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.

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