The Beekeeper

kleinbriannebowen
Photo by Brianne Bowen.

“Did you eat bananas? Are you wearing leather?”

Marina Marchese looks me up and down. I shake my head and zip my suit.

“If you have, they’ll be angry.” It’s cold outside: below 60 degrees. They’re already angry.

“Did you shower? Did you brush your teeth?” I nod weakly and fasten my hood. Through its white gossamer veil, the world splits into tiny hexagons. Maybe this is how they see it: a million prismatic “me’s” each more stingable than the last.

“If you haven’t, they’ll be really pissed.”

Did you ever have a dream in which a hairy, crunchy, twitchy insect buzzes near your face, then dives toward your lips, then into your mouth, scratching your tongue and teeth, but your muscles are frozen stiff so you can’t swipe, spit, or scream? I have. Often. I’ve had a phobia of flying insects for as long as I can remember.

So why am I going to open a beehive when it’s cold out, when the bees are hungry and aggressive, when the Connecticut Beekeepers Association recommends leaving them the hell alone? Why am I going to pry into the wax-sealed home of 50,000 stinging soldiers? Why — when I’ve always been terrified of bees?

The beekeeper was too. That was 15 years ago, when she was an artist and illustrator, in order to paint, to write, “to be her own boss.”

It didn’t quite work; Marina gained thousands of little bosses and lost her artistic career for good. Eventually, she lost her apiphobia, too. The first time Marina hived her own bees, they introduced themselves with six deep stings; her artist’s hands, soft and uncalloused, pulsed red with venom. Now, when she gets stung, she barely feels a thing.

I’m horrified and mesmerized: to think that a stinging scrum of thoraxes and squirming legs can make what I spread on toast; to think that someone could keep hundreds of thousands of little slaves locked away in fifteen cute red boxes; to think that they could escape and attack at 15 miles per hour, faster than a pet poodle. But Marina keeps them. Where the walls of her New York apartment once groaned with drawings, her cottage now features a hand-cut, bee-shaped wooden plaque, just above the honey buckets: “The Perfect Queen,” it reads.

Marina turns and smiles as I head out of the cozy kitchen, where she and I have bottled, boiled, mixed, packaged, labeled, and boxed honey together for the past three weeks. Now we invade the winter world of the insects that make it: call it labor relations.

“Listen to me and you will not get stung. I promise,” she says. Marina wears no suit, no hood, no gloves, no silly straw hat; I look like a cowardly astronaut. “Okay, get ready!” she says. “Time to beekeep.”

***

Red Bee’s red cottage sits on a shallow grass slope, overlooking a broken red gate and a long grass driveway in Weston, Connecticut. During my first visit, the woods tremble on the cusp of winter and the air tastes sweet and cold. I can sense the waning pollen, the damp perfume of dew and rotting wood wafting from the forest behind. I knock twice on the door. No answer. I start to turn away when the beekeeper appears in the side door, eyebrows raised, arms folded.

Marina Marchese knows she’s a surprise: a female beekeeper who wears skinny jeans and tight cashmere sweaters; who just turned 50 but looks 30 and gets hit on by other beekeepers online; who has a memoir, a publicist, a website, a dog named “Honey,” and a chicken coop. “You know,” she says, as I fumble through beginner bee-questions, “It’s not beekeeping season.”

As Marina leads me through the backyard, her eyes buzz back and forth, brilliant Italian hazel. Her face barely betrays a wrinkle: the product of years of natural skin cream, distilled from crystallized honey. Her voice rises and falls with disorienting intensity; you’d think she was furious half the time and elated the other. Her amber-brown hair has no hint of grey, or of hair-dye, because Marina does not use artificial things. She looks like someone you might find on the Food Network during the little-watched 4 p.m. slot: pretty, but not quite sexy. Like the single queen that rests within each of her 15 hives, she is past her reproductive prime.

Behind the house, through the garden, over the makeshift slat bridge, and past the red Vespa, we find her apiary. In front of the bees there sits a Buddha: a statue to scare away the bears, turkeys, and deer who knock over the hives and feast on baby bee larvae. (Since the enemies of my enemies are my friends, I don’t really blame them.) Each hive is a wooden tower of five stacked cubes. The brood lives in the bottom two; layers of honey, preserved in hexagonal frames, accumulate in the top three. Today, the insects hover nervously, like the thermometer’s silvered mercury: when it rises above 60 degrees, they rise up and out of the hive. But when the metal sinks below, so do the bees, into the brood to keep their mother warm. Seeing them twitch and squirm sends my own stomach southwards, cold and heavy.

