A Story Abandoned Around Two Years Ago
June 10, 2010
posted and written by Heather McShane
Lily thinks that it would be hilarious if she got the hiccups during her lecture. Her body would undulate as the air came up her throat, causing her to gulp and emit all sorts of onomatopoeic noises. A drink of water wouldn’t help. The audience would yell out suggestions on ways to stop the hiccups. All these ideas would get jumbled in her mind. She would end up standing on her head and swallowing a spoonful of honey while saying “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocius.” Someone would yell “Boo,” and she would fall over, sticky, no longer hiccupping, but in a fit of laughter.
But now Lily really needs to be serious. She is a scientist. In a few moments, she will present a lecture at the main branch of the library. She waits on the top floor, where she has never been before. The view of the city is impressive from there. “It’s like a picture postcard,” her boyfriend would say were he to see it. Right after the sun sets and the clouds accumulate, she’ll step up to the podium. In a way, the stormy night sky is a fitting backdrop given the ominous news that she will soon tell this Tuesday evening in October.
Lily will discuss colony collapse disorder. Colony collapse disorder is a strange honey bee phenomenon, in which a majority of bees abandon a hive and move, leaving the rest of the bees to fend for themselves and, most likely than not, die.
In late 2006, after scientists started noticing the bee disappearances in the United States and reporting them in journals, the media picked up on the strangeness of the bees’ behavior and printed stories that were read by the public, who showed great interest in this unnerving development. Everyone started to speculate what reasons the bees could have to leave their own homes. Regardless of who or what caused it, everyone agreed that the bees proved that something was amiss in the world, as they had suspected. The bees pointed to the fact that something was definitely not quite right. People had wanted to be ensured in some way for their uneasiness.
Lily can see the excitement of the audience. Almost all of them are talking among themselves. She hadn’t known what to expect. She wasn’t sure who would comprise the audience and what they would already know about colony collapse disorder. As she looks around, waiting for 7 o’clock when her lecture is scheduled to begin, she sees a number of college-age kids. She figures that they are likely from the same school and are required to be here because of some general-level biology class. She also sees in the audience some of her colleagues. There are also around ten other people, one of whom is a young woman with a notepad and a
pen. Lily watches as the man behind this woman taps on the woman’s shoulder and introduces himself with a handshake and a smile. Lily can see how uncomfortable and awkward this woman is.
It is finally time for the lecture. Lily is introduced as one of the leading entomologists in the country whose research on honey bees is highly regarded. Her major accomplishments and publications are mentioned. Everyone claps approvingly, and Lily takes her place at the podium. Since so much is still unknown about colony collapse disorder and she didn’t know how much
knowledge her audience would already have, Lily begins by discussing pollinators in general. This historical portion of her talk takes almost half of the time allotted for her lecture. Not until 35 minutes into it does she first say “colony collapse
disorder.” She explains that almost all the adult honey bees are the ones who leave. The babies and the queen are the only bees still in the hive. Although the other bees leave some food for the babies and the queen, the babies and the queen are
ultimately unable to carry out all the responsibilities of the colony and they die. At this point in time, beekeepers in more than half of the states in the United States have noticed this occurrence.
However, Lily hopes to enlist the public’s help. Unfortunately, it’s October and bees won’t be buzzing around again until the spring, but she asks the audience to please shoot photos of honey bees they see and to please email those photos to her Website. She will identify the bees by their genitalia and collect other data in an effort to better understand the syndrome.
After her lecture, she answers a few questions that various members of the audience pose. She has told the woman who organized the lecture that she would like to cut the question-and-answer period short because she doesn’t like to ride
the train at too late of an hour. Lily does answer only a few questions and asks anyone else with questions to contact her through email. And not to forget to send photos! She expects them to forget to send photos. She hopes the media and the public will still be interested in bees in spring. Of course, it would be even better if this winter she could figure out what was happening with the bees and then there wouldn’t be any more cause for concern. She actually wants to get home early, not because of the trains, but because she wants to work some more this evening—she has some papers to read—and then she wants to get up early in the morning to return to her office and the lab on the university campus.
