following the hum

Most days I spend a fair bit of time in my garden. There’s watering, transplanting, weeding (though not much of that, alas), staking, deadheading, and most of this is done in a kind of dreamy state. I am there, in that place, almost out of my self. Or more deeply into myself, is perhaps more accurate. Some days I don’t know where the natural world begins or ends because I am deeply embedded in it, my hands heavy with soil, pollen all over my arms and shoulders when I stake tomatoes or reach among the beans to coax tendrils to cling to their poles.

Mostly the critters out there ignore me. Sometimes I’ll be doing something and I’ll see a snake lying on the damp path and it won’t move until I’m almost on top of it. The deer too. The buck browsing clover the other day had to be directed, almost at arm’s length, to head into the woods, away from “our” garden. He’s perhaps the one nibbling the lower leaves from the Kwanzan cherry and he’s probably the one who regularly nips off the tender new rose leaves that push through the fence around the vegetable area. I can’t blame him. They’re delicious! And the bees are everywhere, almost unnoticed. I don’t bother them. They’ve never bothered me.

Today I listened to the humming of the bees as I hadn’t really before. I hear the hum, sure, it’s always there but mostly I hardly notice because it’s part of the texture of the day, like the ravens bickering in the woods or the drone of planes out over the Strait of Georgia. I water the tomatillos and it’s all around me. The cucumber boxes, which I water first thing — everywhere. I’ll follow the hum, I thought after lunch, and it will tell me something about what the bees truly love.

You’d think it would be this —


or these —

P1120144Look at those anthers! The stigmas! But no bees. I peered into the gorgeous squash blossoms and saw ants, not bees.

P1120150And I’m sure those plants receive their share of visits. But mostly it’s the flowers you hardly notice. The tiny yellow blooms on the tomatillos, volunteers I brought back from Forrest and Manon’s Ottawa garden when I was digging their vegetable bed in May. Wrapped in damp paper towel and put in a ziplock bag, they happily travelled home with me and are more than 6 feet tall now, loaded with both flowers and developing fruit. And as it turns out, bees.

P1120147I stood with the camera, trying to get them to hold still, but they purposefully moved from one flower to the next, burying their faces in the tiny open throats.

And they love the oregano, which I’ve let self-sow over the thirty-three years we’ve been here. It grows everywhere, doesn’t need water, smells like Greece when you brush against it on a path or even tiny clefts in the rocks. When you see it dense with bees, when you hear the humming as you bend to watch them at their work, you realize they are one of the foundations of our world. The Greeks knew this. They believed bees were a bridge between the human world and the divine. There’s no food we eat that doesn’t owe its existence (and ours) in some way to the work of bees. When I was researching the origins of mathematics for my essay, “Euclid’s Orchard”, I learned that Pythagoras attributed his long life — he lived to be nearly a hundred! — to a diet of honey.

Following the hum has me wanting to know more about our specific bees. A difficult but enticing task — I saw at least four kinds of bombus today and reading their names takes me to that dreamy state: orange-rumped, yellow-faced, bright yellow, red-belted, Sitka. A line of poetry, the beginnings of a whole meditation on origins, culture, social organization, military strategy, a recipe for mead, for meadow, for the music of their dance, the choreography of their lives, the elegance of their movement from one stem of oregano to the next. My mentor Pliny the Elder shares my interest, though of course he knows far more (and thinks he knows even more: he calls honey “the saliva of the stars”, fanciful but true?). And as for identification, he’s as useless as I am:

There are wild bees and bees found in woods; they have a bristling look and are much more easily stirred up, yet are noteworthy for their industry and application. There are two kinds of domesticated bees: the best is short and speckled and of a compact, round shape; the inferior kind is long and looks like a wasp, while the worst is hairy.