The bees love the smell of the old woman. When she stands next to their hive Abelista places the palms of her hands against the walls and feels its vibrations. They communicate through pulses. Workers have short and frequent pulses while the queen’s pulse is long and drawn out like a sigh.
Abelista has a covenant with the bees. In forty years she has never been stung, even when taking honey from the hives. She sings songs to quiet the bees, never uses smoke, refuses to wear a veil or gloves. She tells the bees her life stories. They listen.
The old woman has no family. She lives alone in a pinewood cabin at the edge of a beech forest. She shares the harvest of beech nuts with squirrels, raccoons, bears and game birds. Some of the trees have grown to over one hundred feet. They are sky trees who talk with the clouds. The trees hold a few of their leaves even in winter and in springtime their long slender buds open to beautiful flowers that are coveted by the bees. Abelista wears her long white hair in two braids that she wraps around the top of her head. She dresses in men’s overall and flannel shirts. She wears gumboots in rain and snow and high topped tennis shoes in dry weather.
One early spring day a storm is brewing in the cloud forest. Abelista approaches the hive to check the water dish. Foragers are busy collecting pollen from the stalks of beech flowers and the catkins of a patch of nearby alders. Filling their pollen baskets on their hairy hind legs, the bees approach the hive to deliver the precious pollen. But Abelista is shocked when she walks towards the hive. “Foragers are falling from the sky,” she yells.
Bees have abandoned their well worn but invisible beeline to enter or leave the hive. They are flying erratically forging detours around the hive. Some are even flying skyward while others appear to be falling from the sky. The old woman has never seen this behavior and she is frightened. She approaches the hive and places her hands on the hive wall. Silence. She walks over to check the entrance of the hive. No activity. The old woman removes the outer cover of the hive and then removes the inner cover. There is no buzzing. She removes some bars of comb to look into the hive but there are no bees only beautifully formed comb and honey.
On the floor of the hive, toward the back there is an embalmed sarcophagus of a dead mouse. It must have entered the hive, been killed by the bees and then been embalmed with propolis. Since they had no way to remove the dead mouse, they perfectly preserved it, in order that it not soil the precious hive.
Abelista closes up the hive without taking honey or removing the dead mouse. Maybe they will be back, she tells herself as she walks into the beech forest to talk with the trees. “Tree nation is very wise and old,” she tells herself, “they will know.” But the trees have no answer.
The old woman retreats to her cabin and watches as winter gives way to springtime. She watches as buds swell and eventually flower. She watches feral bees feasting on the pollen of alder catkins and gathering nectar from the flowers of all the trees. In the swamp behind her cabin she watches skunk cabbages push out of the wet black earth and wild bees foraging on the flowers. She knows these first flowers attract bees with their heat & sweet aroma.
Abelista watches and wonders if her bees have gone feral. Perhaps they will recognize her by her own scent. But she does not live to see another summer. She lay down in her beloved cabin one late night before lilacs bloom by her door and did not get up to greet the sun when it rose and warmed her face. Abelista died in her sleep.
Abelista is buried in a hand dug grave near her cabin. A neighbor decides to go to the hive and drape it in black cloth as is the tradition when a beekeeper dies to tell the bees. When he approaches the hive he sees a great deal of activity. Bees flying in and out with their pollen baskets full and lazy drones sunning near the hive, waiting for the queen to take her nuptial flight.