On the train, Lily sits with her back facing the direction she is traveling, but this doesn’t bother her. She notices it because her boyfriend, Martin, hates it when he is forced to sit similarly; he complains about moving backward and about how unnatural that is. When Lily thinks about her boyfriend, she feels anxious. They haven’t been getting along. She feels herself pulling away from him. She’s been working more. She keeps telling herself that they are going through a rough patch
and things will get back to normal soon. It bothers her that she can’t pinpoint what exactly the problem is.
Lily watches the other passengers get on and off the train. They seem to be moving slowly. They seem heavy. She realizes that she is staring at someone for no particular reason. She decides to try to occupy her mind with something else. She
pulls out some of her papers from her large bag and reads.
When she arrives in her apartment, she first combs her thick black hair. Then she sits down at the dining room table to read some more. She lights the candle on the table. Martin arrives home from work to find her asleep amid papers, her arms acting as a pillow for her head. He gently shakes her, to which he gets no response besides a quiet groan. He picks up her legs, which seem to bend this way and that, and takes them out from underneath the table, her knees now facing the direction of the bedroom. He then picks up her small hands and frail-looking arms and leads her to the bedroom, her eyes closed the entire time, where
she manages to take off her socks, wiggle out of her jeans, remove her bra, and get under the covers just wearing her underpants and a brown T-shirt, inside of which she’s written really small, “Bee nice to mee.”
Almost all plants have an animal partner. Although Carolus Linnaeus didn’t recognize that a few animals were held responsible for many plants’ lives, he did establish a classification system of plants and animals that distinguished and separated one kind from another based on reproductive organs. Reproduction was a taboo subject at the time, in the 1700’s in Sweden. Linnaeus’s ideas about classification were originally attacked because they brought attention to sex.
This controversial man really liked plants. He was foremost a botanist and a naturalist. He enjoyed wandering in the countryside for months and collecting plants. He covered a great expanse of land in Sweden for five months in 1732 after he received a stipend allowing him to dispel with his other responsibilities and get down to brass tacks. After this time of exploration, he wrote a beautiful book with detailed descriptions—about plants.
But that was before he developed the classification system. And before he met his future wife on a different scientific journey. And after he had long been dead, Lily and Martin learned about him in their history of science class, where they met their freshmen year. The exact conversation upon their meeting is a little hazy in Lily’s mind now, but she does remember being charmed by Martin. She noticed him because he wanted the professor to talk at length about Linnaeus. She found out later that Martin was planning to major in European history and so was particularly interested in European scientists. He had enrolled in the class to fulfill his science requirement at the liberal arts college.
Lily and Martin started working on their midterm presentation together that February. They would meet in the library on Wednesday evenings and Sunday afternoons. When Martin suggested that Lily come to his dorm room instead of the library one Wednesday, Lily accepted the invitation. “It is closer than the library,” she thought. “And it’s awfully cold to be outside for very long.”
Lily remembers listening to records and working with Martin on the project for a couple of hours. Martin kept inching closer to her. She was having a good time. They had similar tastes in music, and Martin introduced her to a few bands that she hadn’t heard before. When Martin asked if he could kiss her, she let him.
In the month of March, Lily and Martin had sex together more often than they ever had had in their entire lives before then. Martin was so skinny that, lying down, four ounces of water accidentally tipped from a glass after especially breathy sex pooled on his stomach without any spillage. If one of Martin’s bony knees found Lily’s side under the covers, she would scream in pain and delight. Martin’s dark eyes dominated his face, even from behind his black-rimmed glasses. Lily often told him that he was “all eyes.” She was glad that he wore glasses because, if he didn’t, she wasn’t sure that any girl could resist his stare.
Thanks to Carolus Linnaeus’s system, the common honey bee in the scientific world is called Apis mellifera. It is not native to the United States, though it has been there for hundreds of years. In fact, it is responsible for pollinating something like 80 percent of the crops in the United States.
Flowering plants produce pollen. Pollen consists of small grains. Under a microscope and perhaps to the honey bee, pollen grains appear different for each kind of plant. Some grains are round with bumps, others have hairlike projections. There are grains that look like soccer balls. A few plants produce oblong grains with doughnut-shaped knobs. The grains may be either smooth or wrinkled. They also differ in size.
