City Swarm

Paula Carter and Meggan Kehrli

Out my second-story back window is a small plot of land, home to an old pine tree and a statue of the Madonna with paint chipping—my Jewish landlord’s attempt at a joke. Every morning, I go to this window to catch sight of the earth before I settle in at my computer. Today, holding my coffee, trying to see past the cable lines, I behold a vision: a golden plume of light and sound. God to Moses.

What is it? Mayflies? It takes me a moment to comprehend. Then one lands on the window and I see its famous stripes, its veined wings.

Bees.

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Flying through the June air are thousands of bees cartwheeling over each other. They move through and around, making beautiful, indiscernible patterns. Their honeyed bodies dance in the sun. I want to put my hand out and feel them, as you might the tufts of cotton from a cottonwood, but think better of it. It’s like being showered with manna, so unexpected and welcome the sight.

Here in Chicago there is so much life—some 2.7 million people huddled on the El, sleeping in their beds, slushing through the streets. We make our own indiscernible patterns. But, it is not like this life, which causes me to stop, to abandon my work, to return to the window all day long to take stock of what these bees are doing.

What are these bees doing? What does it mean? Are they collapsing? We’ve all seen the headlines. Bees disappearing like lost children. Is this our death knell?

I check back on the bees in an hour, and up in the pine tree is a large, round ball—a bee-ball—pulsing and buzzing and encircling a branch. A few are left flitting through the air, while the others have magnetized. Just then, the doorbell rings. And when I answer it, I find standing on my stoop a petite, young, black woman who says, “I think my bees are in your backyard.”

Now, that’s something.

“Yes,” I say. “I think they are.”

Turns out, she is new to beekeeping and this is her first swarm. Covertly, her hives are kept on my neighbor’s roof. Someone called to alert her to the exodus. Can bees be owned, I wonder, as we retire to the backyard to gaze up at them. A nearby apartment building partially blocks the sun and has inspired the craggy pine tree to grow in odd directions. The branch holding the bees is like an arm lifted in protest.

“There’s at least three pounds of bees up there,” she explains. It seems bees are sold by the pound.

A swarm, so I’ve learned, is an act of faith. It is a vote of confidence in the future. This is not a collapse; it is a birth. When a hive has too many members, the queen will lay queen eggs, which are fed a protein-rich diet of royal jelly and from which emerges a virgin queen that will stay behind to lead the old hive.

The original queen then gathers thousands of worker bees, and off they go to start a new life. Binary fission. Propagation. Once they’ve left the hive, the bees cluster in a nearby tree, protecting the queen, while scouts search for a new home. That is what they’re doing in my tree, Lady Mary praying at their feet.

The young woman is at a loss. The bees, her bees, are a few feet away and untouchable. She looks at them longingly. In order to try to retrieve them, she will have to come back with supplies—a nuc, a white sheet, a master apiarist. I am left, again, to watch over them.

Buoyed by the discovery that this is a swarm, I research city bees online. Some experts think city bees are faring better than their country cousins—no pesticides. One study found city bees using plastic in place of natural nesting materials, “innovating,” the study said. Good thing. The number of people living in urban areas increased from 746 million in 1950 to 3.9 billion in 2014.

carter-kehrli-2The next day it rains. The bees cling tightly to each other as the wind blows. Just past my yard is an alley. I gaze from the bees out across it and see abandoned by the Dumpster one lone loafer and a broken dresser. Forlorn castoffs. Rain drips from the dense bee-ball. Can they survive? A certain number will surely drown. But, when it brightens, there they are, walking right over each other and humming a soft tune. My confidence grows.

Conversely, across the alley the loafer is waterlogged. It will lie there, without its mate, for weeks. No foot to give it purpose, it looks like a failed experiment. How long will it take to break down, to decompose and become dust? Journalist Alan Weismen argues that if humans disappeared right now, it would take only five hundred years for our attempts at immortality to be completely eliminated, overtaken by the flora and fauna. All that would be left would be aluminum dishwasher parts and plastic handles. The Dan Ryan, the John Hancock: eaten up and erased.

This, like the bees, I find surprisingly comforting. My dentist—in an attempt to get me to practice proper gum health—told me that if he removed all of my teeth, my gums would grow up over the bone and cover my whole mouth. That’s what it knows to do. Lichen, the gums of our planet, can survive in the arctic tundra and in space. Lichen can consume the synthetic polyester resin in stucco walls and column capitals. Right now it is growing on the tree outside the window and slowly creeping up the brick portico, getting a head start: 499 years. It knows what to do.

That evening, in the pink light above the pine tree, I see a group of bees like black stars twinkle across the sky. A hundred or so voyaging out and away. Then another group leaves and another. Perhaps they’ve found a home in one of the great oaks in Rosehill Cemetery, a mile north. Perhaps they’re going west to Welles Park.

Mary cheers at their resolve. Let the sea resound, and all that is in it, let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them! Let all the trees of the forest sing.

The beekeeper is too late. This colony is now for the urban-wild.

I open the window and feel cool slip through the screen. I can hear my neighbors—the beekeeper’s friends—arguing. An ambulance goes by. Then the last of the swarm moves on, a faint, dark cloud, and Mary and I are once again alone, looking up past the rooftops, searching the sky for another miracle.

 

Read more poems, essays, and fiction from the May/June 2017 issue by purchasing a print or digital copy here.

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