Recently on a Fall day in Manhattan, I found myself at the Farmer’s Market at Union Square. For a few blocks the white tents of the vendors make an arcade where one can stroll, browse and shop.
I was beginning to reach the point where my feet were starting to tire of walking, and I thought I’d seen about all there was to see there.
In this, though, I was mistaken.
My friend was in line to pay for some produce he’d picked up. Trying to stand out of the stream of determined walkers, I waited for him near a booth that apparently sold honey.
The honey seller stood in a narrow space, offering samples.
His head seemed to be surrounded by a small cloud of hovering bees. I couldn’t see a bee hive there, though one must have been somewhere behind the scenes, I thought.
Other bees clustered on a few comic statues of bears which decorated the man’s establishment.
As I waited, I listened to him answer the questions of a woman who was sampling his honey. She eyed the circling bees with wariness as she leaned forward over the counter.
“Do they, you know, sting?” I heard her ask.
“No, not my bees,” he answered.
To my amazement, he casually reached over and plucked a bee from the crawling mass on one of the bears with his bare fingers.
As he talked, he turned the bee upside down. He must have been holding the insect by its wings, since there was no way he could hold the thorax alone, and I could see he wasn’t touching the striped abdomen.
“They are perfectly capable of stinging,” he added. “But they wouldn’t sting me.”
And as he spoke he began to stroke the underside of the bee with a finger. The bee did not struggle, but appeared to move its tiny legs synchronously as if in enjoyment. As the vendor patted the bee, I could see its abdomen moving in time with each pass of his finger.
“They’re my girls,” said the bee man proudly. “They work for me.”
“There you go,” he said to the bee, lifting his hand and releasing it. The bee flew up and joined the others flying around his head.
“All creatures kind of like me,” observed the bee man. “The females of each species, anyway.” He eyed the woman speculatively.
My friend returned with his purchase and we both walked away.
My father used to keep bees in hives on the roof of our house in Tucson, Arizona. I have often seen him put on the veiled hat and heavy beekeeping gloves to collect the honey.
And I’ve always had a healthy respect for the danger an angry swarm of bees can present, though I’ve seen other bee enthusiasts show off by covering their faces with a huge “beard” of bees– this is done by placing the queen on one’s neck; the rest settle around the queen to produce this unnerving sight.
Moreover, this stunt is something I would never try under any circumstances, since, as I understand it, if one stings, they all do– it’s a chemical signal.
I thought I knew a little about bees and beekeeping.
But I never, ever saw any bee keeper get so intimate with his bees as to pet a bee.
And this bee, indeed, seemed to like it.
Live and learn.
Hal Robins is a renowned underground comic artist and his work has appeared in Last Gasp’s Weirdo, Salon Magazine’s Dark Hotel and many other publications. For decades he has been the co-host of KPFA-Pacifica Radio’s “Puzzling Evidence” program. Reverend Hal is the Master of Church Secrets for The Church of the SubGenius. As Dr. Howland Owll, he has served as MC for many unique San Francisco events, and is the principle of The Ask Dr. Hal Show, still currently running both as a live staged event and in-studio on Radio Valencia (radiovalencia.fm) Friday evenings. Hal contributed his unique vocal talents to the award-winning interactive game Half-Life.