The Honey Bus is a true story from author Meredith May about growing up with her beekeeping grandfather. Keep reading for a preview of the book below, as well as some insight from the author herself on what beekeeping means to her.
About The Honey Bus:
An extraordinary story of a girl, her grandfather and one of nature’s most mysterious and beguiling creatures: the honeybee.
Meredith May recalls the first time a honeybee crawled on her arm. She was five years old, her parents had recently split and suddenly she found herself in the care of her grandfather, an eccentric beekeeper who made honey in a rusty old military bus in the yard. That first close encounter was at once terrifying and exhilarating for May, and in that moment she discovered that everything she needed to know about life and family was right before her eyes, in the secret world of bees.
May turned to her grandfather and the art of beekeeping as an escape from her troubled reality. Her mother had receded into a volatile cycle of neurosis and despair and spent most days locked away in the bedroom. It was during this pivotal time in May’s childhood that she learned to take care of herself, forged an unbreakable bond with her grandfather and opened her eyes to the magic and wisdom of nature.
The bees became a guiding force in May’s life, teaching her about family and community, loyalty and survival, and the unequivocal relationship between a mother and her child. Part memoir, part beekeeping odyssey, The Honey Bus is an unforgettable story about finding home in the most unusual of places and how a tiny, little-understood insect could save a life.
Grandpa reached under the bus and crooked his finger, signaling me to come to him. I scrabbled out, and as he helped me to my feet, he brushed the dirt from my back and plucked off the burrs. Whatever was in the bus would have to wait. Until I got bigger, whenever that was. The only people admitted entry were Grandpa’s friends, so I imagined I would have to wait until I was an adult, which might as well be never.
“I thought you wanted to see the bees,” Grandpa said.
His counteroffer was exquisitely played, and I perked up immediately. As my part of the deal, I had to come inside for breakfast first.
Belly properly filled with pancakes, I followed Grandpa to the back fence, where he kept a row of six beehives. The sun was shining on the slit entrances at the base of the hives, illuminating the landing boards where the bees were flitting in and out. A small cloud of bees hovered before each hive, all the foragers waiting for a clear shot to get back inside. I noticed that the bees were buzzing in a different way than the one we caught in the house; their sound didn’t have the urgency of a shout, it was more contented and calm like a person humming a song. I stood in front of the right-most hive, about a foot away from the entrance so I could watch them. I felt Grandpa’s hand on my shoulder.
“Don’t stand there,” he said. “See what’s happening behind you?”
I turned and saw a traffic jam of bees jiggling in the air, unwilling to go around me to get into the hive. The backup was growing by the second.
“You’re in their flight path,” he said, guiding me to the side of the hive. As soon as I stepped out of the way, the clot of waiting bees whooshed in a comet back to their hive. I knelt down next to the hive so I was eye level with the bees. One by one they marched to the entrance, cleaned their antennae, then crouched and launched like a jet fighter.
“What do you see?”
“Lots of bees coming and going,” I said. “Look closer.”
I did, and saw the same thing. Bees flying in. Bees f lying out. So many it was hard to keep my eye on one bee at a time. Grandpa took a comb out of his back pocket and whisked it through his hair in three practiced swipes, top and sides, waiting for me to see whatever it was I was supposed to see. Then he pointed at the landing board. “Yellow!” he announced.
All I saw were bees.
“There’s orange! Gray! Yellow again!”
And then I saw it. Some of the returning bees had some- thing stuck to their back legs. Every fifth or sixth honeybee that returned waddled in carrying small balls like the pills that collect on a favorite sweater, some loads no bigger than the head of a pin, others the size of a lentil, so large the bee strained under the weight.
“What is it?”
“Pollen. From flowers. The color tells you which f lower they came from. Tan is from the almond tree. Gray is the blackberries. Orange is poppy. Yellow is mustard, most likely.”
“What’s it for?”
Now he was just messing with me. Bees can’t bake bread.
All they make is honey. Everybody knew that. “Grandpa!”
“What? You don’t believe me?”
“Suit yourself. Bees mix the pollen with a little spit and nectar and feed it to their babies. Bee bread.”
It made some sense, but it was just too weird. I waited for him to giggle at his own joke, but he kept a straight face. Grandpa had told the truth when he said it was safe to let a bee crawl on me, so I guessed he knew what pollen was for. For the moment, I played along.
“They’re making bread in there?”
“They push the pollen off their legs, chew it with nectar and store it in the honeycomb.”
“Can I see?”
“Not today. I don’t want to disturb them right now. They are building new wax.”
Just then the fattest bee I’d ever seen lumbered out of the hive. It was wider and stockier than all the others, and its head was comprised almost entirely of two massive eyes. I watched it approach several of the regular-size bees and tap its antennae against theirs. Every bee it touched backed up and walked around it, as if irritated by being bumped.
“Is that the queen bee?”
Grandpa picked it up and put it in his palm. “Nope. A drone…a boy bee. He’s begging for food.”
I asked Grandpa why he didn’t just get his own food.
“Boy bees don’t do any work. All those bees you see with pollen? All girls. Boys don’t collect nectar or pollen for the hive, they don’t feed the babies and they don’t make wax or honey. They don’t even have stingers, so they can’t protect the hive.”
Grandpa returned the drone to the hive entrance where it resumed the search for handouts. Finally, one of the returning girl bees paused and linked tongues with him. Feeding him nectar, Grandpa said.
“He only has one job, but I’ll explain it to you when you’re a little older.”
Grandpa had set up two stumps near his apiary, and we took seats and watched the bees flying as one would watch a fire, or the sea, lulled by all the individual movements that combined together into a single flow. I liked interpreting the patterns of their routine, to know that the bees weren’t just flying willy-nilly; there was an order to what they were doing. They were out grocery shopping for bread and nectar. A beehive could seem chaotic if you didn’t understand that bees had a plan for everything.
I could have never guessed that a beehive is a female place, a castle with a queen but no king. All the worker bees inside are female; around sixty thousand daughters that look after their mother by feeding her, bringing her water droplets and keeping her warm at night. The colony would wither and die without a queen laying eggs. Yet without her daughters taking care of her, the queen would either starve or freeze to death.
Their need for one another was what kept them strong.