***

In her book’s telling, Marina was a very successful artist and then, by serendipity and choice, became a very successful beekeeper. That’s sort of true: look at a queen bee from far away and it seems simple and elegant. But up close, things get more segmented, less cute. From art school to the apiary, Marina has shed layer after layer of herself, like a growing larva, cells differentiating, wings hardening, eyes expanding.

Marina’s parents wouldn’t pay for college. After high school, she worked her way through art school as a salesgirl, studying commercial illustration. Some of her clothing designs made the second floor of Macy’s, and she quickly went freelance: back then, it was good money. And so, 25 years ago, Marina bought the red cottage — once the home of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s dancing partner, Gelsey Kirkland — and summered in Weston, a kind of expatriate commune for New York’s rogue artists and illustrators.

But then it all went away. “It all happened at once, 20 years ago,” Marina says: cheap Chinese manufacturing, stock art, Photoshop, plagiarizing corporations. Now a college student with an iMac could do an illustrator’s job for pocket-change. The big firms had won. “I was put out of business by companies like Getty Images,” she says — which just happens to be the photography company that my dad runs. “Tell your dad I want my images back.” An awkward moment.

Marina left the art world. In 1996 she moved out to Weston permanently, only to find that the artistic community had dried out and withered, like a honeycomb in a dying hive. “I came out here at the end of an era,” she recalls. “Now, it’s over. It’s gone. The computer took over.” Marina jumped desperately from job to job. She worked briefly in catering, then as a door-to-door wine saleswoman. She hated it; customers made passes at her or demanded she slip them kickbacks. Then, 12 years ago, Marina met Howland Blackiston, the author of “Beekeeping for Dummies.” He offered to take her to his hives. She needed something, anything, different — something to do and be, even if she had to stick her hand into a horde of stingers. There was one upside: “The queen ran the show in there,” she wrote in her memoir. “I like that.”

Marina Marchese became a backyard beekeeper. But for years, that meant nothing. “People used to walk by me at farmer’s markets, laugh, and go get a donut.” She settled down with a live-in boyfriend: Vic, 17 years her senior, a veteran of two previous marriages. He paid the bills with his own small business, selling cartoon-branded socks to children, tweens, and teens. Marina’s backyard honey just couldn’t compete with big beekeeping.

Then, four years ago, rustic honey suddenly became fashionable. Winos sampled organic miel avec gruyère, hipsters bought beeswax lip balm, housewives sweetened slow food with Oprah-approved nectar. “Everyone’s bee-crazy now,” Marina says. Her book has sold 20,000 copies after scoring a $40,000 advance. She’s not in the “old boys club,” the gang of grizzled beekeepers who put low-grade, mixed-origin sweeteners in plastic teddy bears and make fun of her for overcharging, for employing Martha Stewart’s nephew, for selling to the Four Seasons and the Savoy. She snaps back that her business is more sophisticated: not for supermarkets. “They can’t knock me off,” she says. “My business can’t be outsourced.” She’s the president of the Connecticut Backyard Beekeepers Association — so there. “The new face of beekeeping is women,” she snaps. “Nurturing women.” Marina is desperately trying to trademark the phrase “honey sommelier,” so that she can be the only one.

For Marina, identity is a battle never quite won. She has floated from place to place and job to job: beekeeping was a last resort, a final, phobic, and unlikely niche. Her fear of bees has now been replaced with a fear of being ripped off, stolen from, or cheated. “People are stealing everywhere,” she says. “Identity theft is the biggest problem.” She returns, again and again, to the firms that copied her artwork, that robbed her of an artistic career, that drove her into the woods and the bees.

When Marina paints now, she spills molten beeswax onto hardwood canvases and freezes them in encaustic frescos. They congeal into shimmering, impressionistic portraits of bees and faces: nothing like the line-drawn cartoons on her old postcards and tee shirts. Her living room is the new studio and gallery, flush with the reds and oranges of waxy pigment.

Marina’s career died when art became a commodity. Her payback is to turn an old staple commodity into art. The modern world has driven her to put on old robes — bee suits and hoods — and step into the profession of the ancients.

***

Squeeze yourself between two towering cliff faces just outside of Valencia, Spain, turn right, and turn on your flashlight. You’ll see red lines and etchings: a swarm of wings and parallel strips of bark. Look up a bit, above the swarm, and you’ll spot something else: a feminine figure, legs wrapped around a tree trunk, grasping for an oblong blob. It’s a hive. She’s a honey hunter: an 8000-year-old cave painting of one.

