I hear a buzzing, feel a tickle, and reach behind my ear. When I open my hand, a honeybee darts around my palm, its paper-thin wings starting and stalling in sporadic fits. I breathe in the wet, green-soaked summer air. Relax, I whisper, and the honeybee sits like a dog waiting for a treat. Bits of pollen cling to its furry hind legs like saddlebags. Did it think my blonde hair a flower, as something to consume?
The honeybee crawls to the edge of my index finger and floats upward, vanishing. I think of my brother, of when I was nine, him eight. I had just told him humans secrete a pheromone when scared, that bees can smell this fear, that when you’re afraid they sting. Sniffing his armpit, he called me a liar, so I showed him the book I’d checked out from our school’s library. I read him the life-saving fact written below the diagram of a soothed drone.
I’m allergic to bee stings. One causes nausea, my skin to swell, to burn. Many will kill. Even as a child, I wanted to understand how something so small could hurt something so large. What I came to realize is we must have faith in each other to do the right thing.
But mistakes happen.
A couple of days after learning about bees’ emotional sense of smell, my brother and I were playing in our backyard. Near the neighbor’s fence, he stopped and pointed downward at the base of an oak tree. Hidden in the bark was a small, dime-sized hole. A honeybee crawled from the hole like a soldier emerging from a trench. Then another appeared, and another. Soon a horde of them zigzagged around us like a battalion of biplanes.
The honeybees landed on my brother’s arms and neck. He giggled and twirled. The insects sparkled like gems on his outstretched limbs. I wanted to be fearless, too, but I lacked a trust, not in my brother or in the honeybees but in myself. For me, a sting was so much more than a sting.
I second-guessed myself.
My brother yelled for me.
I kept running.
I spent the remainder of the afternoon patrolling the neighborhood and pretending to be brave. I was a knight, a firefighter, a superhero. When I went home, my brother’s arms, covered in a mountain range of red welts, rested in my mother’s lap. With a credit card, she scraped his skin like someone peeling paint. She disposed of the used-up stingers in a mason jar. I counted the tiny spears as she dropped them in.
It was the least I could do.
Outside, carcasses sprinkled the grass.
Stinging for honeybees means death. Their barbed stingers once hooked under skin can’t be retracted. They’re forced to leave behind muscles and organs, crucial parts of themselves, to defend the ones they love.
Will Musgrove is a writer and journalist from Northwest Iowa. He received an MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in TIMBER, Cleaver Magazine, The Lumiere Review, Oyez Review, Tampa Review, Vestal Review, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter at @Will_Musgrove.