Several years ago, as I entered this dynamic decade, I wrote a blog called, “Seventy: The Road to Somewhere.” That musing is now archived on the PeerSpirit website and I am miles down the road still aiming for “somewhere.” Hopefully not yet the final somewhere, but the legacy somewhere that comes before my personal exit from the NeverEnding Story.
At age seventy, as we transitioned out of a twenty-five year dedication to The Circle Way, and handed over our resources to next generation consultants, hosts, and participants, I faced not so much where to go, but what to do. Tagline on my email read: Writer in her own residence. So that’s what I did: I stayed home and wrote an historical novel. It’s been an amazing journey of insight, research, delight and occasional touches of despair that I look forward to sharing. I wrote some of this journey in the blog posts moved here from my former business site, and about the book itself in my post, “The Dog and the Backstory.” Besides the era, the landscape, the war, the social issues, and personal dramas that fill those pages, there are bees.
I’m thinking a lot about these industrious little wonders as spring begins to bud around my Pacific Northwest home. I have friends excited over the return of the Rufus hummingbird and poised with binoculars to spy first Goldfinches; I am watching for bees. Which means watching the temperature, the sunshine, the wind factor, and the bloom. Heather and Hellebores in the yard, Oso berry in the forest. Later this spring, when the Madrone trees blossom, the whole woods behind our property will hum. And in our little garden, there will be a feast of lavender and blueberry and raspberry flowers. The hovering bumblebees, wild bees, and honeybees are essential pollinators that ensure the flower comes to fruit.
Which takes my mind to California, to a million acres of almond orchards that produce 80% of the world’s almonds, and the bee/stly industry that insures this harvest. Last year, as the orchards were coming into bloom, we were on a multigenerational road trip driving with our grandson and family from Los Angeles to Santa Cruz for him to check out universities. We cruised alongside miles and miles of orchards, irrigated in the desert of California’s Central Valley. Besides us, one half of all the bees in America, hive boxes strapped onto semi-trailer trucks, were headed to these fields to pollinate this crop. In 2022, approximately 1.3 million acres of almond groves required 2.6 million bee colonies for pollination, equaling roughly fifty billion bees hard at work throughout the orchards.
If you want to glimpse the economics and science of this enterprise read this article in The West Coast Nut, “Almond Pollination Outlook for 2023.” If you want an interesting story focused on how one beekeeper moves his hives around the continent, watch this episode of ABC’s Food Forecast with Ginger Zee.
In the family van, we are munching handfuls of mixed nuts full of almonds, and I, who have spent the last six years fictionalizing my grandfather’s alfalfa-based honey business into my novel, am shaken by the scope of what we are driving through. The three years preceding the dozen atmospheric rivers to hit California this winter season were the driest on record. Last year we also drove by miles of trees cut to ground and laid out like corpses, an Arlington Cemetery of trees. And invisibly, also of bees.
There are 50,000,000,000 tiny yellow and black female laborers working themselves to death in less than six weeks. Not only pollinating for hours of daylight, but tending a queen who is laying 1500 eggs—more than her body weight—every day while workers feed the almond blossom nectar to the larvae who emerge from a twenty-one-day gestation and fly into the task of sucking flower juice and spreading the pollen that sticks to their legs from flower to flower, tree to tree. The life of a bee.
Bees pollinate 70% of global food production. A world without bees is a world of starvation. A world without bees is death to the plant kingdom. Monoculture agriculture demands this kind of influx and production capacity, at great cost to bees. I cannot comprehend what it would take to change this in our world of needy and greedy mouths. Maybe that’s why I wrote historical fiction instead of future apocalypse, it allowed me to grapple with scale that I could wrestle into story.
I was born in the bee yards—not literally—but carried home a few days old to a farmstead coming alive in Montana springtime and the buzz of bees. My mother worked the gardens all that summer and my father worked the honey business. We all left in autumn for him to continue schooling after “the war.” I never lived in Montana again, though we returned summer by summer to bring in the honey, and my inner compass is calibrated to those grasslands, buttes, and mountain vistas. My foundational storyline is connected to the mythology accumulated around bees and their industry, their society of cooperation, and the benefits of honey.
When I was five years old, I remember being held in my grandfather’s arms while my uncle pried off the hive cover and lifted frames of honeycomb crawling with bees into the daylight. Like many in my family, I carry stories of practicality and hardship mixed with respect for these tiny insects. One arm around grandpa’s neck, I leaned over the frame. “Will they sting me?” I asked.
“You’re not a flower,” my grandfather said, “so not interesting.”
“You’re not a flower,” Leo Cooper says on page forty-three of my book manuscript, “so basically not interesting.” It all comes round: life, writing, honey, almonds.
In the van with my grandchildren, prying their attention from phone screens to landscape, I speak about the bees, remind them of the family reunion, their visit to the place I was born, the graves, the homestead, the current beekeeper walking us through the modernized honey house. I hand them more nuts. “Everything in this world has a cost. That’s not necessarily bad, just important to know and notice. It’s not just money that brings food to our mouths, it’s a whole world of wonder. Out there”—I gesture into the flatlands—”a billion bees are making sure we have next year’s trail mix.”
They nod, smile indulgently, go back to ear pods and scrolling. I’m their Nina. I say these kind of things. We love each other. I pollinate them with my understanding of the world. I tap the window glass, “Our well-being, depends on their being well,” I say, “Bee kind, we’re all on the road to somewhere.”