As it happens, we’ve been stealing sweet things from hard-working insects since 13,000 BCE. The basic agricultural gambit has changed little. Step one: find some bees. Step two: calm them down so they don’t swarm and kill you. Step three: nab the honey from the combs. Step four: strain out the bee gunk. Step five: enjoy.

Prehistoric hunter-gatherers on all five inhabited continents tried and tried again, to varying degrees of success. Step two was a real stumbling block. Finally, we found a smart way to avoid dying in a hail of venom jabs and histamine inflammation. Smoke — which pisses off pretty much every other animal — calms bees down. It masks the smell of their alarm-and-attack pheromones and tricks bees into thinking their hive is on fire. They start feeding and stop stinging.

To get from smoky raids to honey lip balm would take more work. We had fixed the torturous death problem. But now we had to fix step one. First off, finding beehives is tough — and even if you manage to break into one, you tend to destroy it and kill its queen, leading to sweet but unsustainable one-time raids. Historical evidence hints that around 3,000 years ago, we began befriending and domesticating honeybees, trapping them in boxes, logs, pots, and baskets. Now we could harvest their honey from time to time, instead of in one sticky swoop. For example, early Bronze Age beekeepers made a windfall in Jordan Valley, Israel. They set up over a hundred hives, housed over a million insects, and produced over 1100 pounds of honey a year.

Our favorite insect from which to pilfer has always been the Apis mellifera: the “honey-bearing bee.” But as any beekeeper worth her hood will tell you, the species actually bears flower nectar, not honey itself. Carolus Linnaeus, the founder of taxonomy and coiner of the Latin misnomer in 1758, realized the error in his own lifetime, but alas, his own naming rules mandated favoring the first choice — so no take-backs. There are over 20,000 other species of bee: some gentle, some aggressive; some social, some misanthropic. Most don’t even make honey. Take bumblebees: despite their popularity, they can’t make anything edible, and due to their smooth-bladed stingers, can strike you hundreds of times without ripping off their tails and dying. In short, bumblebees are overrated.

The far more useful honeybee was introduced to North America in the 1600s and has had a mostly sterling record here since. I say “mostly” because there’s one exception — one you’ve probably heard about, but few understand. In late 2006, millions of bees started vanishing. They called it colony collapse disorder, affecting 20 to 40 percent of hives in the United States: mostly those owned by old boys, and not Marina. Explanations ranged from scientific to astrological: pesticides, GMOs, overfeeding, underfeeding, karma, radio waves, power lines, and government conspiracies. Some cynics heralded the end of honey.

Then, in 2010, military doctors working with egghead entomologists put thousands of bee corpses in a blender. They discovered that the bees were having their guts torn up by an unholy fungus-virus alliance. In early April, 2012, a blockbuster Harvard study pointed the finger at pesticides; specifically, ones manufactured by Bayer, of aspirin fame. But still, nobody really knows what causes the female honeybee, normally the model of efficiency, to careen off into the great blue yonder before dying, lost and alone, far from the social hive that defines and protects her. Perhaps, proffer the scientists, the stresses of modern bee living have driven them to some kind of “insect insanity.”

***

On my second visit to Red Bee, Marina puts me to work in the kitchen. The first thing I hear is Shania Twain and the first thing I see is a wall of white honey buckets: apple, clover, pumpkin, raspberry, blueberry, gallberry, orange, alfalfa, buckwheat, goldenrod, linden basswood, tulip polar, star thistle, and — Van Morrison’s favorite — tupelo honey. I lug a basswood bucket onto the counter, sit on a rusty metal stool, and gently turn the plastic valve until a slow stream of glistening goo flows out and falls downward. Between my feet I place a plastic catch tray to stop spills, and below the stream I hold a handmade glass bottle, which grows heavier with each spinning strand.

Working honey, you’re struck by how it actually looks and feels sweet. You remember The Allman Brothers singing “sweet Melissa”: Latin for honeybee. You remember why “honey” and “hun” are terms of endearment world-over. You remember why honey is one of the five Hindu elixirs of immortality, why monkeys carried it to the penitent Buddha, why Mohammed told his warriors to tap the trees for it, why it went well with milk in the Holy Land. I look around before slipping my finger into the honey stream and sneaking a taste. The flavor is electric, decadent: more confidently sweet than sugar, with a hint of fresh-cut flowers.

