Me and the Bees

Colton Poore, Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment

Princeton Writes Prize

Late August. Finally, it was bearable to be outside again. After months of beating down in a fiery blaze, perhaps for the first time, the afternoon sun was remembering the coming winter.

But the bees weren’t thinking so far ahead. Nor the wasps. Nor was I. We were too busy drinking in the sweetness of the present afternoon, lost in the fantasy of an endless summer.

They, of course, were drinking in a literal sweetness. Around my ankles, a sweat bee flitted between the egg-and-bacon flowers of a bird’s-foot trefoil in the hunt for sugary nectar. Nearby, a paper wasp satisfied its sweet tooth on the magenta blooms of an ironweed plant. And a brown-belted bumble bee ambled across a sawtooth sunflower, its proboscis greedily outstretched.

I, for my part, was but a happy onlooker. I had long since abandoned my childhood ambitions of growing wings, a long tongue, and a stinger to fight off enemies. I had learned to cope with the fact that I would live out my life utterly antennaless. Now, I contented myself instead with watching the bees live out my dreams. And while they made their tour of Iowa’s prairie flowers, I chased after them with my camera like an adoring fan.

To most, the spot was no doubt more of an eyesore than a true prairie. No greater than 30 square yards and enclosed on three sides by tall brick buildings, the little patch of greenery seemed to exist only thanks to some design oversight—a humble patch of land that the developer, through some miscalculation, had forgotten about and mercifully left alone.

A weather-worn sign stapled to a nearby light post proclaimed, unconvincingly, that it was a Native Prairie Planting. “The prairie before you contains some of the more than 300 native grass and wildflower species that once stretched for endless miles across Iowa’s landscape,” the sign announced. Maybe there were 300 species in the original seed mix. But in the ensuing years—decades, probably—since that mix was planted, the patch had been left to its own devices, and the mighty 300 had dwindled in numbers.

Now, a stand of sawtooth sunflowers choked up the entire back corner. Goldenrod had taken up residence in another. And littered throughout the planting was brome, the invasive grass that was the thorn in the side of prairies across the state. Whatever empire had once reigned was now in disarray.

But the bees didn’t mind. Nor the wasps. Nor I.

The dinginess of the prairie only meant that we had it to ourselves. People passed by occasionally, but the thistles and the brome did little to persuade them to linger.

And so, the bumble bees were free to wend their way from flower to flower. The digger wasps were free to fly to and from their homes in the ground. And I had a free, front-row ticket to the show.

Many artists spend years perfecting a masterpiece, painstakingly working to freeze one moment of time onto a canvas. And yet, here before me, in an unremarkable plot of land choked with weeds, neglected and uncared for, was the product of a million years of artistry, alive and unfolding every moment.

I waded merrily through the waist-high grass, observing each exhibit. Every second the canvas shifted, the subjects changed, and the artist began anew. In one moment, I looked upon The Dance of the Paper Wasp, and in the next, I gazed upon The Travails of the Sunflower Bee. The sculptural form of the great black digger wasp, carefully carved over the course of millennia, imposed momentarily over a spray of goldenrod, but soon left its pedestal to install itself somewhere in the shadowy recesses of a lead plant.

In that scraggly swatch of prairie stood a living gallery that was mine to view. My friendship with the bees and the wasps and the jagged leaves of the sawtooth sunflowers were my secret joys—not in the sense that no one else could know about them, but in the sense that no one else bothered to know about them.

Many people before me, no doubt, had skirted along the edge of the plot and seen an undistinguished mass of insects droning together in one undifferentiated hum. Perhaps they saw a flying bug; if it was cute, they called it a bee. If it was ugly, a wasp. Or perhaps they saw a bloom stretching toward the sun. If it was beautiful, it was a flower. If it was ugly, a weed. They saw the landscape in two tones: bee or wasp, flower or weed, good or bad, beautiful or ugly, black or white.

But they did not take the step into the grass. They did not see that the much-feared wasp could sit daintily on a flower and fly away in terror at the approach of a bumble bee. Nor that a thistle, spiky to the touch, could have the softest and most coveted blooms.

The joy I felt was the joy in knowing that I was seeing the world in shades and hues. I saw the subtle differences between the two-spotted and common eastern and brown-belted bumble bees, three look-alikes separated by millions of years of evolution. And by spotting those differences, the patch of land seemed to grow bigger before me; when I stepped into the grass, it felt as if I were embarking on an exploration into another world.

If it was an eyesore of a prairie, then it was an eyesore infused with quiet joys that fluttered about in plain sight and mysteries more expansive than its well-defined 30 square yards would suggest. A world forgotten, operating happily in neglect, where bees and wasps, unknown and unconsidered by most, drifted about in the balmy afternoon sun until it sank below the horizon, only to repeat their performance with renewed vigor when it rose again.

And whether or not someone was there to admire its artistry, this world of small things would persist. If no one else bothered themselves with a disheveled, dilapidated remnant of a prairie that languished in the shadow of tall brick buildings, this forgotten world would hum itself happily away into obscurity. I’m sure the bees wouldn’t mind. Nor the wasps. And for my part, I would gladly hum away with them.