Color and fragrance attract honey bees to flowering plants. When a bee enters or even brushes up against a flower, the process of pollination begins. In this process, a honey bee transfers the pollen from the male organ of a flowering plant to a female part. As the bee comes into contact with the plant, the plant’s pollen grains cling to the bee’s body. The grains can then be brushed off and deposited on a plant’s female organ. A seed can then develop after pollination. From seeds, more plants grow.
Some flowering plants rely on wind to carry their pollen to the waiting female parts. These plants, however, are dull in smell and color. The wind, it seems, doesn’t need to be tempted to blow and disseminate. It does as it wishes.
But what does the bee get in return for its act of pollination? Does it work so painstakingly for altruistic purposes? Is its sole hope to perpetuate the existence of loveliness for future generations of bees?
In addition to pollinating flowers, honey bees get their food from the plants. When bees visit flowers, they suck up nectar from the flowers. Their long tongues, which are actually sucking tubes, allow them to do so. The honey bees store the nectar in their stomachs until they return to the hive. Inside their stomachs, the nectar breaks down into two sugars. After the bees return home, they spit up the nectar substance, which turns into honey as the water in the substance evaporates.
But it’s just the worker honey bees that perform these tasks. They are the ones who provide the food for themselves as well as the rest of the bees in the hive.
Martin is no longer as thin as he was when he was young. In fact, he’s quite rotund. When Lily is not home to make dinner, Martin is forced to cook for himself. He knows how to cook only partially prepared dishes from boxes. The recipes on the boxes might call for him to add some hot water or milk, perhaps an egg. Then he stirs the often bright-orange concoction and lets it simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. Or else the recipe on the outside of the cardboard box calls for the cook to boil the plastic bag and its contents for three minutes. And then, of course, it inevitably implores the consumer to “enjoy” and follows that request with
at least one exclamation point.
Martin usually eats his dinner directly from the pot in which he cooked it. He’s not one for dirtying too many dishes. He doesn’t like to wash dishes.
A mirror or a stainless steel toaster has never been in the vicinity of Martin as he has consumed his dinner. Otherwise he might have caught a glimpse of himself and his gluttonous behavior. He eats quickly. He doesn’t care what’s mixing with what in his mouth. He doesn’t bother to taste his food. There are dribbles often on his lips, frequently on his chin, occasionally on his nose.
If Lily’s not around, Martin eats, using an opened newspaper as a sort of tablecloth on his belly, while sitting on the couch. Martin actually does much sitting on the couch. He sits on the couch and watches documentaries. He is especially fond of shows on World War I. He likes to think about the trenches in the war. What would it have been like to wait in a hole? How vulnerable did the soldiers feel? How dirty were they? What was it like when it rained and they were surrounded by and covered in mud? And most importantly, what were their expectations as they dug the trenches in the first place? Did they feel like they
were digging their own graves?
Martin also sits on the couch and reads biographies about dead Europeans. He is enthralled with the debate surrounding Napoleon’s death. A number of people have argued about his cause of death. Many historians believe that Napoleon died from a stomach ulcer, which might or might not have been cancerous. But others think that Napoleon was poisoned with arsenic. Some of these people feel so strongly that they will go to great lengths to set the record straight. They send letters to encyclopedia companies and other reference publishers. History doesn’t write itself. There are many a bored scholar who needs more justification for their years of education. There are many an obscure paper that can be cited as proof. Martin enjoys sifting through it all—while sitting on the couch.
Lily didn’t expect Martin to be home when she gets there. She left work—really early for her—it was only 3 o’clock. When she unlocks the front door and enters, she finds Martin on the couch, under a blanket, watching a daytime talk show on TV.
“Is everything okay?” Lily asks. Lily sometimes talks fast, but she enunciates every word.
“I’m not feeling good.” Martin, on the other hand, is a mumbler.
“Just general malaise.”
“What do you mean exactly?”
“My head’s all foggy—like there’s a wet blanket draped across it.”
Lily sits down in one of the chairs. She responds, “Do you have any other symptoms? I don’t understand. Are you depressed?”
“No, well, I don’t feel good.”
“Aren’t you going to get in trouble for missing too many days at work? How many have you missed so far?” Lily also often asks two questions at once.