I have yet to see honey harvested. But I don’t want to see the bees again: slobbering tongues, bulging eyes, epileptic snaps and skips and jerks. When an insect dive-bombs its way into a barbeque, or worse, a date, a guy is supposed to man up and kill it. So I defy gender norms. I wave my hands and duck my head and act as if I’m a Londoner braving the blitz.

For now, I’m safe in the cozy kitchen. “You’re a natural,” Marina tells me, checking out my bottling technique. The bees are outside, regurgitating nectar and fanning it with superheated metabolic air. Marina is inside, slicing wax off the combs and sticking them into an electric spinner, where the centrifugal force pulls concentrated honey out and into the catcher reservoir. At the end of my day’s work, I look at the rows of glistening bottles and feel a hint of pride. But then I remember: I didn’t do much of anything. All credit is due to the 50,000 tiny artisans and their fragile queen.

Theirs is a thankless life. Bees spend far more time pollinating — helping plants get it on — than they spend having sex themselves. Just a few days after her early-summer birth, the virgin queen takes flight and the drones swarm around her. She picks six or seven and mates with them. The queen absorbs enough spermatozoa to fertilize all the thousands of eggs she’ll lay for the rest of her life. She’ll never have sex again. And neither will the men — after their moment of ecstasy, they die. A queen outlives her reign in three to four years. As she ages and becomes infertile, her wafting pheromones wane. Slowly her daughters close in and begin to hug her, their hairs clamping down on her long, twisting body. She overheats and dies.

The world of the bees lacks identity and paternity — with the exception, of course, of the doomed queen.

***

Not a single bee knows who its father is. And until a year ago, Marina didn’t either.

She tells me this suddenly, at a bee bazaar on the third floor of the Peabody Museum, where she sits alone, flanked by a dodo and a glassy-eyed gazelle. Her boyfriend Vic drops by with slices of pizza, but doesn’t say much. Unlike Marina, he looks his age: weary, grey, and unshaven, with a weak handshake. Nobody visits our brochure-bedecked table, so he leaves. Marina needs someone to talk to.

“Have I told you about my childhood? I used to collect rocks, stamps, and bottles. I was a weird kid … My family thought I was a freak.” Marina tells me her parents never approved of her artistic career or of her beekeeping. “They like regular. And I’m not regular.”

Just over a year ago, Martha Stewart posted about Red Bee on her much-trafficked blog. Marina’s godmother Amy, estranged for decades, reached out via email. “Your mother would never let us see you,” she explained. Then came a lot more: a phone call, a deep breath, anger, and the truth. “I just got disgusted … Your mother has been lying to you,” said Marina’s godmother. “Tony is not your real father.”

Marina’s real father is Carl DiBenedetto, an auto mechanic who lives 20 minutes away in Bridgeport. He is 71, wheelchair-bound, and not long for this world. “From what I see, he’s a wonderful guy.” Marina’s mother doesn’t eat honey. She doesn’t even eat eggs. “My mother is not warm … Why wouldn’t you want your kids to know their family?” When Marina went off to art school, her false father went to jail, convicted of bank embezzlement. And her mother had cut her off from the rest of the family: no weddings, no reunions, no in-laws, nobody who could spill the beans. Marina was alone.

Marina is not Marina; her real name, chosen by her real father, is Carla DiBenedetto. Her mother and new husband forged a fake birth certificate. “They’re criminals,” she says. A few months ago, Marina appealed to a judge for the original document. The judge asked her why she needed it. Marina was incredulous. Her response: “Do I really need a reason to know who I am?”

***

Two weeks after the Peabody, I stand in the kitchen with Marina’s newly discovered half-sister, Marcia. They met only a few days ago. Like the rest of Marina’s new family, Marcia calls her “Carla,” per her request. Marcia has Marina’s amber hair and hazel eyes, but dresses like the academic she is: tweedy sweaters and pink spectacles. “We adapt to survive,” she tells me, as we glue labels. “We all do.” The elder sister that Marina actually grew up with is bipolar, loves her mother, and hates honey.

Most of the new family members Marina has met in the past year are either aging like Vic or dying like Carl. She wants to write another book about it all, she says. Then she’ll get more publicity, then an investor will buy Red Bee, and then she will move to Italy, where she will … “well, I don’t know … cook and entertain?” she says. “Maybe I’ll start an apiary for ecotourists.”

After hours talking bees and honey, Marina brings me into her living room with a plate of salty scrambled eggs. We have stirred and tasted buckwheat chocolate, mixed with honey, walnuts, raisins, and dates. We have spun crystal whirlpools in a colossal jar of granular, cream honey: ready for English muffins or facial scrubs. We have boiled and shared a batch of Italian espresso. Now, we sit and talk in deep red armchairs, surrounded by beeswax paintings twinkling in the afternoon light.

