Long Reads

“How growing up in nature helped heal my childhood broken heart”

When Pulitzer Prize nominee, Meredith May, was mentally abandoned by her mother, she turned to honey bees to help cure her loneliness. Here, she shares her extraordinary story.

When Meredith May was five years old, her mother uprooted her and her younger brother in the dead of night and, with no explanation, moved the family cross-country to live with her grandparents in California. As Meredith’s mother sank into a deep depression, Meredith became her grandfather’s shadow, helping him care for the honeybees he kept in a converted WWII military bus marooned in his garden.

Through the bees, she learned what her parents could not teach her about family, generosity, resilience and, above all, perseverance. The insect world soon became a sanctuary from her lonely childhood. 

Here, she tells her story, and shares some of the most valuable life lessons she learned from growing up with honey bees.

honey bees
The honey bees taught Meredith about family, generosity, resilience and, above all, perseverance

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the queen. Her royalty was apparent by the way the other honeybees worshipped her, gathering around to caress her with their antennae. She was so obviously the queen – her body was twice the size of all the other bees, and her legs were longer and looked like they belonged on a spider instead.

“Why do they touch her like that?” I asked my grandpa, who had opened one of his beehives to show me the queen. His name was Franklin but most people simply called him ‘the beekeeper’. He had more than 100 hives tucked into the remote canyons of the Big Sur coast in central California. When he worked in his apiaries or delivered honey in his battered work truck, he was usually accompanied by a little girl in overalls – me.

“They are gathering her queen smell,” Grandpa explained. “Every queen has her own scent. That’s how the bees know which hive is theirs. So they can find their way home.”

granddad and granddaughter
“When my grandpa worked in his apiaries or delivered honey in his battered work truck, he was usually accompanied by a little girl in overalls – me”

It soothed me to see how much the queen and her daughters needed one another. There’s only one queen per hive, and she is the only bee that can lay eggs. But because she can’t feed herself or keep warm at night, she relies on her daughters to bring her honey and cluster around her in the cold. The mother-daughter bond is what keeps the colony alive.

I was a little envious of this. A divorce when I was five knocked my mother off balance, and she disappeared under the bed covers into a marathon melancholy, leaving Grandpa to raise me. But by bringing me to his bee yards, nature taught me many important life lessons my parents couldn’t about family, hard work, and love. 

That’s because a beehive is the polar opposite of a dysfunctional family. It operates around a core principle of generosity, with each bee performing a different task and working with factory-like precision to create temples of wax that not only hold their food, but future generations, too. They crowd-source the labor and make democratic decisions about where to forage and when to swarm. Bees, by their nature, turn chaos into order.

I could not articulate this as a child; all I knew was that I felt calmer in a cloud of bees than anywhere else, letting their hum lull me. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I began to understand that all the stories Grandpa told me about bees were metaphors for how to be a good human. 

I learned countless life lessons by watching bees. Here are my three favorites…

Be of use

honey
“The cruelty of the female bees shocked me, but Grandpa said it was only fair as the male bees didn’t do any work”

Once, I spotted dozens of dying male drone bees outside the hives. I looked closer and saw that the female worker bees were ganging up on them, dragging them out of the entrance and dropping them unceremoniously on the ground to die in the cold. 

Their cruelty shocked me, but Grandpa said it was only fair. Male drone bees don’t work at all, they just lounge around the hive demanding to be fed. Every bee you see on a flower is a girl – they are the nurses, maids, grocery shoppers, construction workers, air circulators and guards of the hive, while the males wait around for the rare chance to mate with a virgin queen that flies by. 

That’s why the hapless drones are ejected by their sisters every winter when the flowers dry up and there are too many mouths to feed. The queen will simply make more drones the following spring when she needs them.

I felt bad for the drones, but I also understood the worker bees’ wrath. The men should have pulled their weight. 

Protect the vulnerable

meredith may with her grandpa and brother
Meredith with her grandpa and brother in 1976

Grandpa didn’t open his hives in rain or wind, because bad weather puts bees in a bad mood. But one time rain snuck up on us as we were inspecting the hives for eggs. He had just removed a wooden frame of wax comb from the brood nest, when suddenly all the nurse bees snapped into formation on the honeycomb, aligning themselves in tight rows like kernels on a corncob, heads all facing the same direction, with their wings interlocked like Spanish roof tiles, forming a solid tarp to keep the raindrops from falling onto their precious eggs. 

This was something that wasn’t in the beekeeping books and it seemed like we were witnessing a little miracle. How had they made the collective decision to do this, and how did they synchronize so quickly? It was a mystery, but the message was clear – always take care of those who can’t take care of themselves. Those nurse bees would have died out in the rain had we not returned them to the hive. But they were willing to stand in harm’s way for as long as they could. 

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meredith may
“My grandpa’s name was Franklin, but most people simply called him ‘the beekeeper’”

Grandpa and I harvested honey inside an old World War II army bus that was marooned in his back yard. He bought it at an auction at the military base in Monterey, tore out the seats, and built his honey factory inside. Every spring and summer during the nectar flow, we bottled honey in the green bus. 

We put frames of honeycomb in a spinner and the honey flew out in gossamer strings. This was collected at the bottom of the tank before being pumped up through a series of pipes that ran the length of the ceiling and were held in place with fishing line.

Grandpa’s Honey Bus held a Willy Wonka-like fascination over me. I loved harvesting with him, sealed away from the rest of the world. It was the one place where we could talk about my life without anyone else listening.

I remember that we talked a lot about the scout bee. They are the famous ‘dancing bees’. Scouts find flowers and dance to tell their hive mates where to find them. But they also dance to find new homes, when something is wrong with the current one – if it’s too crowded, damp, or drafty. Scouts canvass the neighborhood inspecting hollow trees, rock crevices, even the walls of houses, and when they find a spot they like, they return to the hive and dance to advertise the address of the new location.

Then the bees must have a meeting or something, but they somehow choose a particular day and time to fly together with the queen to that new location. That’s when you see a swarm in the air.

Scout bees were always my favorite bees because they danced. And as an adult, I’m still partial to the scouts, but for different reasons. I like that the scout takes initiative to find a better home if the one they have is not working out.

I can see now how clever Grandpa was. When he talked to me about scouts, he was letting me know that my life would get better. He was giving a lonely girl a concept of a future, and ultimately, he was giving me hope.

“Without these tiny professors, who will show us what a benevolent society looks like?”

Today we all know that honeybees are in trouble and their numbers are declining worldwide. When one-third of all the food grown on the planet is pollinated by bees, we must protect the bees if we want to keep eating.

But there’s something else we’ll lose if bees disappear – their ancient wisdom. Honeybees have perfected the art of social living over the last fifty million years. Without these tiny professors, who will show us what a benevolent society looks like?

The Honey Bus by meredith may

The Honey Bus: a memoir of loss, courage and a girl saved by bees by Meredith May (HQ, £12.99) is out now

Images: Courtesy of author, Unsplash

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