“I don’t know.”
Martin continues. “I hate work. Maybe you don’t understand since you like what you do for a living.”
“You don’t think that I’ve ever had a job I didn’t like?”
“No. You like everything. You even like me.” Martin’s sad attempt at a joke.
“Can you get me some milk?” Martin hands the glass to Lily.
“What are you watching anyway?” Lily asks rhetorically as she leaves the room.
Upon her return, Lily remembers something. She smiles as she says, “I learned something today that you may find interesting.”
There’s a pause before she continues. Martin looks at her blankly. She asks, “Have you ever heard of the Mary Celeste? It was a ship that was found in the Atlantic Ocean in, I think, the 1870’s. Well, when the ship was discovered in the
middle of the ocean, it was abandoned. No one knows what happened to the crew. It’s a mystery. And anyway, I found out today that that’s what they are calling the disappearance of bees in Austria and England. They’ve dubbed it the Mary Celeste
phenomenon. That’s interesting, right?”
Martin nods his head in response.
Lily’s mood shifts to dejection as she says, “But they don’t know if their bees are experiencing colony collapse disorder. They won’t admit to that.”
Lily, who has been standing while she relayed the information about the Mary Celeste, turns and again leaves the room.
A few minutes later, she returns.
“Martin, why are all the radiators on? Can’t you open a window or something? It’s so stuffy in here. And it smells like something sweet. Why does it smell like something sweet?” Lily beseeches.
“I want to pretend it’s summer in here. I don’t want to have to go outside and have my hopes be shattered. It’s so cold.”
“It’s not that cold. I’m going to open the balcony door a bit.”
“Then will you do a dance?”
“No. What?!? It’s not time for dancing.”
“Well, then can’t you sit down at least. You don’t have to be busy all the time. Stop. Please.”
Lily utters a “but.” She nibbles on the inside of her bottom lip.
Martin says, “ Lily, you have such an expressive mouth. I can tell just what you’re thinking.”
Lily sticks out her tongue and exits the room. Martin yells, “Hey, why are you home anyway?”
Martin and Lily live in a high-rise apartment building. Their building was designed to be a city within a city. Stores conduct business on the first floor. There, both residents and non-residents can visit a bowling alley, a grocery store, a dry cleaner, a pizza parlor, and a beauty salon. Martin and Lily have gotten slices to go from the pizzeria, and they buy their groceries at the store. Martin’s been to the barber three times since they’ve lived in the building. Neither one has stepped
inside the dry cleaner’s, and they haven’t gone bowling.
In the six months they have lived in the building, Lily and Martin have formally met absolutely none of their neighbors. Lily tried to introduce herself to two girls, who she assumed were roommates, but her handshake, name, and apartment number were met with what-are-you-doing? stares. The girls seemed friendly beforehand. They seemed approachable. After her introduction attempt, the rest of the elevator ride was uncomfortable, and that’s when she noticed the multiple bags underneath each girl’s armpit and decided that they must have been even busier than her. They must not have had time to be bothered. Whenever she
saw one or both of the two girls afterwards, Lily looked down and opened her bag and tried to retrieve something from it that would distract her. She occasionally said hello to other neighbors but did not make any further attempts at conversation with any of them.
Martin and Lily do like their apartment. It has a bunch of small rooms and spaces: one bedroom, one bathroom, a kitchen, a dining room, a living room, a balcony, and two closets. The rooms don’t feel quite square or rectangular. The balcony is definitely not angularly shaped. It rounds upon itself. Neither Lily nor Martin has spent much time in the closets, though hardly any space within them has been wasted. The belongings therein are very neatly stored.
The apartment walls are painted a soft yellow. Martin and Lily have minimal furnishings. The light from the balcony doors and from the bedroom window comes from the east. No artwork graces the walls. Martin and Lily like the modern style. To others, their apartment seems very clean, and yes, it does— always—smell sweet.
Martin and Lily agree that mornings can give or break an apartment’s charm. That’s what they like best about this apartment. Lily likes to awaken as soon as the sun hits her face. Martin is more apt to let the sun warm his body a while before he makes the slow transition to the couch where he will continue his morning ritual. Although Martin and Lily have few pieces of furniture, Martin is prone to bumping into them with his hip, knee, or toe, especially on this mid- morning route. However, Lily rarely witnesses these small accidents because she has often already left for the day.
