In the sleepy town of Perast, Montenegro, we were drawn to a canopy of wisteria, intoxicated by its delicate perfume and enchanting, lavender hue. The symphony of hundreds of bees at work enhanced the moment.
When my husband, Shawn, moved to Germany last October, I welcomed him home with a traditional German indulgence – Lebkuchen, or gingerbread. It’s the kind of sweet treat that’s plentiful at Oktoberfest stands and German wine fests each fall. The messages piped onto the heart-shaped gingerbread range from mischievous phrases to sweet nothings. The heart I carefully chose for Shawn read, “Ich habe Dich Lieb” or literally “I have for you love.” The white letters in the message were finished off with a lavender-colored frosting border, flowers and two Gummi bears.
Hermetically sealed in clear cellophane, with a ribbon strung through it, Shawn and I hung the heart up on a kitchen cupboard knob last fall. As the months passed, the gingerbread grew harder and harder. After a few months, the Lebkuchen had become part of our kitchen décor, so we let it stay there.
One morning, I was surprised to see that one of the heart’s letters had disappeared. Shawn and I concluded that perhaps we’d disturbed the icing while putting away dishes. But the next afternoon, Shawn discovered why the love letters were disappearing.
It seemed that an uninvited guest had flown into our home – an insect of the wasp variety. This little wasp apparently had a liking for German gingerbread. Despite the fact that it was technically a wasp, we preferred to call the now-frequent visitor a bee – rather ‘Bart the Bee.’
Presumably ‘Bart’ – like all exploring bees before ‘him’ – was first lured in by the bright yellow marigolds in our kitchen’s flowerboxes. We’d seen the routine numerous times during the summer. A bee would aggressively fly into the kitchen, see there wasn’t much of interest inside, and then attempt to exit. Most bees weren’t so intelligent though. They would butt their heads on the windowpanes for minutes, even hours at a time, despite our attempts to shoo them outside.
Bart possessed greater smarts and manners than his co-workers. ‘He’d’ fly in the house, respecting us and our kitchen routines, and make a bee-line for the little holes in the Lebkuchen’s wrapper. He would frantically consume frosting for ten minutes at a time, fly out the window to an undisclosed hive location, then swiftly return and repeat the entire process. I could hear Rimsky Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee playing in my head as Bart entered the heart, binged and departed the heart. Amazingly, Bart’s workday would commence sharply around seven o’clock and would continue until he made a final bee
line to the hive just before the sun set, normally around nine o’clock.
With the bee version of an ant farm now on display in our kitchen, Shawn and I pondered many deep thoughts. Would Bart’s honey take on a different flavor because of all the frosting and food coloring he was consuming? Would he be revered in the hive for his productivity? Was it really only Bart that kept returning, or multiple bees?
Soon, silly jokes emerged about Bart and his bee colleagues. (There are the Barts of the world who are productive each day, and those that don’t get much done because they have such a hard time even getting outside the window to where all the work and the flowers are.) We also joked that Bart might develop ‘o-bee-sity’ or ‘dia-bee-tees’ because of all the sugar he was consuming.
We also learned some bee trivia that might come in handy as cocktail party fodder. Did you know, for example, that foraging worker bees are actually shes and not hes? (Sorry Bart, for having given you a boy’s name!) The male bees are actually utilized solely for mating and their future is just as grim as their hardworking female counterparts. If a male bee is lucky enough to mate with the Queen Bee, he will die after the deed is done. Male bees not chosen by the Queen will eventually get booted out of the hive when the cold weather arrives. In addition, summer worker bees (of which there can be 60,000 per hive!) only live for six weeks, whereas their winter counterparts can live up to six months. We were a little saddened when we read that part about warm-weather bees having such a short life span. But we understood why – Bart had literally been working himself to death the past four weeks!
Bart the Bee disappeared suddenly last week. After we didn’t see him for four days, we were somber whenever we worked in the kitchen with a now empty heart. Shawn joked that perhaps Bart flew off to a neighboring village with a hive that has friendlier labor laws.
Yesterday, we were pleased that a new bee started a feeding frenzy in the heart. The ‘new-bee’ lacks some of Bart’s smarts, but seems determined to pick up where Bart left off. The message on the heart now reads more like “Ich Dich.” Shawn and I will have to be on the lookout for the purple hive…