Monday, August 29, 2011

On Bee Bottoms

I was watering the dianthus border, with its little striped magenta and white parasols, this morning. The soil is rich and black and the water sinks in rapidly. I was off in some little reverie, watching the ground slake its thirst, when a sudden darting movement caught my eye. There, atop one of the dianthus flowers, was a bright green Praying Mantis, three inches long, looking wet and quite cross. Clearly, I had disturbed her morning’s nap in the rudest manner.

She scuttled across the top of the plant, her arms held tightly to her thorax in that distinctive praying posture; hopped from the dianthus to the scalloped brick border (a space of no less than six inches); and scurried to the very end. There she sat, her entire body pulsing with angst, her triangular head turned toward me accusingly, while the sun dried her.

I was mortified to have affronted one of my garden’s denizens. I have the same sense of violating privacy when I sprinkle the dust from the rock roses and large white moths flutter limpidly out from the netted branches and launch themselves sleepily into the early morning breeze. Or when the full force of hose water flushes a toad from beneath a big comfrey leaf, with her bead-bright eyes blinking in confusion.

While I call the garden my garden, it is, in fact, quite clear to me that I am at best a passing visitor there and, at worst, a clumsy and potentially lethal trespasser. I try my best to stay conscious of the lives of the garden dwellers, but one misstep can crush a caterpillar that’s fallen from a sunflower leaf or drown a sleeping butterfly. And let’s not even talk about those horrifying moments when, spading up garden soil, I encounter the thrashing halves of worms!

The garden is a delight to me and, in season, a lot of hard work. But to these others, it is a world. Their world, where the leaves of hollyhocks are as big as helicopter landing pads are to us, and the multilayered stalks are high-rise buildings. This is their air space and their network of streets and paths, of which I, Goliath that I am, am completely insensible.

Of all the garden’s inhabitants, none delights me more than the bees. We keep six hives, which amounts to hundreds of thousands of bees. All spring and summer they crisscross the garden, bent on their prodigious labors. When the weather heats up, as it does this time of year, they seek water sources and carry water back to the hive for cooling and for honey-making. I have to be particularly careful, when refilling the fountain’s scallop shell-shaped bowl, not to inundate whole cadres of bees who line the shoreline, proboscises extended, greedily drinking.

Favorite watering holes for these busy creatures are the plates beneath my terra cotta pots of petunias, that line the railing of the deck. These tiny watercourses, some only half an inch wide, seem to just suit the bees’ sense of proportion. They belly up to the water, side by side, all around the perimeter of the plates.

Given their constant thirst and the ambient heat and resulting evaporation, it has become my task to play handmaiden to the bees. A dozen times a day, I go out to check water levels in four different pot plates. Sometimes the water  level is so low that the bees are crouching and delving under the pot itself, with stretched proboscises. If I’ve carelessly allowed one plate to go completely dry, its fan club is still hovering, in patient expectation that the spring will fill up again.

This small show of faith never fails to move me. In it I find my humble place in the order of things in the garden: I am She Who Periodically Dribbles Water Into Plates, performing this task regularly and ritually, all summer long. And my reward is the sight of a ring of happily bobbing, black- and gold-striped bee bottoms. Who could ask for more?

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