The Sorrow of Bees

Amanda Corr photo by Laura WIlkes Carey

My friend Amanda died nearly two weeks ago. She was barely in her forties. She died of a very aggressive form of breast cancer she had been fighting for less than a year. The last time I spoke with her I thought she was done with treatment. Now she is dead.

I didn’t take her death well, though it wasn’t like we were best friends. I hadn’t even seen her since the early stages of her diagnosis. I’ve experienced a lot of deaths, old and young, so it’s not like death is a new thing. I’m not one of those people who glom onto bad news, but this hit me much harder than I’d expected. I was awash in grief for days, surprised by tears dripping down my cheeks. The sorrowful sound of despair would startle me mid-memory, only to realize that the sound had come from me. I was truly grief stricken.

Amanda was diagnosed with breast cancer the year I celebrated my 5 year anniversary as a breast cancer survivor. We talked a lot about cancer before and after her diagnosis. I am very aware that by luck of the draw, her death could have been mine. 

And I heard the news of it while I was waiting on the results of an MRI scan on my brain.

Over the past two years, mysterious pain, exhaustion and an inability to think my way out of a wet paper bag had been increasing to the point of needing to consider partial disability from work. For several months I’ve been having daily headaches or migraines. Any cancer survivor will tell you that health paranoia is part of survivorship. But when you start manifesting very real but mysterious symptoms, the freak out factor can be great. I’d been quietly freaking out for several weeks.

The test results came back normal, but I was left with  serious questions about my health and how to live a life filled with meaning in whatever time I have left.

I still can’t understand the fact of Amanda dead.

Maybe to her loved ones who watched her fight, her struggle to survive seemed drawn out, but to me her death was a sudden and unexpected blow. Our last conversations are still fresh. I still think of things I meant to share with her. Recipes I’d been meaning to give her. An extra jar of Bourbon Vanilla Peaches from the summer left on a shelf in my cupboard to use as a bribe for a visit.

She was a Diva in all the best possible ways. She was larger than life. Dramatic. Exuberant. She taught me to wear red lipstick. When I said I dreamed of traveling, it was Amanda who asked, “Where will you travel to?” To her, a lack of  money or a passport weren’t obstacles to travel. All I needed was a plan. So I came up with one and two years later, I spent three weeks in Ireland. The last time I saw her, she was tired but still very  much alive.

She had plans. She always had plans. There was so much she had to do. She wanted chickens and a garden. She had a list of hikes and places to travel to. Bands to see. Colors to wear, scarves and baubles and shoes and trinkets to buy and cherish and give away. Things to write. Causes to fight for. Arguments to have and get mad about and make up over. She had a world of stuff she was passionate about. What I still find myself wondering–obsessing over really—is this: how did she make her peace with letting go of all of that in such a short amount of time? Would I have been able to do the same?

Just after Amanda died, I did my first full hive inspection in my now one year old top bar hive. (Read about my beekeeping at my other blog BeeCalm) I was worried as I opened it up. The day was sunny and warm and I should have been seeing more bees. Something was wrong.

There were a lot of dead bees in the hive.

The entire floor of the hive—perhaps three feet of it—was coated in a layer, two to three bees thick, of recently deceased bees.

My best guess is that someone in the neighborhood sprayed the dandelions in their lawn and the bees brought back chemical-laced pollen which was then eaten by most of the rest of the hive. It is so sad to see a hive near total destruction. They’d made it so far only to die just as life was about to get easier.

(I don’t want to get into the pesticide debate here. It should just be fairly obvious: don’t           spray flowers-they are bee food. You wouldn’t spray your food with Round-Up right               before you set it on the table no matter what side of the debate you are on.)

My heart was heavy as I pulled the bars apart so I could inspect the combs for anything else that might have been to blame, scooping out dead bees as I went. And then I noticed a sound.

In the background, under the usual hum of the bees, there was a strange moan or keening. It is almost hard to hear –a low, primal pitch, completely different from any other bee sound. I’ve only ever heard it once before, when I nearly lost the hive due to starvation in the early days of my beekeeping. It is a sound I understood immediately—the sound of the Queen’s sorrow.

As I moved the bars around, shoveling out handfuls of bees, I started talking to her. I told her I understood her loss. The way faith gets shaken. The maddening way answers to WHY don’t come. The frustration of not being able to fix things. The way you have to keep doing what needs to be done even though hard work doesn’t always pay off. That it is difficult it is to carry on, to be a leader, when it isn’t a role you chose. How you fear for those you care for. How you fear your own death. The way hearts get broken. Even bee hearts. And how important it is that we carry on with what we are meant to do. Lives depend on us. Even lives we will never know. We are all connected. Sister to sister.

While I spoke, she would pause in her lament, listening before resuming with a little less emphasis. Soon, she quieted down, seemingly comforted. Strangely, I found myself comforted too.

When the hive was mostly empty of corpses, I opened up the section of the hive where she was living. There she was, busily laying eggs in the newly cleaned out cells. Her attendants were taking no chances and were helping her along with more devotion than I had seen from them in the past year. She was hurrying too, moving faster than I’d ever seen her move. There isn’t much time to waste, I suppose. Our lives are short, bee and human. We must make the most of our moments to create.

The Queen is the one with the white mark on her back. Notice how the attendants are guiding her into the cell to lay her egg!


6 thoughts on “The Sorrow of Bees

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s