Filling the hives
Autumn Phillips, Quad-City Times

I drove two hours and six minutes and found that I was still surrounded by people from Davenport.

We stood on the farmhouse side of a barbed-wire fence. Thin lines of corn seedlings stretched toward the horizon as if someone had taken a green colored pencil and drawn on the landscape in perfect rows.

The woman next to me was talking about the beekeeping club that meets once a month at Nahant Marsh. She was from Davenport, too, and traveled on this Sunday morning to pick up the bees she ordered over the winter.

Bees hovered in the air around us. Their buzzing sounded more like wailing to me. All around us were stacks of wooden boxes full of dead bees. Thousands of dead bees in each box. Hundreds of boxes.

A truck carrying more than 1,400 boxes of bees broke down in Wyoming on its way to Iowa. The driver did everything he could to keep the bees pointed into the wind so they wouldn’t overheat, but when I called my mom who lives in Wyoming, she said the days had been unusually hot. By the time the truck arrived, half of the bees were dead.

Luckily, many did survive the trip to Iowa and there we were – beekeepers from all over the state – holding slips of paper with the names of the varieties we’d ordered.

The farmer who arranged it all was exhausted from a long night of sorting through the mess and contacting beekeepers.

He looked up expressionless when another farmer slid his thumbs through camouflage suspenders and said, “Sounds like you need a better truck.”

A woman’s cell phone rang and we she announced to the group that her children had remembered it was Mother’s Day. The announcement inspired someone else to leave the group for a moment to call his mother.

On the drive back, I could hear the bees. No buzzing, just the chattering of wings, like clapping paper. It was hot, a small face slap of heat as a precursor to the Midwestern summer so many have warned me about. I’ve never thought of bees as having a smell, but as I drove, the cab filled with an animal scent.

I should have put on a beekeeping suit, and I would quickly learn that there’s a price to pay for feeling confident. I haven’t been stung in years. I’ve lost my fear of bees, that feeling I had the first year, kneeling in the grass next to a new hive, terrified to pull the lid off the box of bees I brought home.

On Sunday, I had two hives to fill. The first one went smoothly. I opened the box and turned it upside down. Bees poured out like syrup and went immediately to work.

When I opened the second box, the bees rushed out like escaping, disoriented prisoners. Several ended up in my hair and the more they tried to get away, the more tangled they became. I felt a line of stings from my forehead to the back of my neck. I remembered the sting-swollen eye of the man who gave me the bees, even as his beekeepers hat hung from a string around his neck.

I returned to the hive geared from head to toe, even a pair of rubber boots. We were more comfortable this way, the bees and I. I used my pocket knife to pull a cork out of the tiny cage holding the queen and slid the cage into the hive.

I was in someone else’s backyard, setting bees up in a corner they offered me. Before I headed home to my apartment downtown, I sat for a moment on their back steps.

The warm light of late afternoon was shining through the trees onto the white beehives. Bees were moving in and out of the entrance. Despite the stinging of my scalp, I remembered in that moment why beekeeping is such a gift. You get to be witness to this tiny, perfectly functioning world. Roles, instincts, functions -- it all unfolds while you watch. You’re a step closer to nature, to life, and a tiny step closer to understanding the how and why of things.

Autumn Phillips is the executive editor of the Quad-City Times and 563-383-2264;; on Twitter @autumnedit.