There was a huge clump of bees at the end of my driveway. That in itself wasn’t reason enough for me to run towards them — they’d swarmed before — but the ever-so-familiar pair of pink Doc Martens protruding from the clump was.
Shit. I hadn’t seen Ellen since our latest screaming match, but there were her boots, lying in my driveway.
As I knelt beside them, the bees took off, hovering over my head and exposing the body that lay beneath them. It was Ellen all right: the short red hair, those boots, and one of her usual flowery dresses. She was cold. The hum from the bees’ wings was loud enough to be a shout.
I stood up. I needed to call the police, or maybe her mother. The bees buzzed louder and circled my head, all of them in unison. That was weird. And once I thought about it, it was weird that they’d been all over Ellen — unless she was drenched in sugar water, they just shouldn’t be that interested.
The bees stilled in front of my face and began separating. They’d spelled out my entire name before I realized I was looking at letters.
The whole message read “JIM ITS ELLEN FUCK YOU.” And that’s when they started stinging me.
Honeybees don’t sting at random. Each one dies once it uses its stinger, so they have to feel very mad or threatened. But once they do sting, and die, a chemical is released that signals to all the other bees to sting in the same place.
This kind of explains why I was stung 25 times in the face, mostly around the eyes, but nowhere else. Still, when it was time for me to be released from the hospital, I phoned my friend Benjamin and asked him to bring me my beekeeping gear. He was nice enough to not ask me any questions (and he and Ellen had been in a few art classes together, so I figured he’d be safe — just in case).
“Are you training your bees to join the circus or something?” he asked when he came to pick me up.
“Something like that. Why, were they doing something strange?”
“Well, it kinda looked like the whole lot of them were flying around in formation spelling out ‘COCKSUCKER.’”
I dressed in my beekeeping suit: first the white shirt, tucked into white elastic-waist pants and gloves to my elbows, then the stiff hat with a veil hanging over it that drawstrings shut at the bottom. The layers keep the bees from getting to your skin, and everything’s white to help you seem invisible — bees see a different colour spectrum, more ultraviolet than us humans.
Benjamin dropped me off at the edge of my driveway. When I stepped out of the car, the bees were spelling “CAST OUT THE DRONE.” Ellen had said that the honeybees’ practice of kicking all the male drones out of the hive for winter was sexist, but that she could see their point: The female workers were the ones who fetched all the nectar, the drones just ate and waited to mate with the queen. They were dead weight. I was dead weight. Wasn’t that why we’d broken up?
I shook my head. I needed to focus if I wanted to sneak past this swarm. I lit my burlap rag and dropped it into the smoker. Everyone thinks beekeepers use smokers to calm the bees — that’s not really true. Smoke freaks them out. They think their hive is on fire, so they rush back to fill up on honey to carry it safely away. It only “calms” them because they’re too busy making a slow getaway to bother with you.
I walked slowly towards my house, with the smoker in hand, ready to give it a few pumps if the bees started focusing on me. So far, so good. I made it all the way up the long driveway to my front door without incident. Once I unlocked the door and stepped inside, a shudder ran through all the bee letters. By the time I’d locked the door, they had broken formation and were a huge loose cloud patrolling the yard.
After two days of getting dressed up in my bee-suit every time I went into the yard, I was getting seriously worried. The bees kept spelling different messages; I was grateful they were in the backyard (buzzing “DICKFACE”) when the police were in the front yard asking me about finding Ellen’s body. They were initially very curious about why she’d come to see her ex-boyfriend on the day she died. Well, so was I. They lost interest in Ellen, and in me, soon enough — it turned out she’d had an aneurysm. Being a suspect had made me angry; now I was just numb.
The bees were probably going hungry. I hadn’t seen them visit their hive or any flowers in days, and they only had so much reserve strength. This year’s honey crop was going to tank — if they didn’t start collecting nectar soon, there wouldn’t be enough honey to last them through the winter, much less any extra for me to extract and sell.
I wanted to put out some sugar water, just to help them keep their strength up, but … did I want weeks of being insulted by my bees? On the other hand, if I let them die, I’d have to order a new batch of workers and a queen, and it would take years to get as big as this colony.
After two days of stalemate, I couldn’t avoid work any longer. I’d used up what bereavement leave I could get. I walked to my car in my bee-suit, got in and started to drive away. The second the car began to move, the bees were all over it, crawling on the roof, all over the side-mirrors and passenger windows. The front and back windows remained clear of bees, though, so I could still see pretty well.
I could park, run back into the house and hide, if they didn’t get me once I opened the car door. Or, I could drive to work and pretend I wasn’t being haunted by the swarm.
So I drove to work. Once I hit the city proper, I got honked at constantly — and no wonder! The skin of my car looked like it was coming alive. I was half wishing my car was white, too, but I was getting sick of hiding. I parked and shed my bee-suit, then opened the door slowly, not wanting to squish any bees. They took flight, hovering just above the car’s surface. As I stepped out, I could hear them close behind me. I turned around. Two feet behind me, was me. Well, an exact model of me, 6’1″, long arms and skinny as a rake, formed of bees. Thousands of beating wings and compound eyes were fixated on me. After a second, the bee-me turned its head to look over its left shoulder, too. Oh God. The thought of being followed by a bee-shadow all day was excruciating. Maybe I could lose them.
The door to get inside was automatic. I walked up to it and stopped a foot away. The door slid open but I stayed motionless. I checked over my shoulder again. Other than checking over their “shoulder” and beating their wings to stay in place, the bees stayed motionless, too. I took a huge step, through the open door and just to the far edge of the weight-sensing mat, then stopped. I checked again. The bee-shadow had stopped just before the open door. The door slid closed, shutting them outside. Yes! I indulged in a stuck-out tongue of triumph at the bee-shadow. Too far — it dissolved in angry buzzing, all the bees dropping low as though the shape was melting. Soon they were all crawling over the sensor-mat. The door wouldn’t budge though, it was meant for people, mostly adults, and there was no way they’d be heavy enough. I left the frustrated bees on the mat and headed to my cubicle.
