I don’t know what to do with the bees. I don’t know whether to treat them as forty-one individuals or one collective. They show up in the middle of the grading period, an hour into second period. I clear a space next to one of my first graders, and awkwardly pull out the chair. The bees land on the seat, the top of the desk, the desk edge. One bee lands on my hand that I’ve used to gesture. I ask the boy sitting beside the bees to point to the words in the book we’ve been reading, so the bees can follow along. I can’t tell if the bees are paying attention. They’re humming, their little wings making a zip-unzip sound. I get nervous when I turn back to the chalkboard.
At the end of class, the bees don’t know they are dismissed. They linger at their table. They think it’s theirs now. I say, “Time to go to science,” and try to cup them in my hands. I am worried that they’ll sting me, but they do not. They spill out from my hands like water. They fly up to the ceiling. They flit up the chalkboard. They slip into the crooks of my desk.
When I was a younger teacher, I might have held each bee in my hand, found its gaze, placed each in a glass jar with a single candy, written a note about how each person bee makes a difference.
I would have stayed late making sure my penmanship was just right.
I would have worn an ironed dress the next day, worked my hair into a bun big as a hive.
Instead I turn the AC down to very, very cold, so the bees’ instincts kick in and they migrate to the hallway.
Usually we pin notes to students when we have important documentation to send home, but you can’t pin notes to bees. In the parking lot after school, I walk with them. I carry a permission slip in my hand. I am wondering if the museum will even admit them, or the bus driver – but I can’t worry about that now, escorting a swarm across a parking lot. The bees land on my earlobe. They land on the hem of my skirt. I can feel them through my leggings and dress-shirt and shoes. “This is my personal space,” I say when we’ve arrived to the parent pick-up space. “Please don’t land on my cheek without permission.” Meanwhile I am looking for their mother. Some queen bee? I glance at the insides of flowers, at the leaves of trees. I feel like my skin is unzipping itself.
But it is a stout woman who arrives, wearing beekeeping gear and high-tops. She opens a large black purse and the bees all fly in.
“I hope they behaved themselves today,” she says, taking the permission slip and turning away in one movement, without even waiting for my answer.
It’s very hard for the bees during exams. They never stay behind their privacy folder, and their table partners complain that the bees are cheating. After the quiz is over, the bees struggle to free read. As a collective, they try and fail to lift a pencil, to turn a page, to return a dictionary to a shelf. A teacher-friend shows me how to make copies at a twelfth the regular size. She suggests I trim out tiny worksheets, staple them together into bee-sized booklets. But I know the other children would be jealous. They don’t understand that fairness sometimes means different treatment.
It is impossible to find something that retains the interest of all forty-one bees at once. I decide to do a unit on space. A rocket is being launched in two weeks, a rocket that will carry astronauts to the moon. The launch pad is close enough to the school for us to see the cottony trail of smoke from our classroom window. I thought the bees would like this, learning about the rotation of planets, the mechanics that propel a body of hollow metal into the sky. My ex-husband had a minor in astronomy. We used to watch episodes of Cosmos together while I graded papers on the carpet. I’d liked how Carl Sagan compared the cosmos to an ocean. I wondered if it could also be like a hive.
But the bees are only interested in their own flight. As I lecture on the difference between a solar and lunar eclipse, they lift orange peels from the trash. They crawl inside the pencil sharpener.
“You need to make accommodations for them,” our ELL Instructor tells me. “You’re speaking too fast. You need to act out the words of the story for the bees to understand.”
I imagine her as a punctured balloon.
I take a breath before I return to class. There’s a low humming that I can’t identify at first. I spend a minute of class trying to locate who is murmuring before a student in the front row points behind her and mouths, “It’s them. It’s the bees.” They hover above their chair.
Even when I am acting out the hoot of an owl or the way one character falls into a lake, I can’t tell if the bees understand. I’m not sure if the bees should be penalized when one bee lands on a student’s desk and breaks its stinger off on a notebook. I’m not sure what to do with the four or five bees who’ve left their desk and are batting their bodies against the window on the south-facing wall. “Bees, please sit down,” I say, embarrassed that I haven’t learned their names. The following day I receive a curt email from the woman who takes them home, and she has made a list of their names and writes “I encourage you to learn them”:
23. Catherine with a C
40. Aaron with an A
After school I spend hours with the bees trying to help their swarm take the shape of a human hand. I get them to write the letter A, each bee functioning as a different finger, or as a palm. Even though they’re working as a group, I try to use some of their names. I try not to bat the air. I hope admin will notice the extra effort I’m putting in. I swat a wasp with my lesson plan and worry that the bees will see it as a betrayal. They’re probably always being mistaken as wasps. I try to ignore it when one of the bees lands on my nose, and crawls in circles there. I try not to picture the couch in my sister’s apartment I’ll be sleeping on, or the line of ants I’ve seen zig-zagging outside her door, or the squeaky sound of her tennis shoes when she gets up early to go for a run. I try to tell the migraine in my mind “Hello,” as my therapist suggested, try imagining the migraine taking a seat beside me at the table full of bees, try imagining the migraine as company and not a permanent fixture clipped to my forehead.