Lily initially left the apartment around 7 that morning. When she leaves the second time, it’s almost 5. She had hoped to get some work done at home, but with Martin there she knew that she would get distracted. She’s now on her way to visit her favorite beekeeper, Herman. She hopes to talk with him more about what kinds of behavior he has noticed from his bees. He has a hard time hearing so she prefers to talk with him face to face. Telephone conversations with him have proven to be difficult. In fact, when she arrives, he’s on the phone. She can hear him talking inside, from her vantage point outside on the porch. She rings the doorbell, and he opens the door and motions her in. She can almost make out what the person on the other end is saying because the volume is turned up. She can definitely hear what Herman says.
“Well, then the bees are just going to have to sit there for a month.”
Herman walks over to the kitchen and points for Lily to sit down in one of the chairs. There is a plate of cookies on the table.
He continues with his phone call, “That sounds like the ‘check is in the mail.’”
“Maybe you should talk with Mr. Jensen. He’s the one who arranged everything.”
“Yes, five thousand dollars.”
“Okay, okay. Bye, dear.” He hangs up the phone on the wall.
He mutters, “Oh, it helps to be nuts.”
He continues, “You’re about three seconds early.”
“I could have been ten minutes early.”
“Now don’t get carried away with the time bit. But why? Why could you have been early? I mean, even earlier?”
“I missed the exit on the interstate. I was spacing out because I noticed so many leaves on the trees are still green. Why is that? Shouldn’t they have changed by now?”
“Oh, honey, I can’t hear you. Did you say something about space? You know, my hearing’s going. These hearing aids. . . . So do you want some coffee? Tea? Whiskey?” He is turning around in circles, almost losing his balance as he teeters on his tiptoes to reach a mug.
“A glass of water would be great.”
“Water?!? Oh, I had more faith than that in you. You know what W.C. Fields used to say. ‘I never drink the stuff. Fish piss in there.’”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that before.” She adds quietly, “But I don’t think that was exactly the quote.”
“So do you still want water?”
“Yes.” Lily answers. Herman’s eyebrows are raised and his eyes look huge as he stares at her. She continues, “Please?”
“Geez. Okay.” He returns to the cabinet. “Well, eat a cookie at least. They’re from a bakery that uses my bees’ honey. I give them a discount so I can get free cookies. That’s a pretty good deal, huh? You never knew I was so smart, did you?”
“Oh, I had a pretty good idea.” Lily retorts. “So let’s talk about bees. What do you think of colony collapse disorder?”
“Wow. Okay. You’re always so serious.”
“Well, anyway, in my 60 years of beekeeping, I have never seen bees act this way. You know, beekeeping hasn’t really changed that whole time. I don’t think it’s changed since the 19th century. But now the bees are changing. They’re leaving. More than 30 percent of my bees deserted their hives in the past year. What am I supposed to do? I’m not ready to retire. I don’t have a wife or any children to take care of me. And it would be too quiet for me even if I were to retire. I need the buzz of the bees. That’s why I’m in the buzz-ness.”
“Well, anyway, bad jokes aside, I’m not sure what to do. Aren’t you going to help me? Aren’t you going to help an old man like me? And by old man like me, I mean me.”
“I’m trying to. My livelihood also depends on the bees straightening up their act and sticking around.”
“Well, how can we make them? Are you much of a disciplinarian?”
“No. I don’t know. Why?”
“Well, maybe you could tell the bees more forcibly than I to stay? Maybe you could convince them that underneath my aging exterior I’m a nice guy?”
Lily looks at him blankly. She asks, “What’s that you were saying earlier
about nuts. . . .”
“What? You want nuts?” He starts to get up. Then, “Oh, you’re a regular smart aleck now. Hey, when did you get to be so pretty anyway?”
“Don’t you mean ‘pretty homely’? Oh, you don’t know. You’re used to staring at bees all day. And yourself.”
“Hey. Good one. Now, come on. You’re supposed to accept compliments. Say ‘thank you.’”
“Thank you, Herman,” Lily utters begrudgingly.