She held, in a blue plastic measuring cup, a half-cup of bees. Bees crawling, mostly. Over and under one another, quietly. They zizzed and whirred, just barely. One had to lean in to hear it—agitated bees. Amber and brown, they mixed thoraxes with abdomens, dashed compound eyes against femurs. They stirred and sifted where brown sugar and oats had so many times been meted out. Their wings beat madly. But it was hard to tell whether they beat fast enough, whether they were taut and full, whether they were clean. She couldn’t tell, not just by looking. Other than for the not-knowing, it was merely another afternoon like the rest had been, like early September usually was. The grass under her foot crisped. A finch fettered away its noises with pomp and volume far above her head.
It was a question not quite of dying. It had more to do with the queen’s tenure and clout, or maybe not. She looked deeper into her scoop. Which bees were humming and which weren’t. The tawny, winged subjects hadn’t hinted at a coup, they just seemed a bit lax. They weren’t themselves, anyway, and it wasn’t clear why.
She had woken up even earlier than usual that morning, before anything else, before sun, before lamps, before dogs. She felt her way across the hall. There at the table, the standard dawn darkness was waiting. It occupied the seat across from her and as ever, it wanted her to worry, so she did. She worried whether the question was really more grandiose, was more abstract, whether it was applicable universally. She had been feeling pain in one knee lately. She hadn’t finished a book in a year though she began each one resolutely. The question itched. It wanted a title: About Seeming Not to be Thriving. No. On Things Separating. How Subtle Strife Erodes Routines. And yet, five years ago felt exactly like today. She made her coffee quietly. That’s inadequate, said the darkness, worry more.
A steel spoon touring a ceramic mug goes, zing, ssssing. She did it again, then she did it backwards. The zing was the same both ways. She set it down. How quiet it was then. This was certain. So too: there was a man in her bed. She also was certain that five years ago he said the same sorts of things he said now. She heard the man who had been the same for five years turn over in a bed he could also call his bed. She wrinkled her brow and sipped. Satisfied, the darkness receded.
For so many years everything had stayed the same, so many events had produced outcomes expectedly. It’s what science wants. She sipped. A leak of sun spilled on the floor. She watched the warmth spreading out. She began tapping one foot on top of it. Why this little expenditure of movement so early in the morning she didn’t know, but it reminded her: a student once told her that because he did all of the work in her class, he should get an A. But the work was not done well, she had said. He said, in reply, that that wasn’t the point, and that he had done everything he was asked to do. It was exhausting, those moments, when young people who falsely believe they have some truck with reality said things that were correct but not yet true.
The spoon made another tour around its world. The warmth was filling the room. She dropped her shoulders a bit. What— she wrote on the back of a receipt— should we do about that damn gazebo-thing they left behind the hives.
She worried about work, the bees, the sameness, the regularity of fall, its indifferent finch, and the rotting gazebo for most of the morning. Now, in the highest pitch of the afternoon, she was dressed as if recently widowed. Her face was covered by a dark, draping screen as she considered her half-cup of bees. She leaned in, as close as she’d ever leaned: wings and feet were equally waylaid by shades of yellow, highlighting dark dots of tiny, industrious heads. The finch flew off. The abandoned branch bowed. She heard it, she arched her neck to look up briefly, and was jealous. That a bird will never know of the labor required on the ground, of the need for hobbies, of the ways in which she’d otherwise explode. Easier to be a bird.
To be a bee— no. One bee dropped off the foot of the bee to which it had been clinging, and then, maybe it was that same bee, or some other, that flew under the cup and up around her wrist and there hovered for a moment: zizz, whirr, perhaps a flap of a wing.
She had prepared a vase filled with powdered sugar. It sat on the picnic table next to a lump of cloth. She would have to be firm, but loving— one might add— if they thought it mattered. She knew she would have to shake harder than she would want to. It stood to reason that this was the best course. This was how things might become clear. How the question might manifest. She tried to reformulate her hypothesis: was it the humidity? They hadn’t rejected the queen, no. Or were they about to. Was it something in the woodpile? Wrong in the air? Amiss in the larvae? But there wasn’t enough, enough what? Not enough bee-ness, in the combs, in the yard, in their zizz and whirr.