Marina’s hidden paternity is, in part, a release. A faked birth certificate validates her fear of forgery, her dislocated childhood, her uniqueness. It proves she isn’t just another identical worker in the swarm. She now has a real reason for not fitting in — for not knowing herself for so very long. “I wish I could see who’s lying and who’s not,” she says. “I’d make better decisions that way.” After plagiarized postcards and forged birth certificates, Marcheses and DiBenedettos, and years of self-doubt and old-boy scorn, Marina knows exactly one thing about herself. She is a beekeeper.

After she has finished telling me this, she wants to take me beekeeping.

***

When we first met, Marina told me, “Everybody’s afraid of bees, until they get to know them.” But since then, I haven’t gotten to know any bees, only their keeper. I do know that if I open up a sleeping hive, each female worker will fight to plunge a four-millimeter barbed stinger into my face and pump fifty suicidal micrograms of fiery apitoxin into my flesh. But I want to face the fear that she once shared. And so Marina’s going to open the hive for me — out of season, against her better judgment. She’s told me enough about her friends and slaves: now she wants to show me.

The garden opens up in front of us and my heart starts to pound against my chest, wrapped in a white polystyrene jacket. Elastic bands bind its sleeves to my wrists and its base to my hips. My breath is short and tight.

“Never go to the bees without your tools,” says Marina and pulls out a heavy basket filled with mini-crowbars, plastic gloves, woodchips, spades, spoons, and cans. In the winter, the bees layer on extra beeswax in order to fill all the hive’s gaps and glue its boxes together, sealing in heat. Marina places one crowbar in my hand, the other in hers; we’ll have to break our way in. We walk up the incline toward the red towers. Nothing buzzes above. The bees are locked inside, their wings beating 2,400 times a minute, fighting to keep their hexagonal homes warm in the sub-60 weather. We’re right next to them now. A straggler sits on the top, twitching her hind legs suspiciously: a scout. The bees know Marina and she knows them. They don’t expect her to do this.

“Maybe they won’t be aggressive,” Marina says. She picks up her smoker, a stumpy silver cylinder with a grille opening in the back, attached to a little accordion. She crunches in some woodchips and old newspaper and sets it all alight. The device’s snout starts to belch sweet-smelling smoke and Marina begins pumping the accordion, sending short puffs into the hive. She sets it down, still smoking. I can do this, I think: I’ve been working with bee things, with a beekeeper, in an apiary, for weeks. I know these insects. They aren’t nightmares; they make honey and help flowers get laid. “Don’t make jerky movements,” Marina says. “Move slowly. Don’t bat them away.”

Out comes the crowbar, thrust into the waxy wall that glues the hive boxes together. Marina pushes down once. I inhale. Nothing. Twice. Nothing. “They’re sealed in tight. They don’t want to come out in the cold.” The third push comes with a sickening crack. Silence. Then, all I hear — all anyone hears — is a growing, whooshing, cataclysmic hum, a buzzing so loud you’d think Marina had cracked opened a broken bass-subwoofer. She lifts up the top.

There they are: thousands and thousands of black bullet bodies writhing and wrestling. “What the hell,” they all think at once. They pour out of the hive, confused, angry, betrayed. My stomach shrivels and sinks and my eyes roll to the left then the right. One strikes my hood, then another, then tap, tap, tap, faster and faster, like popcorn in the microwave, battering into me, landing, crawling: onto my arms and legs and neck, their joints twisting in my fingers, their abdomens pounding against mine, their stingers aiming for my eyes. I taste smoke and acid. “Okay, okay,” says Marina, as the swarm grows. “They’re angry.” The buzzing is martial, a war-horn; they fly forward, fearless, identical allies slashing all three dimensions with a thousand flashing swords. “Walk away, walk away.”

I’m away. Marina stays. She is fighting to close the hive, billowing huge clouds of smoke and sliding the bees aside with her crowbar as the hive-roof falls down from above. Some bees get squashed and killed. “It’s not right,” she mutters. “It’s not right.” Others flee, flying straight for the soft skin of Marina’s defenseless face and fingers. “It’s too cold,” she says, “It’s not their fault.”

She steps down from the hives. The bees are back inside, safe and warm. The air is sweet and silent again. My hands are trembling, but Marina smiles. “We did it,” she says.

She wasn’t stung. Not even once.

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