by Amy Glynn
I have the Philosopher’s Stone in my backyard. It resonates at a frequency of approximately 309 Hz.
In flight, the wings of a honeybee beat at 230 Hz. Ventilating workers in a hive produce a frequency of 309 Hz. A piping queen generates a frequency of 450 Hz; the hunger signal of larvae varies from about 120-140 Hz.
Female bees have two parents. Males only have one.
Leonardo da Pisa, the 13th century mathematician also known as Fibonacci, is said to have launched his lifelong obsession with the numerical sequence that gives us the formula for the Golden Ratio over an observation of honeybees. He said: “Someday these numbers will unlock the secret of nature and will explain why a drone has no father.”
It seems he was right.
A single worker bee produces a twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime. Her lifetime—in a honeybee colony there’s no question who gets the job done. Ninety percent of a normal beehive is comprised of females. Females do the foraging, the cleaning, the ventilating. They raise the young, they are the providers, they are the guards, they are the undertakers. Males can’t even sting. They exist for one purpose: to mate with a queen. Once. Because unlike the human paradigm, mating is 100% lethal for bees. No one does it twice, not even the queen, who on her single mating flight collects enough semen to fertilise as many as 1500 eggs a day for two to four years. My young hive has recently lost its queen without having raised a new one, which is bad news for the colony, though we’re determined to fix it. Yes, we—there’s a “we” now. The crisis is that a worker has attempted to take over the egg-laying gig. Unlike humans, bees can create young from unfertilised eggs. And, unlike human ova, which are female by default unless a Y-chromosome-bearing sperm cell fertilises them, bee eggs are inherently male, and a drone-dominant hive is a doomed one.
Not that I needed the metaphor; kicking the drone out of my own colony didn’t just sweeten my life, it saved it. We’ve got this. I know it can, and probably will, take time to undo the cumulative damage of unforeseen accident and misguided stopgap repairs. It took me a decade.
Call it an upward spiral. Or dumb luck. Or…. Smart luck. I’m not sure. But playing the long game has born literal and figurative fruit.
I waived my ownership stake in The Spouse’s company when I decided I was done with… well, his company. Most of my friends told me I was insane. I’d been a freelance writer and fulltime childcare wizard for over ten years. I didn’t exist financially, my skill set wasn’t software development, and I lived in one of the most psychotically expensive regions of the country. How could I possibly take a risk like that?
Easily. Well, it was an easy choice—the execution was another matter. I took the house as an equalising payment, essentially dividing the assets so that I got possession of the mortgage and he got possession of the income. This involved some Faustian moves including—because I didn’t exist financially—having my father cosign the refinance paperwork and effectively become technical half-owner of the place. The Spouse’s interpretation was, and this is a direct quote: “Your dad took the house away from me and gave it to you.”
“No,” I said, in this new calm voice I was trying out after years of screaming, sobbing, or droning robotically. “My dad kept his grandchildren in the only home they’ve ever known without you having to cash me out. You weren’t coerced, you never acted like the place meant anything to you anyway, and you just doubled your ownership stake in a software company. If you wanted the house, you maybe should have started with acting like you wanted the marriage.”
He didn’t like that answer, but honestly, by that point I had no idea what the hell he ever had liked about me, and I was done trying to earn his approbation.
Divorce plus unemployment created a debt hole it took me eight years to climb out of. When I finally did get a job, it was one to which I was well-suited and had a lot of perks, but the salary didn’t cover the PITI on the ramshackle rancher I now had to keep paid up, so I was in the red before I ever turned the lights on or put food in my kids’ mouths. I sold jewellery, and everything else I could part with. I channelled my pioneer forebears, pretended it was the Depression, and decided that, when the girls were with Dad, I wouldn’t buy groceries. I stretched pantry staples and ate what the garden produced, or not at all.
