I grew up across the road from an apple orchard and a quarter mile from an avocado and kiwi farmer. We also had our own ragtag orchard of sorts: an apricot tree, a cherry tree, pear, walnut, persimmon, lemon, several apple trees as well as some scraggly grapes and a tangle of blackberries.
Some years you were lucky to get a few pieces from any one tree or bush. But something was always producing a good crop. And what we didn’t grow ourselves we’d often get in exchange for our honey. It took a decade for the bees my dad tended to grow from the one wild swarm he’d cut down from a Monterey Pine when he first moved to the property into five hives. He kept the hives up the hill from the house under a stand of oak trees, and for most the year we’d see them flying to and fro the field of owl clover, California poppy and dandelion, to the creek and back to the hive. When it came time to harvest the honey, he dressed in a thick canvas jumpsuit and net covered hat and smoked the bees into drowsiness.
We always had more honey than we could possibly eat ourselves. Some years, dad harvested enough honey to give away to neighbors by the Folger’s Coffee can full. The bees and the honey and fruit made up a bounty that I took for granted. (In college, living away from home for the first time, I was miffed to learn people actually bought fruit!)
When I was 11 or 12, I can’t quite remember, the grassy, sloping, until-then-undeveloped acreage next door was subdivided. Soon after, my dad went to check on the hives to find they’d been stolen. The theft of the hives marked a big turn in my home life — soon after my grandfather died and my parents split up —which I’ve tried to write about in a lot of different ways in the decades since.
I’ve had a lyric about that time sitting around for several months when my main music collaborator Kwame Copeland and I went to Joshua Tree to work on music:
“dreaming of bees/honey on the comb/the way they swarmed and flew on their way home/one big whir/queen and drone/making honey….”
When it came to time put together songs for a new record The Department of the West, I brought out “Honey.”
“Dreaming of Bees….Honey on the Comb, the way they swarmed and flew on their way home…”
In various mythologies, bees have long been regarded as sacred, able to bridge worlds, spring from the tears of gods, and associate with gods, goddesses and royalty. Beekeeping has been practiced for thousands of years in Egypt, honey being used for everything from food to commerce, wound healing to religious ceremonies.
In the decades since I grew up scooping honey out of coffee cans by the spoonful, bees have been in precipitous decline. In the past few years, Science Times reports, nearly 90% of the global bee population has disappeared. A litany of threats: pesticides, parasites, climate change have challenged the bee’s ability to survive. And if the bees go, so do we. For that reason, scientists consider bees the most important living being on the planet.
Every time I sing my song, I think I should keep bees. Given they’re such a crucial species of pollinator on the planet, and in need of protection, I just might.
Note: The Planet Bee Foundation has compiled a list of ways to help save bees (including keeping a hive). Find out more at https://www.planetbee.org/save-honeybees