A week ago she had fed them at night, although she hadn’t wanted to take this route. She had set up two bottles of synthetic apian syrup on the hives and gone to bed, but not to sleep. It was not a violation. She curled up on her side and wrung out the corner of a sheet repeating a mantra: it was not so much violation as “investigation.” Yes. The syrup wouldn’t hurt them. It was not a violation. The man who was always in her bed snored once, then stopped. The edge of his calf was perceptibly near the heel of her foot. She pulled her foot in closer to herself.
Meanwhile, during that same night in which bees suckled, a waxing crescent climbed into a low tank of tangled birch branch and then climbed out again, up to the top, to where it became smaller-looking, and then retreated and laid down less-luminous and low. The Northern Cross sliced through the scene on the diagonal, and in the background, in the high and farthest darkness, a whole heat of astral bodies cut long bright curves across the black and deep in real-time. It was then that the man who had been the same for five years had a dream about a car full of water. She got up to go to the bathroom around the same time his dream ended, and returned to bed. The colonies devoured both bottles of syrup before dawn.
It was on that very morning, one week ago, that she had confirmed their evident appetite. At least they were eating. But since then, the noxious wonder had remained: what was the issue with their population and hum, both waning as it were?
Today, she was armed with powdered sugar. Today would be decisive. Here was one half of one cup of live bees. Her ribs rose up and made room for a manly breath and then fell, relaxed and ready. She lobbed the half cup of bees into the vase full of powdered sugar. She covered it quickly. One bee, at least, leveraged his ailerons against the fluff and rode right out onto the air, but then seemed to want to get back in. No matter. It was time to discover the right question. She shook. Endlessly and with both arms muscling, she shook. There was no screaming, which she may have imagined while sipping her coffee early that morning. She heard only a nearly imperceptible thump of bee-bodies against the round womb of the vase, over and over: bare thumps. She turned it right-side-up. She set it down. She kept her hands on the cloth and just lifted up her ribs a bit, making room for a big bellow of concern. It was time.
She pulled the cover. The bees, as the bee-expert who came by last week had promised—while looking rustic and fit— were still alive. They were now just powder-white and moving with sloppy footfalls as they rattled around on the picnic table. She began her count. She could see more than bees. One tiny mite, now that it was white, tumbled off an only slightly less tiny wing. Another mite. This one, now visible in its puff, was also smuggling itself across bees on wings. The wings were now visible, and being more visible, their shape appeared crumpled, the sails dented, slack. Mites. Another mite, another crawling, crimson vector looking pinkish under the sugar, manifested slowly from the undercarriage of a particularly long bee, dragging the weight of his new bright coat. It was the eighth she had counted. She counted on, she counted until she surpassed the warning track, the big number, the one the bee-expert— green-eyed and genuinely concerned about pollinators— had said to worry about.
She had something good for the darkness the next morning. Early enough, she attached her news to her heart and there they sat, she, the heart, and the news. Darkness all around asked what happened. Bad or good, evil or non, just the sharpness of now knowing was somehow turning up the corners of her mouth. She knew what to do. She would have to consult the bee-expert who always asked her questions and said things she hadn’t heard him say before. Like, “fumigate.” The darkness saw that this was not worry so much as some other thing. It remained in its place at the table, unsatisfied. Her spoon sssinged about the cup and in the steam she divined the queen’s approval, and considered whether she might be knighted. How silly.
She tapped her foot on the cold floor. The man turned over in a bed in which she had also slept. She thought about the count, and the explanation. Strange, the exhilaration she felt upon knowing. The finch, its heart beating at two hundred and seventy-four beats per minute, sat up in the big birch quietly, quietly nested.