I’d had a fairly productive morning — made a few sales over the phone and had one woman threaten to sue — and decided grab a coffee from the cafeteria. My mind kept drifting back to the bees outside. Could they damage my car? There was no way they could pierce the tires. The worst thing I could come up with was flying in through the exhaust, but that seemed like a suicide mission. Ellen didn’t know much about cars anyway.
When I got back to my cubicle, there were bees on my chair, my headset and my computer monitor. I jerked and spilled coffee onto my shoes and the carpet. I realized what I should have been worried about: What happens when someone else goes through that door?
I went to sit down, but the bees on the seat of my chair stayed motionless, calling my bluff. I stayed standing.
Caroline, my boss, noticed my head protruding from the top of the cubicle, and took it as a cue to come over. Her eyes widened at the bees.
“Ah, Jim, what’s going on here? Are those wasps alive?”
“Well, these are my honeybees, and they, um, followed me to work.”
“Pest control!” she screamed.
“Stop it,” I whispered as loud as I could. “I’ll get them out of here!”
“You know Tara’s allergic,” Caroline whispered back. “You want us to get sued out of existence?” She yelled again: “Emergency, 9-1-1!”
I saw my coworkers standing up, looking over their cubicles. Panicking, I sprinted to the communal fridge and grabbed a can of coke.
I cracked it open. I poured the pop slowly over my head, getting it in my hair and beard, then dumped the rest onto the front and back of my shirt. It was cold and sticky and smelled like sugar. Perfect.
The bees started buzzing. Some started to fly towards me.
“Okay, bees. Ellen. Whatever. You’re coming with me now. Because I’m sugary sweet and fucking irresistible.”
And just like that, I was covered in them. Some guys do this “bee beard” stunt, where they put a caged queen bee under their chin and hundreds of bees crawl on them to get to her. I’ve never wanted to do that. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love my bees. But I like having a veil between me and them. Now, they were buzzing and crawling right on me, licking the sticky Coke off my skin. I had to move fast, to leave before they got bored of the Coke. I stood up slowly. I didn’t want to startle them.
I was so concerned about the bees’ feelings that I had forgotten about everyone else in the office. Tara came out of the washroom and immediately started screaming.
“Oh God, what is that? It’s wasps! It’s a wasp man! Oh God, you know I’m allergic to wasps!”
“Tara. Tara. It’s cool. It’s me, Jim. The bees and I are leaving.” I tried to sound calm, but I was worried one of the bees might crawl into my mouth while I was talking. She just kept shaking her head spasmodically.
I walked outside. It had started to rain. I was getting soaked and the bees were slowly taking off. There were none left on me by the time I got the car door open.
“C’mon bees, let’s go home.”
They flew with the car on the ride back, dodging raindrops. When I reached my driveway, I was ready to admit defeat. I couldn’t control them. I couldn’t control my life with them in it. And I couldn’t let them die.
In five years of beekeeping, I had never had any bees inside my house. This time, I let the swarm follow me inside. We went upstairs, together, to my bedroom. I went to my bookshelf and pulled down the photo of me and Ellen laughing, at Sarah and Tim’s potluck. I was waiting, bracing myself for the bees to go wild, to fly from behind me and cover the picture frame … but there wasn’t a sound. I looked behind me. They were on the floor, barely moving.
I knew why Ellen had been in my driveway. She was always trying to figure me out. She had — we both had — said a lot of shitty things to each other in our last fight. I guess it’s what made it the last one.
I stepped carefully around the bees on the floor. When I got back to the bedroom with a shallow bowl of sugar water, they were still motionless. I resisted the urge to pour it on them to get a reaction; I didn’t want their wings to get sticky. I set the bowl down. They didn’t move. I was out of ideas.
“Shit, Ellen. Just … shit.” I wanted to be mad at the bees, at her for being crazy and following me around, and insulting me, and scaring the crap out of my coworkers. But I wasn’t.
“I’m sorry that we never got to get over being spiteful to each other. I’m sorry that things didn’t work out, and that I couldn’t be who you wanted.”
Through the blur of tears, I saw some bees rising from the floor.
“I’m sorry that you died. Not because I wanted us to get back together … but because you didn’t deserve it. You’re a good person, and you didn’t deserve me making you feel like I hated you. Because I don’t.”
And once again, they were on me, tiny tongues licking away my tears. They’d wanted salt, not sugar. Some bees still hung in the air, spelling out, “OH.”
“I don’t love you anymore either, though. Just for the record.”
I got back “JERK” in reply, but the bees on my face were soothing and calm, and I could almost see Ellen’s wink.
When I was done crying, I felt exhausted. I sprawled onto my bed, fully clothed. The bees stayed on top of me, like a living blanket. There was something familiar about the weight of them on my chest, something I’d been missing.
I didn’t think I could fall asleep, covered in honeybees, but I must have. In the morning, it was clear that there would be no more bee-shadows, no more swears, and no more following me to work. The sugar water was gone and the bees were everywhere in the house, buzzing around aimlessly. I had to ask two local beekeepers to help me round them all up to bring them back to their hive.
“Why did you let them get inside, anyway?” one asked, when the house was finally free of bees.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess I was lonely.”
Shivaun Hoad grew up in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where her father taught her how to keep bees, pick up crayfish and identify scat. She now lives in Toronto, shunning all wildlife.