CBC Literary Prizes

Advice to a New Beekeeper by Susan Cormier

Susan Cormier has won the 2022 CBC Nonfiction Prize.

2022 CBC Nonfiction Prize winner

Susan Cormier is a Métis writer who works in print, performance and film. She lives in Langley, B.C. (Bryant Ross)

Susan Cormier has won the 2022 CBC Nonfiction Prize for Advice to a New Beekeeper.

She will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts,  attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and her work has been published on CBC Books.

If you're interested in the CBC Literary Prizes, the 2023 CBC Short Story Prize is open for submissions until Oct. 31, 2022.

You can read Advice to a New Beekeeper below.


Do not keep bees.

Keep cattle, or chickens or dogs. Their emotions are recognizable, their ailments familiar. Their speech, though foreign, is in a language we understand.

*

A frame of honeycomb slips from your hands, cracks against the hive and tumbles to the ground. A dark storm of bees roars up and around you.

A hundred stings at once is an emergency. A thousand, a death sentence. A hive contains 35,000 to 65,000 bees. Stand still, contrite and breathing, surrounded by a dark hurricane, untouched, waiting.

*

A hive is a galaxy, an ever-turning sphere.

The queen lays her eggs a thousand a day, one per honeycomb cell, spiralling outward from the centre of the hive, precise and methodical. Each day she continues without reprieve, spiralling ever outward, forming a broodball of offspring, the eldest in the middle, ever moving.

As the young bees hatch from their cells, chewing through the wax and squeezing out like damp kittens with ruffled fur, a circle of newly emptied cells forms. The queen circles back and continues, one egg per reused cell, working at the heels of her eldest brood as they emerge, spiralling outward, ever outward.

*

Drink cold water before working with your beehives. Time flows in spirals inside honeycomb: an hour in the hives is three in linear time and the sunlight beats down harshly.

*

Learn the language of bees. There is no lexicon, no dictionary. They speak in song and scent and secrets and dance. The closest similar language is that of a school of fish, or octopi, or trees. 

Learn the smell of anger, sharp and thin like spilled bleach. Learn the sweet air and low, soothing hum of a balanced colony.

Learn the language. You cannot speak it, but you can listen. Listen with your body.

Learn to read the comb like hieroglyphs. The smooth cells of a nectar harvest. The patchy pattern of a failing queen. The thick, mottled wax stalactites of an overcrowding hive.

Learn the language. You cannot speak it, but you can listen. Listen with your body.

*

At the edges of the broodball is a layer of beebread: dry pollen packed tight into cells for feeding the larvae. Worker bees ferry the bread inward to the babies, nurturing the healthy brood and removing the diseased and deformed. From the outer edge of the broodball they each walk a thousand times a day, carrying food, carrying the deceased, the radii of a spherical spiral.

*

Do not fear deaths, or stings. Both of these happen frequently. Fear fire, drought, dusty parched earth and scorched, wilting flowers. Fear fire, yet carry one with you, waving smoke like fairy dust, like a priest's incense-filled thurible, quietly chanting blessings and calm.

Do not fear stings, or the possibility of them. Carry in your arms a box housing 50,000, and think nothing of it. Place your bare hand softly on 200 moving bodies at once and know only warmth.

Fear tiny mites, the spread of spores and viruses — watch for twisted wings, spasming bodies, the rotting stench of dying brood.

Fear animals with paws, and hornets. When a small midnight shadow scurries across your lawn, throw rocks, apples, anything at hand. Hiss and growl. Set up traps and hope for the best.

*

Do not talk much about the males, the drones. They are simple-minded and vulnerable. As larvae, their fat torsos ruin your perfect honeycomb; as adults, you notice when they are there, or gone, but little else. They are fickle and wander between hives, eating food stores and sleeping amongst strangers. They serve only one purpose: to breed. After achieving their goal, they die dramatically, explosively, plummeting to earth like proud warriors falling in battle. They are mostly useless and cannot defend themselves. Love their big, dark eyes, their thick bodies, the way they cling to you when you hold them, unwilling to leave the warmth of your hand.

*

Forget that your hands are large and clumsy. Move slowly. Breathe easily. The scent of held breath is an alarm bell of danger. Breathe. Be calm.

Some call it a religion, a meditation, poetry. Others call it a science, or art. You are here to work, to lift heaviness as the sun beats your back and head into a thick pounding ache and the light sparks hot harsh knives and the sweat denies relief.

