When life doesn’t make sense, bees do

When your mom hauls you across the country to live with your grandparents, then takes to her bed, not a lot in life makes sense. Fortunately, Meredith May’s eccentric and wise grandfather introduced her to a world that did: his honeybee hives.

img_0109San Francisco journalist and fifth-generation beekeeper May weaves these worlds together in The Honey Bus: A Memoir of Loss, Courage and a Girl Saved by Bees (Park Row Books, 2019).

May arrived at her grandparents’ Carmel Valley, California home with her mother and younger brother at age five after her parents’ abrupt separation in the 1970s. From the moment they arrived, the honey bus — a rusty old military bus where Grandpa made honey — was an object of fascination, then solace and inspiration for young Meredith. The more she learned about bees, the more she admired their social intelligence.

Bees could see a problem coming and start making a change before it became serious and they perished. If their hive became overcrowded or unsafe, they took initiative to move to someplace better. … Bees had enough brainpower to envision a better life, and then go out and get it.

As the months turned into years, Mom remained in bed, emerging just long enough to rain generations’ worth of emotional and physical abuse on her daughter. Grandma and Grandpa took up the slack of raising two children. As far as the reader knows, Grandma rarely held Mom accountable for anything and never encouraged her to get treatment for what was obviously crippling mental illness. (Granted, a doctor in the 1970s may have prescribed tranquilizers and called it a day.)

Grandpa, who seemed to see the situation more accurately than anyone else in the house, advised May to stay out of her mother’s way and forge her own path. This she did, helping her grandfather tend his many hives and make honey while excelling in school and discovering what she could do. Only as May was about to leave for college did her mother offer a glimpse of context for what she had endured.

While I couldn’t help feeling sad and frustrated about the behavior of many of the adults, May’s journalistic acumen and the bees keep this from being just another dysfunctional family memoir. Grandpa used the bees as examples of a more constructive way to behave — through caring, shared decision making, and commitment to community.

He reminded us that bees live for a purpose far grander than themselves, each of their small contributions combining to create collective strength. Rather than withdrawing from the daunting task of living, as our mother had done, honeybees make themselves essential through their generosity.

This worthwhile memoir sheds a personal and cultural light on honeybees today as we consider how to treat them, and one another, with more generosity.

Seeking St. Francis

St. Francis - USF Goldstine Center

Sufi Ahmad’s sculpture of St. Francis of Assisi stands outside the University of Saint Francis Performing Arts Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana. (Photo by Nancy Crowe)

At one time, all I knew about St. Francis of Assisi was that he was the patron saint of animals. Though not Catholic and therefore unschooled in the saints, I thought that was pretty cool. Only later, when my partner and I took our cat and dog to an animal blessing at the University of Saint Francis, did I begin to learn more about this Italian friar who talked to birds and used phrases such as “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon.”

Catholic and Protestant communities alike — including my alma mater, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary — observe his feast day, Oct. 4, with pet blessings and other services honoring the natural world.

Francis died in 1226, so there’s been ample time for legend and interpretation to rise and fall. Proving the authenticity of his quotes and prayers is not my purpose here (though, as a journalist, I can’t help wishing someone had done so back then). Yet his story is timeless.

Born into wealth, he partied hard and aspired to knighthood. Gradually, a place in his heart known only to him and his creator led Francis to live like a pauper and turn his focus to serving God. Though a religious order seemed a wee bit too similar to military life for his comfort, he would go on to found the Franciscan monastic order.

Statues (such as the one above) and other artworks most often portray Francis in the company of birds, and it is said that they came and listened to him preach. In one story, he told them:

My sister birds, you owe much to God, and you must always and in everyplace give praise to Him; for He has given you freedom to wing through the sky and He has clothed you… you neither sow nor reap, and God feeds you and gives you rivers and fountains for your thirst, and mountains and valleys for shelter, and tall trees for your nests.

The birds probably already knew that, but who among us couldn’t use a reminder? They apparently stayed perfectly still as he walked among them. I’m sure there were times, especially among his animal friends, when Francis didn’t speak a word.

Preach the gospel. When necessary, use words. (Attributed to St. Francis of Assisi)

In my animal Reiki and animal communication practice and with my own animal companions, I often seek the aid of St. Francis. Not in place of God, but as a member of God’s team. Francis of Assisi loved and respected animals when he walked the earth and, in spirit, is in an even better position to look out for them now. I mean, he’s probably the patron saint of animals and the environment for a reason. 

We need all the help we can get on (not to mention for) earth. The good news is that being better stewards of the earth, the animals, and ourselves is within our grasp.

If God can work through me, He can work through anyone. (Attributed to St. Francis of Assisi)

(Information drawn, in part, from Catholic Online and Biography Online.)