Keeping Bees

Poem by Chelsea Woodard

My mother kept the beehives in our backyard,

small-domed against the wall of trees. She wore

a nylon-netted veil, and walked out in evenings,

gripping cotton gloves and a round, shallow pan

to hold the combs she’d coax out from the dark buzz.

She said it was an art, and moved, smooth as solder, 

 

keeping her breaths small while she reached 

one arm into the swarm, as deep as her shoulder.

The worker bees sank into clover, and I watched

from high up on the stone ledge, knowing

the honey’s taste laced with the drone of the bees

when they rose—a dark pall—while she smoked out  

 

the hives, moved the swarm among billows and blue sky,

calm in her black gauze, ghosting past trees.

I’d never been stung, still whenever a bee hummed by,

looking for peonies or lily blooms, I ducked,

low to the grass, shrank like the dog under the table,

who feared a thunderstorm each time like he’d been struck.  

 

I thought to the bee, there’s nothing for you here,

and swatted it on, up to the garden or apple tree to find

nectar, to feed its queen and all her tiny rows of cells,

six-sides each, sharp-brimmed with sting and sweet.

In winter, the hives stood snow-capped, slumped

under drooping pines. I wondered how bees slept,  

 

if they died, small bodies curled stinger to sternum,

frozen, dry in their dry nest. In winter, my mother

would keep to her room, not enough light

she would say, while she harvested afternoons, steeped

long in the south-facing glass. On the bed, her body

curled into itself, small under goose down, steady in sleep. 

 

Summer, near dark, the fireflies gathered,

and from deep in the lower field, the barred owl

summoned the last flutter of light. I stood, resolute

by the hive, but I would not lift my hand to the dark

gape, would not dip my finger. I remember

that ache—and years later, after the bees  

 

had gone, my mother withdrawn from their keeping,

I would go out to the wood’s edge, where the hives

stayed like ruins, spread by raccoons and snow thaw,

some overturned, two jutting out on their balks,

close to falling. I knelt low in the long grass

to see one, and bracing my eyes, lifted the roof 

 

from the body. I imagined its cavity strewn still

with thorax and fore wing—now blackened

by frost, dried far from the daylight. I raked

the inside but could find only broken combs—open

faced, and vacant as robbed graves—with no movement,

no sound to trace up from the dark middle.