I learned that if I needed to depend on my garden for survival, I could. Right now, right at this moment, there are peas and potatoes, eggs and salad greens and herbs, blueberries and strawberries, sorrel and celery, carrots and radishes, lemons and blood oranges. Soon, apricots, cherries, plums, nectarines, beans, tomatoes, squash, corn, sunflowers, cucumbers, apples, almonds, pears, olives, figs, pomegranates, guavas, oranges and mandarins.
And honey, assuming we succeed in crowning a new queen before the social fabric of the hive breaks down.
Jon Sullivan: Bee Collecting Pollen, San Diego, California, 2004 (CC)
The initial installation had gone perfectly. A local 4H kid and his mom helped us rig up the hive boxes. They arrived a couple weeks later with a wire-mesh cage containing 10,000 Italian honeybees, and a single mated queen. The queen controls the whole scene with pheromones; the workers consume the sugar and set her free from her separate enclosure, and everyone gets to work, building comb, laying eggs, foraging for nectar and pollen, and manufacturing honey. At the two-week check, all of those things were happening.
My friend pulled out a frame and said “Yep, she’s out!”
“How did you find her so fast?” All I saw was a thrumming wall-to-wall mass of identical, fuzzy, brown and gold striped bodies and iridescent wings.
“Oh, I don’t see her yet. But look.” She holds the frame out to me. “These are capped brood cells. Those have larvae in them. And check it out—you already have honey.”
For some reason I didn’t think anything would have happened yet, but the expression “busy as a bee” didn’t come from nowhere.
The combs are extraordinary—a web of paper-thin wax in perfect interlocking hexagons; some empty, some filled with nectar, some with finished honey, some with grubs. The bees thrum, musical, industrious, and utterly like-minded, even with brains the size of a grain of sugar. Masters of geometry who can communicate with interpretive dance, taste with their feet, see into the ultraviolet spectrum, and fly as much as 8 miles a day for spring and summer foraging.
They are utterly glorious.
My ninth-grade algebra teacher was a Fibonacci monomaniac. There was no context in which the Pisan mathematician and his mystical “series” could not be brought up by this woman. I didn’t get it. Obviously, if you add one and one you get two, and if you add two and one you get three, and if you add three and two you get five, and if you keep adding the sums of the last two answers you get an equally obvious and predictable series of answers. So what?
She’d show us transparencies on her overhead projector. A pinecone. A pineapple. A sunflower disc. A cross-sectioned shell of a chambered nautilus. Da Vinci’s Vetruvian Man. The Parthenon. I saw shapes. I understood she was saying that the Fibonacci series was expressed in those shapes, and that the ratio the series described (1.618) was also known as the “golden” ratio and was represented by the Greek letter phi. I just didn’t get it why she couldn’t stop talking about it.
But it kept coming up. In math, in art history seminars. In a college seminar on non-Euclidean geometry my professor remarked that Bela Bartok had used the Golden Mean as a template for his compositions—I ended up writing a paper about it, and not even that made me understand why it mattered. Later, in a landscape architecture program at UC Berkeley, two things struck me at once: that I wasn’t ever going to be a landscape architect because I wasn’t interested in engineering, I was interested in botany. And that something was going on with that damned series of numbers because geometry was a human construct, but it was pretty hard to say plants were, so why was botany the place where Fibonacci reared his head the most? Artichokes. Cauliflowers. The fiddlehead spirals of fern and cycad shoots.
Then the professor said the words that snapped it into place: packing density. What my ninth-grade math teacher had been nattering about all that time was a natural-world blueprint for optimal productive space and minimum waste.
Bees must consume approximately eight ounces of honey to produce one ounce of wax.
One pound of honey requires the nectar of approximately two million flowers. One colony can produce 50-100 pounds of honey a year.
