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Montauk, Eastern tip of Long Island, New York, a drinking town with a fishing problem.
Fresh in the water at the most Eastern beach, Ditch Plains, I sat on my surfboard beyond the break. I was acclimatizing to the blinding combination of saltwater ineffectually waterproof sunscreen. This reminds me of two phrases, ‘Wherever you go, there you are’ meaning that there is no escaping one’s problems, they travel with you until dealt with and “there are flies in paradise”, meaning the frequent small tribulations that distract us from being present to the grander beauty of a moment. That said, hardly able to see, I noticed a bee struggling close-by, in or more exactly, on the water. He/she/it (are bee’s gendered as such?) was wet but somehow not quite breaking the surface tension. My instinct is to save any life, however no good deed goes unpunished. So not wanting to get stung I tried at first to get it out of the water on my board or my neoprene-covered forearm.
This didn’t work and I knew I was into Baywatch Water Rescue ‘vet’ mode. I picked the bee up with my bare hand. It immediately crawled all the way up my ring finger, right to the tip and stopped. The symbolism of it choosing my commitment finger was not lost on me. I was in... I wanted to save this bee though I knew full well it was a fool’s errand with fractional chance of success. This half-drowned bee most likely already doomed.
I held him a while, close to my face, while paddling with a single arm to stay afloat. Such intricate beauties they are – fuzzy and detailed – so many little component parts, wonderful living machines. After a few minutes without any sign of life, I thought he had perhaps expired. Still fearing a sting though, I figured to move it to my wetsuit and rest my tiring lone paddling arm. I scraped the bee gently onto my right-forearm. As I did, he wonky-wobbled a few steps to the top of my wrist. Yay – a living bee! He was clearly still pretty troubled and lay still for so very long. Suddenly an antenna popped up then the other too. They windscreen-wipered his eyes. In a small flurry he shook his wings and walked in a small circle, now entirely dry. This was sooo encouraging. I tasted the chance of a successful life-save! Yet my board had turned nose-first toward the waves and in that beat, a large swell pitched me up, threatening to sweep me off and take my Apian passenger back to a watery grave. Desperately, and instinctively, I pushed down hard on my board with my left hand, arched my body high while thrusting up my bee-ridden right arm. Hoping he’d take flight before the waves took us. I was thoroughly doused in the face, drinking water but managed to cling onto my board and righted myself fearing the worst for my fuzzy friend. But lo, he was still there... clinging to life and the dry-ground of my arm. Phew.
We stared at each other close-up. I said, “Bee, you are amazing, you have to go... you have to fly back to land now. Its that way” I said, showing the bee the shore. The Bee looked lovingly back, fluttered its wings tantalizingly-well once more and smiled as sweetly as any honey. Perhaps intoxicated by the sexy South African accent of this surfer showing such vigour in its defense, the Bee just gave me a cheesy grin as if to say, now we’ve met I’m not going anywhere.
I transferred her (our relationship being of a different nature now) to my fresher left arm, she crawled higher toward my shoulder. A good place I thought, perhaps now I could use both arms to paddle and make it to shore. A larger wave, sent by the jealous sea intent on reclaiming its victim, flipped my board up, sliding me right off! Desperately with my leftside up, I grabbed my board back, pulling myself on fully expecting her to be gone. Yet she wasn’t. Miraculously she still clung to my bicep. Dampened once more though. One wave forward one trough back. Sigh. I shifted her back to an arm and we hung out a while in the heat of Summer. Again and again she fluttered those wings enticingly. I held her as high as I could, thrusting my hand up while shouting. “Go my Bee, my love, live, be free” but she would not leave. Our love in the water had endured 45minutes plus of my one-armed paddling. I was tiring. I had to save my bee-loved but how to do it? Ditch Plains, you have probably guessed, is not a beach you can get to shore without getting dumped by a wave nor am I the kind of surfer who can skillfully glide all the way in having only recently upgraded as a surfer from drowned rat to falling leaf. I had no solution but I had to make an effort. Other surfers drawn to my odd antics had admired the effort but could not offer solution either. If only there’d been a stand-up paddle-boarder who could’ve answered my prayers with an oar for a wing!
Bringing her close to my face once more, I said in as lovingly stern a tone as I could manage, “Bee, you are amazing and I have so enjoyed being with you. Thank you for trusting me and for not stinging me. If you are able to, you must fly away. Even the wind is in our favour. I am sure you can make it to shore, you can do it.”
Just the rich smile of a bee in the land of honey. I cajoled and exhorted her that she was the only hope the flowers had to procreate and for the good of the hive she should be strong and make it!
I continued, “I do not know how to get you safely to shore. If I try I will likely fail. It’s a miracle we have even made it this far. You must go.”
And then in the sweetest voice she said. “I trust you. You can do it”.
“I can’t Bee. I will founder and you might drown. Besides if you can talk surely you can fly?”
Once more, just that honeyed grin.
Silently I paddled a few more minutes while she stubbornly refused to see sense. Eventually I accepted that I would have to make an attempt to land. Perhaps if we got closer she might take flight. I was tiring considerably so needed to attempt this while I still had the strength.
“Thank you for spending this time with me. Its been a pleasure. I really don’t know a way but I am going do my best and move slowly towards shore. As we get closer please do save yourself with flight. I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you.”
Her antennae quivered and she saw (well into the UV spectrum) that I was utterly sincere but still she made no move. I shifted her from my hand onto the outer edge of my left bicep freeing my left arm for at least some paddling usage.
And so we began that perilous shoreline attempt. By a combination of paddling and crouching I made it through a first wave. On the second I was briefly standing before electing to go down with control so as not to lose my striped cargo. My hopes climbed that I stood a chance at pulling of a Great Beescape. But as we entered the more dangerous and rocky final section a third and humungous wave swelled right up ready to break and roll completely over me. Once more I put every ounce of energy and sinew into throwing myself up shouting “Go, go, go”. But I ate wave and was rolled right under water. When I surfaced... there on my upper left arm was... no bee. No Bee.
“Nooooo” - I felt the loss. Deep. I had known right from the start that this was not going to end well. That this little life was probably already done and doomed. That all that time in the water had probably already killed her. Or even that she had perhaps just lived her life out or indeed had even stung someone... but it had become a challenge and I’d tasted hope. We had communed. We’d come to love. That I had done my best was beyond doubt but this had not been enough to save her. Any victory could only be claimed in the compassion of the attempt.
This is a true story.
A short while later I was mulling things on the seashore. In this melancholic state I absent-mindedly wrote the word ‘Self’ in the sand. I pondered why I’d written that, and taking my phone out I photographed the word. Just then a wave washed over, obscuring the word from view. As it retreated the word ‘Service’ remained in its place. An ocean-born message to me the lone survivor searching for meaning and purpose.
Now I had not actually seen that horror wave take Bee from my shoulder so perhaps I could console myself thinking she did indeed take wing and make it ashore. I doubt it. I think she drowned. But because we met and she died in this way many other bees might survive. This story is the start of my own effort to help bees and indeed to help ourselves. It’s up to each of us.
To mangle a Stalin quote - a bee dying is a tragedy but a billion bees dying is a statistic... how is it that I and generally anyone would do so much to save a single creature and yet we do so little to save so many more? Right now the bees of this planet need us almost as much as we need them. And things are about to get even worse for them care of those fabulous pesticide corporations...
Please consider helping them... here’s one good way.
And here is a great TED talk about bee’s and their plight.
If you happen to be in NYC on 20 Sept there is also this to check out...
Hal / Doctor Lobster
And finally here are 2 shots of the reknowned Bee-hivoural pathetiologist author... pick your favourite...