the collective lives of bees and men

We live next to beekeepers. Somewhere around the third week in February, there is a morning where I go outside to stretch, hoping that that last bit of melted snow is truly the last bit of melted snow, and in the silence, I hear a low decibel sound, constant and monotone. I know that somewhere nearby, something is blooming; maybe an almond tree is starting to unfurl its flowers.And the sound, ever so recognizable, is that of my neighbor’s bees, greedily searching the first drops of nectar. Every year, the sound calms me, relieves me, reminds me once more that the season is turning and changing and shifting and morphing into something resembling celery green with pops of dandelion yellow and crocus purple. As the months progress, spring turns to summer and I find myself sitting poolside, surrounded on all sides by lavender and by bees. I have never once been stung here by a bee. I wish the same could be said for wasps and the dreaded calabroni, the monstrous hornets that look like they could down a Big Mac and Fries and still be miserable enough to send you to the hospital with a case of anaphylactic shock. But the bees, well, the bees seem happy. Content. Mesmerized by the smell and taste of lavender all around. The movement is balanced out by hundreds of butterflies joining in the dance.

I have already served countless goat cheeses with my neighbors’ honey – acacia, millefiori, tiglio. The circle of completion that serving honey from my neighbors’ bees gives me is satisfying.We are busy as bees – all of us - our lives full of frenetic activity, bustling from one place, taking, moving to another place, giving. Trying to produce something meaningful. I see this so very clearly now, as we move into the deepest throes of the Italian summer. The neighbors come and bring us vegetables from overproductive gardens. The guests delight in the bounty, biting into almost-but-not-quite-too-ripe tomatoes. I take from the neighbors;I give to the guests. Soon, too soon, everyone will be eyeing the grapes.Will it be a stellar Barbera season? It could be. The bunches will be cut from the vines and time and yeast and very little else will give us warm drops to enjoy with our veal and our wild boar.

My neighbor Marisa sits, every single week, at the Farmer’s Market in Acqui Terme at the tiniest of stands and sells her honey, her potatoes, and whatever else the season brings. She’s almost eighty. In the depths of the winter she is lucky to sell even two jars of her honey. I sometimes pick my things up from her there, sometimes I just drive up to her house, where she and her husband work the land without machinery and have over thirty individual hives that they tend daily. The work, the work.They’re as busy as bees themselves. I can’t see how it pays off financially for Marisa to be at the market every Tuesday, particularly in the winter. But then, looking at it that way is to completely miss the point. It’s what she does. It’s who she is. Asking her not to do it is like asking the bees not to touch the lavender. It’s useless.

Not everything can be judged by the amount of honey produced. Sometimes it’s just about the dance to get the nectar. Sometimes it’s about the overproductive gardens, but more often it’s about the tending of the plants. Anyone who comes here thinking what’s the bottom line and does any of this hard work really pay off needs to think about what the payment actually is. Sure, everyone has bills. But there’s payment in listening to that first hum in the spring time. There’s payment in tilling up the first spring potatoes, the ones you eat with the buccia. There’s payment in the first fig that falls in your hand, giving its life to be turned into breakfast. The reality is something that the bees, and the Italian neighbors, were born knowing. There’s payment in the process.

More payment than money could ever buy.