Bees don’t make honey by pure instinct; it’s a craft that is taught, handed down through generations. Through an incredibly arduous and intensive multi-step process, they turn the ephemeral nectar of flowers into a substance with an essentially infinite shelf life. Archaeologists have found perfectly edible honey preserved in Egyptian tombs for three thousand years. It’s antimicrobial, and a very effective preservative for several reasons including its unique sugar density, its viscosity and acidity, and the presence of bacteria inhibiting hydrogen peroxide. Ancient cultures correctly used it as a wound dressing. Cleopatra reputedly bathed in it. Liquid gold, 100 times as costly per gallon as oil. The Magnum Opus, immortality.
In his work De Agri Cultura, 1st century Roman scholar Varro says: “Does not the chamber in the comb have six angles, the same number as the bee has feet? The geometricians prove that this hexagon inscribed in a circular figure encloses the greatest amount of space.” In reality, wild beehives, constructed in irregular spaces such as cavities in trees, don’t exclusively use hexagonal comb construction: like the “sprung” meter of a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, the packing density varies according to the constraints that arise at the intersection of form and idea. Pentagons, heptagons, and probably triangles can occur in a beehive to fill in an irregular edge or seam. But the default is the hexagon, because out of all the tiling polygons it is the most efficient at containing maximum honey with minimal wax.
Some say the sunflower is called a sunflower because it looks like the sun; others say it’s because it’s heliotropic, meaning the flower moves over the course of the day to track the arc of the sun through the sky—devotees of Helios, cheering section for the great flying phaeton. A sunflower seedhead has its florets arranged in interlocking spirals: often specifically 34 that radiate clockwise from the centre or apex of the flower, and 55 that radiate counter-clockwise. Each floret emerges at a 137.5 degree angle from the one before it. Some cultivars have more spirals, some fewer, but the angles are the same, they’re always Fibonacci spirals. The petal structures fringing this masterpiece of architecture are known as “rays.” Sunflowers are composites, with both ray and disc flower structures aggregated into the single structure we see as the flower. Botanically, each of those yellow petals is a unique individual flower, as is each of the fuzzy structures in the spiral that will attract honeybees and ripen into seeds. This construction is designed to optimise space; it provides maximum surface area for the seeds. A sunflower is a triumph of packing density.
Divide the number of female bees in a normal hive by the number of males, and you’ll generally get the golden ratio.
Golden section spirals appear in hurricanes, spiral galaxies, palm trees and diatoms. They are present in human ears, and umbilical cords, and for that matter, the double-helix curl of our DNA.
Look at a tree’s branching structure. One branch becomes two, then three, then five, then eight. Rivers. Coastlines. Cardiovascular systems. Dendrites. Lightning. Everything is always the sum of things that came before it.
This year, I made a six-figure income for the first time in my life—working for myself, as a writer and editor, on my own terms. I’m out of debt. I sent my oldest daughter to an exclusive, artsy college in New England. There was a pandemic, and I survived it. No: much more than survived it. I leveraged it. I’d endured enough isolation to know I could do it indefinitely, and enough therapy for contagion-phobia that my main problem was dealing with the fact that most people around me had apparently never before noticed that they were mortal. I discovered skills I didn’t know I had and embraced skills I knew I had but assumed weren’t “marketable.” They were. They are. After struggling to pay for both food and utilities for several years, I have found myself in a place where I have been able to finally fix the garden. Jacuzzi installed, flagstone surround mortared in place, Cecile Brunner rose set to climb the new pergola. Dead trees culled, the leggy feral lemon balm uprooted along with the rest of the choking weeds. Henhouse raccoon-proofed, vegetable bed enlarged, deepened, and enclosed in a wire mesh cage that keeps out rodents, deer, jays, and my daughter’s cat who enjoys assisting me with “fertiliser.” New irrigation. The date palm has been re-groomed without destroying the crevices where the wrens nest. I’ve put in two dogwoods, a pink hawthorn, a crape myrtle, an apricot and a Pakistani mulberry. The borders are now full of hydrangeas and penstemon, osmanthus and peonies, bearded iris and hollyhocks. Fences mended—the literal ones, at least.