You are here to work, to be worked over. And you are a thick dumb animal of clumsy meat.

Susan Cormier is wearing her beekeeping suit holding a frame of bees. (Submitted by Susan Cormier)

Get used to the common questions. Answer them in thoughtful detail, or briefly and inappropriately.

How many bees do you have?

"Seven."

Do you make honey?

"I tried, but I don't have the right body parts."

Have you ever been stung?

*

When a hive is warm and growing, lean into it. Breathe the sweet, waxy air in deep and slow. Rest your hands on the soft layers of moving bodies. Here, there is only life, and hope, and the birthing of ancient religions.

*

The modern mythology is full of romantic falsehoods. That bees recognize their keepers. That they willingly exchange honey for a home and protection. That a spoonful of sugar water left in the yard will help them. That honey cures all ailments. That the profits from selling honey will balance out your labour. That a box of bees is an easy hobby. That you do this for profits, for honey, for money. 

*

When a hive outgrows its confining quarters and swarms, the queen and half the bees leaving to form a new colony elsewhere, stand in the sunlight and watch. As the bees fly in widening circles, tens of thousands of them, more bees than you have seen in flight at once, watch them.

When they land and form a clump, I cannot advise you, with your bare arms and loose clothes, to reach your hand out to the humming, undulating mass. The breeze from their wings is small and warm. The inside of the swarm is bubbles of champagne, the purring of thousands of kittens. Your skin is surrounded by danger. A hundred stings will land you in the hospital — a thousand will kill. I cannot advise you to do this, to lift your hand into the smallest of heavens. 

*

The smallest unit of measurement is a beespace: the width of a honeycomb cell, the distance between one frame of comb and the next. Two patches of comb built separately then expanded to combine will always meet seamlessly, the hexagon pattern aligning precisely, tiny wax flakes pressed into perfect position.

A single honeybee cannot survive alone, but a colony can build an empire.

Bees visit two million flowers and fly 50,000 miles to make one pound of honey. Bees consume nine pounds of honey to make one pound of wax. A single honeybee cannot survive alone, but a colony can build an empire. Harvest comb for wax sparingly, taking only the broken and the discarded and leaving the rest for the bees to reuse.

*

Re-imagine linear time. A bee lives for a few weeks, or months. Each generation builds comb for larvae they will never see grown, stores food for siblings they will never meet, prepares the hive for a winter they will never know.

Re-imagine generations. A bee lives for a few weeks, or months; a queen, for years. She lays hundreds of thousands of eggs, her children growing and dying as she circles, spirals, methodically. Re-imagine longevity. A bee will create a quarter teaspoon of honey in its entire lifetime. The bee will live a few weeks, or months. The honey will remain unspoiled for millennia, perhaps eternity.

Consider a new definition of immortality.

*

Wash everything in cold water, because heat melts wax into a thick smear that clogs drainpipes. Rinse everything in hot, because the remnants of honey flow slow in cold. Your beekeeping suit heavy with sweat, your shirts spattered with honey and wax, your bed sheet thrown over a hive to stave off a blitzkrieg of wasps.

Your perfectly polished floors will become speckled with sticky wax bits despite the hours you spend scraping them clean with a thumbnail. The dryer filter will grow a fine film of wax. There will be so many things you never thought you'd have to scrub clean. Your home will smell of summer: sweet, bright, the rising scent of warm honey.

*

A colony can last in perpetuity, each generation bringing in food for its younger siblings, each aging queen laying the egg of her successor. But despite your best efforts, it may die. Of parasites, or disease, or starvation, or pesticides, or wasps, or bears, or cold, or poor weather, or poor genetics, or unknown.

*

Watch the trees and the skies, head cocked sideways like a rabbit wary of hawks, looking, always looking, for the umber clump of a swarm or the sunlit shooting stars of foraging bees.

*

A dead hive sounds like motionless wind. It smells like the dark cool of autumn, even in stifling summer heat. You will be quietened, suddenly, by the unexpected silence. You do not need to see: your outstretched hand recognizes the unmoving air, the musty smell, the stillness of a deceased colony.

*

Your friends will misidentify everything bee-like as a honeybee, and will turn to you for advice.

There are bees in our attic, they will say. Or, There are bees building a nest in the apple tree, please come relocate them. You will arrive with your suit on and gear in hand, and will find hornets, paper wasps, bumble bees. But you'll take care of them, right?, they will ask.

