Writer in Residence

The Swarm

Submitted by Dan MacIsaac

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Bee on Aster by Anna-Maria Huber

My father would fill up our triple-seater truck with six bench seats worth of brats—his own and the neighbour’s--on any given Saturday. One Saturday, he told us that we were heading up Nanaimo Lakes Road to check on some bees. His friend Ed kept hives in a jumbo clearcut on Crown Zellerbach land where Ed’s bees would gather fireweed nectar to make a gilded honey. Sweets and stings--this sounded very cool. So my little brother, myself and half the neighbourhood boys swarmed into the truck.

I rode shotgun, just behind the knobby gearshift. My task was to open beers for my dad. I’d dig under the seat for one of the grotty, never-used seatbelts. The metal male part was great for popping the caps off Lucky Lagers.

Four beers down the Nanaimo Lakes Road, we turned off on a logging road and yawed along until we reached a brushed out clearing. In the centre of the clearing was a humungous stack of white wooden hives, each the size of a motel fridge. Up and over and around the pile of white boxes scrawled a mess of barbed wire.

“To keep out the bears,” explained Dad, swaying a bit.

The barbed wire looked sorta scary. But we weren’t very impressed. There were no bears growling about. There didn’t seem to be any bees either. No zipping. No buzzing. 

With four beers in his bladder wanting out, Dad headed off down the road aways to where he’d be screened by a big stump.

Looking back over his shoulder, he warned, “You boys stay away from there.”

That gave us boys time to take a closer look at the hives. But we couldn’t see any bees.

“Maybe there’re all dead,” I said.

But, listening carefully, we could hear a slight hum like an AC unit set on low.

"Let’s see if we can get them to come out,” said my brother.

He ran back to pick up a stone from the shoulder of the road and hurled the rock through the No-Man’s-Land of wire into the stack. 

Silence.

My little brother rifled another—and he had a major league arm.

Silence.

One by one, each boy scurried to the shoulder to find rocks to throw. To no effect. Soon the rabble of boys was pelting the stack like it was a sworn enemy. Nothing happened. Not even a burp of bees.

Dad rushed toward the clearing, shouting. The stack seemed to shudder. The hill of hives shook and spewed. It turned volcanic. A black, burning cloud of bees blasted into the air. The swarm hurtled over our heads. Dad saw the cyclone coming his way. In a panic, he turned and sprinted down the logging road, chased by a mob of hellion insects. I could see and hear him slapping at his back as he hightailed it, skittering along the gravel road. We waited by the bee-free hives but he didn’t come back.

My brother said, “We better drive the truck to him.”

“Nobody knows how to drive,” I pointed out.

“I do,” said my brother.

"You’re only eight.”

But turns out, he did know how to drive. Or good enough. From horsing around on my uncle’s tractor. My brother kneeled on the seat to steer while I worked the pedals and another kid tried shifting the gears. We lurched down the road in first gear until we caught up with Dad, bare-chested and looking a lot hairier than usual. The bees were long gone. But they’d left such a mess of stingers in him that Dad looked like he was half-Sasquatch.

There were two beers left in the half sack. Dad downed those fast. He drove slowly and silently, leaning forward so his tender back did not touch the seat. Quietly, I picked at the black stingers, soft as eyelashes, and dropped them into the empties.

I was impressed by how Dad suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous bees—in silence.

Poets, however, are not silent about bees. They are more epicurean than stoic. Read the simile in Chapman’s Homer:

     Swarmes rise out of a hollow rocke, repairing the degrees

     Of their egression endlessly with ever rising new

     From forth their sweet nest, as their store, still as it faded, grew.

Canadian poets know the passion of the swarm. Don McKay begins his poem, “The Swarm,” thus:

     The afternoon turned Spanish with sleeping lust.

     The air seethed and darkened

     measled with bees, . . .

For Sue Sinclair, bees are relentless; at midnight “bees are insomniac, can’t resist/ the pollen” (“Twelve O’Clock”). Bees are potent. Tim Lilburn lauds "the clover shaken in a fist of final bees” (“The End of August”). Revel in the artistry of bees as does Jan Zwicky who calls them “Keepers of the secret/ sound of sunlight” (“Bee Music”). Arleen Paré’s queen “recites sweet piping sounds in spring as icicles release the sun” (“Monastic Life 4”). In “SWARMING,” Fred Candelaria celebrates the sweet suites of bees, their charming chamber music: honey bees/ take lodgings/ inside bamboo chimes.”

Poets recognize the beauty and utility of these small creatures. Their constant choral music, as well as their bountiful pollination and fine honey craft, far outweigh their defensive stinging. But a swarm of boys--call that a plague.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.


Raised on Vancouver Island, Dan MacIsaac is a third-generation lawyer and served for ten years as a director on the board of the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria. His poetry, verse translations, and fiction have appeared in a wide variety of literary journals and magazines. One of his stories was short-listed for the 2009 CBC Literary Awards, one of his poems received the 2014 Foley Prize from America Magazine, and another poem was short-listed for the 2015 Walrus Poetry Prize. He lives in Victoria. Cries from the Ark is his first poetry collection.