I don’t live alone anymore. I get told every day that I’m beautiful and smart and funny by someone kind who doesn’t lie to me.
“You have a beautiful world here,” he told me, then paused and amended: “You made a beautiful world here.”
I haven’t talked to X in over a year and I don’t miss him; I’ve accepted that you can love someone without needing them.
I talk to CJ now and then, and I don’t miss him either because I don’t need to—he’s with me all the time.
At the moment, things are pretty sweet.
But, from the “Nothing gold can stay” department, Queenless hives are more aggressive—bees don’t like insecurity any more than we do—and the workers are starting to sting. Installing a second queen failed—she was either rejected and killed, or died of other causes before the workers could release her. As I write this, we’re currently on our third attempt, which has meant removing the frames full of drone brood and killing them (by putting the whole shebang in the freezer), and slipping in frames from another, healthy, functioning hive in the hope that the workers will rear a new queen from there. If it works, the monarchy will be back under control in about two weeks. If it doesn’t, we move on to an even more extreme scenario that involves introducing a wild swarm and praying for a successful “pheromone exchange.”
The frames we had to freeze had, in addition to the doomed rows of drone larvae, a modest amount of finished honeycomb, which I put into a fine mesh strainer and pressed down with a jar of pie weights. It yielded about half a cup of honey—light gold, with a hint of citrus blossom, and staggeringly delicious.
I am determined to make this work.
Michael Pollan points out in The Botany of Desire that the classical meaning of the word “sweetness” was not simply the description of a flavour. It meant fulfilment, gratification of desire—it essentially meant perfection. “Sweetness and light,” he points out, were terms Jonathan Swift and Matthew Arnold both used to describe the highest of ideals (for Arnold, “sweetness” meant beauty and “light” meant enlightenment or intelligence), even if over time, the phrase began to be increasingly imbued with irony or insincerity. But what Swift was specifically invoking with that term was what we get from bees: sweetness in the form of honey, and light in the form of beeswax candles. In The Battle of the Books, the satire in which the phrase was coined, there’s a lengthy and quite witty colloquy between a bee and a spider. It’s pretty keenly observed, other than Swift’s gendering the bee as a male.
Summa Perfectionis. The Great Work might or might not be literally forcing mercury or lead to become gold, although we’ve now proven that it’s possible, just dissuasively expensive. Carl Jung believed that the Medieval obsession with alchemy was something much more metaphorical than literal: a personal, internal process of perfecting the spirit; a process of breaking things down, burning off impurities, regrouping. Cell by cell, neutron by neutron, releasing dead weight, grounding volatility, neutralising poisons.
The Medieval alchemists did seem to believe a certain level of personal purity was required for “good” alchemy. But it’s probably safe to say they medieval alchemists were also interested in literal transmutation of literal lead into literal gold.
Why are things the way they are? Do we need to understand this in order to change the substance of reality?
Fruition. Sweetness. Happiness. Attainable. Possible. Can it all collapse in an instant? Of course it can. And you love it more for that, not less. Besides, it’s nature’s nature to rebuild. Scorched earth just gives the sun a bigger, blanker canvas.
The love you liberate in your work is the love you keep.
About the Author
Amy Glynn is a poet and essayist whose work appears widely in journals and anthologies including The Best American Poetry. Measure Press published her first poetry collection, A Modern Herbal, in 2013; her second, Romance Language, is forthcoming. She has received the Troubadour Prize, the SPUR Award of the Association of Western Writers, Poetry Northwest’s Carolyn Kizer Award and scholarships to the Sewanee and Bread Loaf Writers Conferences among other honors. She is a two time James Merrill House Fellow and was the inaugural Poet Laureate for the cities of Orinda and Lafayette, CA.
This essay will feature in Glynn’s collection my empire of dirt, forthcoming in 2023 from Berfrois/Pendant Publishing/Delere Press.