I go back to the alphabet. I tell the swarm the second letter is theirs, and they fizz and fuzz and contort until they master it: B B B.
I don’t know what to do with the bees. They still can’t write their names. My boss comes to my room on Monday morning before the students arrive and asks, “Do you know what this is about?” He tells me. The bees’ keeper sent him an email lamenting that the bees felt they were being ignored. They weren’t making friends. They’d started acting out at home. This was not what they had been promised from our school.
The next day I leave wildflowers on the bees’ desk. I dab my fingernails with honey enzymes. I open the windows so the sweet smell of cut grass fills the room, but that triggers all of the other students’ allergies. I make forty-one name-tags for their desk, and print each of their names in efficient teacher cursive. But the bees do what bees do.
On the playground, they swarm into hand-formation and flip a beetle on its back. They crowd-surf on some kid’s dropped sandwich. A handful of bees returns to class late with cheese-dust on their wings, and one of my students is crying and accusing them, though of course he can’t know for sure if it was our bees or a wild bee that stole his snack. Students are complaining a lot now:
A bee poked me in the hallway.
I think I was stung during music class.
They won’t get out of my lunchbox.
They keep flying across my eyes.
We watch a video on bullying, and when the lights come back on, half of the class raises their hands. “I think we’re being bullied.”
In class, the bees are aimless.
During recess, the bees turn tornadoes of dust and leaves.
Some days the bees are melancholic. Someone spills soda in the hallway and the bees spend hours with sugar on their feelers, leaving small sticky footprints up the spines of #2 pencils. I’m not convinced they’ll ever handwrite an essay. I’m not convinced they’ll ever keep their hand-formation to themselves. I’m not sure this pre-reading vocabulary the ELL teacher had me prepare for them is even being read. I toss around on my sister’s apartment couch at night and soon the sun comes up.
I make tea in a mug I found in the teacher lounge sink. It wasn’t clean. Now my tea tastes like peppermint-tomato-soup. Now the fridge sounds like it’s full of bees. Now I’m seeing a very old photo of my ex-husband on my Tinder account. Now I have to dress and go to work.
One day I bring the bees an iPad. Even a bee can touch squares on a screen.
They land on all the letters at once. And what happens is – nothing.
I find one bee in my room after school. I’m not sure how long she’s been there. I worry that she saw me scrolling through Facebook or Googling essential oils to keep anxiety at bay when I should have been grading. Her feelers are curled. She has four stripes on her body. She is trying to lift a pencil, and it’s too much for her. I bring out the iPad, ask her to type her name. I find a toothpick in my purse, and she uses it to touch the letters.
Rome, she writes.
I ask her how school is going so far.
No, she writes.
“What do you want to talk about?” I ask. I sit down in my chair, and wheel myself closer to her. She is smaller than a penny. I wonder if she could even hold a penny up.
I am just one bee, she writes, zipping from letter to letter.
Not a queen, she writes.
A worker, she writes.
I’m supposed to pollinate flowers.
“Historically, that’s true,” I say, twisting the tie-neck of my blouse. She looks tired, zipping back and forth the keyboard like that, one letter at a time. “But it’s such noble work you do. Honeybees are so important.”
I’m part wasp, she writes.
“Oh,” I say. I try to think of all the facts I know about wasps, which total about zero.
I’m not interested in flowers, she writes.
I’m not interested in anything boring.
“Okay,” I say. “But, what else can a honey bee do?” I regret it as soon as I say it. I can’t believe I’ve just said it. I’m a teacher. Each student is an individual snowflake. Each bee in the swarm has a name.
If I were a younger teacher I wouldn’t have said it.
If I were a younger teacher and had said it, I would have backtracked, I would have said, “That’s the challenge the world is giving you, and the thing is, you need to challenge back.”
I’m looking at her and I can’t tell if she’s looking back at me.
Rome flies to the door, lands on the ground, and walks, on her hind legs, out.
Later at home, I learn these facts on a webpage titled “20 Wonderful Honey Bee Facts (#8 is Surprising)”:
1. Honey is the only food that includes all the substances necessary to sustain life.
2. Honey bees have 6 legs, 2 compound eyes made up of thousands of tiny lenses, 3 simple eyes on the top of the head, 2 pairs of wings, a nectar pouch, and a stomach.
3. Their sense of smell is so precise that it could differentiate hundreds of different floral varieties and tell whether a flower carried pollen or nectar from meters away.