Your friends will misidentify everything. Ask for photos before you leave your house.

Tell them this story: I phone you to say come fetch your dog that is attacking my chickens. You arrive with collar and leash and see not your dog, but a coyote, or wolf, or hyena. But you'll take care of it, right?, I say.

Your friends will misidentify everything. Ask for photos before you leave your house.

*

In the cold months, the bees cluster in a sphere, the queen at the centre. As the bees on the outside chill, they burrow inward for warmth. The cluster spirals, a constant rotation of heat and food, the queen at the centre like a solar system's star.

Hold your hand to the side of the hive and imagine the sound of warmth. Picture the smell of a spherical galaxy spiralling in mathematical perfection. Are they alive or dead. Schrödinger's hive. Remember hope.

*

Reconsider your understanding of life. Dead bees still sting. A single bee cannot survive alone. The mother outlives her children again and again.

A hive with a failed queen dies slowly, population dwindling, the final brood hatch a thick wave of fat drones who abandon their home. The queen dies. The colony dies. The Hail Mary drones, single-minded and suicidal, carry their family's genetics to other queens, other colonies. Reconsider your definition of death. Of persistence. Of survival.

*

When you know the bees' language so well that you smell it in your dreams, compose an answer to that common question. If you're not in it for the honey, then why keep bees? With the expense, and the back aches, and the deaths, and the heaviness of heat, and the stings  why?

In the bright midsummer heat, turn your back to the sun and hold a frame of comb to the light. Watch a young bee hatch from its wax cell, turning slowly as it chews its way to freedom, tiny shoulders pressing and struggling, turning slowly, a spinning single star surrounded by a greater galaxy. Stand still, quiet and breathing, surrounded by a warm hurricane, waiting. 

Compose an answer in a language you understand but cannot speak. Hold your thick, clumsy hands in the shape of new wax and a soft humming song. Measure the distances in beespaces; do not use numbers. Breathe out softly, a spiralling galaxy in constant motion. Dance the language of ancient religions.


Read the finalists

About Susan Cormier

Métis writer Susan Cormier works in print, performance and film. She has won the Federation of B.C. Writers' Literary Award, the Hemingway Short Story Prize and the B.C. Alternative Writing and Design Competition, and has been shortlisted for Arc Magazine's Poem of the Year and SubTerrain's Lush Triumphant Award. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Atlantis Women's Studies Journal, B&A New Fiction, West Coast Line and the anthologies Rocksalt: An Anthology of Contemporary B.C. Poets and Against Death: 35 Essays on Living. By day, she is a beekeeper and co-owner of C.R. Apiary in Langley, B.C. By night, she is the producer of Vancouver Story Slam.

The story's source of inspiration

"Bees are viewed as a beautiful enigma, a quasi-mythical species that is governed by a natural magic. By extension of this, beekeeping is assumed to be a simple pastime, rather than an intense combination of physical labour and scientific learning. As a result, many novice keepers struggle under the steep learning curve and need to rely heavily on educational tools such as mentors, books, clubs and instructional classes.

"There is indescribably great beauty and magic in beekeeping, yes, but it does not exist in the simple observation of bees, the passive ownership of a colony of bees, or the quoting of trite facts about bees. It exists in the interactions between the bees and a knowledgeable, insightful keeper, in the epiphanies one has while working with the bees. The pain and poetry cannot be taught, can only be experienced first-hand. This essay is an attempt, within the limitations of our awkward human language, to convey some of the things that a beekeeper learns that cannot be gleaned from books, videos and discussion."

Interviews with Susan Cormier

Susan Cormier is the winner of this year's CBC Nonfiction Prize. Here she is reading her winning essay, "Advice for a New Beekeeper," drawn from her own experience keeping bees.
Langley's Susan Cormier speaks with Gloria Macarenko about her essay "Advice to a New Beekeeper" that beat out 1,700 other entrants to win a two week writing residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts.
We meet Susan Cormier, the BC author who is the winner of the CBC Non-Fiction Prize

About the 2022 CBC Nonfiction Prize

The winner of the 2022 CBC Nonfiction Prize will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Four finalists will each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books.

The 2023 CBC Short Story Prize is currently open for submissions until Oct. 31, 2022. The 2023 CBC Nonfiction Prize will open in January and the 2023 CBC Poetry Prize will open in April.

 

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

now