4. The honey bee’s wings stroke incredibly fast, about 200 beats per second, thus making their famous, distinctive buzz.
5. A honey bee can fly for up to six miles, and as fast as 15 miles per hour.
6. A bee’s brain is oval in shape and only about the size of a sesame seed.
7. The average worker bee produces about 1/12th teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.
8. Worker honey bees are female, live for about 6 weeks and do all the work.
I look at the calendar. It is the eighth week of school.
At the start of class the next day, I use my most authoritarian teacher voice. “Rome,” I say. “I need to speak with you in the hallway.” I hold the door open for her and she zips out, landing on the spout of the drinking fountain.
I squat down and look at her in her five different eyes.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “About yesterday. About you not wanting to do something boring. I should have been listening.”
I reach into my purse and pull out a lemon candy. I rinse it in the drinking fountain so it’s not sticky. Rome inches across it, sucking up sweetness.
“We should go do something,” I say. “Where do you want to go? What do you want to be?”
I pull out my phone so she can write.
She writes, Once a bee uses its stinger, it dies.
She writes, It is estimated that 1100 honey bee stings are required to be fatal.
She writes, I am one part wasp, one part something else.
I remember the woman in the high-tops, the bees’ keeper. I open up my purse and in Rome flies.
This bee is extraordinary, I think, as I’m kidnapping her away, zipping in my Corolla onto the interstate, towards who-knows-where-exactly, as the bee sleeps in my purse pocket near the lip-gloss and tic-tacs.
What’s one bee? I think, feeling magnetized towards the pointy tops of mountains. In late fall, I’ve swept bees’ bodies from my back patio, their bodies light as corn flakes.
I drive and drive in curlicues.
When my boss calls, I ignore it.
He texts me EMERGENCY and WHERE RU?
I ignore, ignore. I toss my phone into the back. I imagine him having to cover my classes, and this makes me smile – my boss fumbling with a chalkboard and an overhead projector and twenty-eight children and a swarm of forty bees. I pull over on a scenic outlook, where the light crashes against one side of the mountain and darkens the other, where the air is thick with blue and a smattering of white clouds.
I kill the engine.
I can’t hear anything, not even the hum of Rome.
I check Facebook and my ex-husband has a new profile picture of a duck wearing a football helmet. That is so like him, I think. Hiding behind pictures of ducks.
I step out of the car and open my purse. It’s cooler up here, almost frosty. Rome flies out.
I hold out my phone so she can talk to me.
Cold, she writes, tiptoeing.
“I know,” I say. I open my foundation clasp with a cushion inside. “This is warm,” I tell her, and she chews off a corner and makes herself the tiniest cap. Six tiny bee-sized gloves.
I pull out a flask of whiskey from another purse pocket and wet my finger with a drop of it. “Here, this should help,” I say, hoping it won’t kill her. Rome licks my fingertip. I can almost perceive it. I throw the rest of the flask back.
“I’m so getting fired,” I tell her. I’m feeling younger already, feeling the mountain wind blowing back my skirts. Feeling the washing away feeling of not giving a single fuck. I say to Rome, “I just wanted to make a difference.”
I have maybe four days left to live, she writes.
She writes, I haven’t pollinated a single flower.
It’s on principal, she writes.
“You aren’t like other bees,” I tell her. “Other bees would have huddled together to create heat in this cold, and instead you made a hat. Instead you are a singularity. You are not like them.”
I am not, she writes, like anyone else on earth.
We decide she should go to space. There are no flowers in space. There is no nectar to collect. Plus, there is a launch scheduled pretty soon.
“How fast can you fly?” I ask.
So fast, she writes.
I pull a map out from the glove compartment in my car. The launch pad is not too far. Maybe twenty miles. They launch tomorrow. We’ve been talking about in class for days.
“No bee has ever been to space,” I say. “Spiders and jellyfish and dogs, but no bees.”
What if I get scared and sting someone, she types.
“You? Scared?” I say.
I like whiskey, she writes. I can see why you brought it.
I pull the flask back out and unscrew the lid. “There’s a little left. But it will make you slower.”
She zips to the lip of the flask, and then she buzzes to my lip, and I can perceive her resting her head on my mouth for a moment, her whole body vibrating. It’s an incredible feeling. And then Rome flies down the mountain and away, at what seems much faster than fifteen miles per hour.
I wish I could read her thoughts.
I wish I could send her a text.
I wish she knew my number so she could tell me something from inside the ship.
The news coverage is abundant. Anaphylactic shock. One of the astronauts was allergic. Maybe Rome could smell it. Maybe Rome’s nose tells her about people’s bodies and people’s blood. Maybe she didn’t want to be one of 1100 stings. She wanted to be the one.
The astronaut died in her spacesuit, in the blackness, before her foot even touched the moon.
This story is a collaboration between two authors, Melissa Goodrich and Dana Diehl.