The mystery of the missing beehive

A few weeks ago Oggie and I went off trail in Westwater and descended down the canyon toward the stream. Oggie stopped to rest in the shade, so I paused beside her, absentmindedly staring into the branches of a pinyon tree.

A dark shape caught my attention, and as I focused on it, I could make out a beehive covered with bees. I had never seen a beehive hanging from a tree before, much less one in Westwater.

Fascinated, I stared at it for a long time, snapped a photo with my phone, and Oggie and I continued our journey to the bottom of the canyon.

The next day we left to spend time with our family in St. George, so a week elapsed before Oggie and I took the same route again.

In anticipation, I stopped by the pinyon, but I couldn’t see the hive anywhere. Puzzled, I climbed to higher ground to examine a pinyon there but with no luck.

I clambered down to the ledge where Oggie waited and inspected three pinyons growing nearby, studying them from various angles. Still no luck.

Finally, Oggie and I slipped down to the stream, jumped across, and headed toward home, but I was baffled.

I wracked my memory, feeling positive I correctly remembered our trek to the bee tree. I returned the next evening, so I would have the light behind me rather than in my eyes, but still no hive.

I took my binoculars the following day, but even with their magnified vision, I couldn’t spot even one small bee. Perplexed, I wondered if someone or something had stolen the honeycomb.

Since that seemed unlikely, I wondered if the bees had swarmed because their colony had become too crowded. When overpopulation occurs, workers raise a new queen, and half or more of the bees leave the hive, persuading the original queen to travel with them.

When scouts find a safe location for a new home, they steer their queen to the site and begin constructing a honeycomb. However, life goes on at the old hive as the remaining workers care for the young queen and her brood, and I saw no evidence of the old hive.

I finally decided I had remembered everything wrong, not a comforting conclusion at my age, so I started looking for the honey tree along the regular trails, periodically comparing my phone photo with likely pinyons. Nothing matched.

My mystery brought to mind a similar one in Barry Holstun Lopez’s “The Location of the River,” a short story about Benjamin Foster, a befuddled historian in the 1800s who spends 30 years documenting native cultures.

In 1826, despite Foster’s lengthy and painstaking efforts, a Piegan tells him he’s “learning everything wrong,” but he persists in his methodical research.

Finally, in 1844, he loads his journals onto 11 mules and sets out for Kansas City to publish the manuscripts. As he’s passing through Nebraska, he’s told by his friends, the Pawnee, that the upper Niobrara River had disappeared for four or five months in 1843.

They explained that rivers don’t belong to humans, so sometimes the earth plays tricks on those who are “too dependent on such things always being there.”

Foster, despite his close association with native cultures, doesn’t believe the earth is a living entity or that she would capriciously make the river vanish, so he becomes obsessed with determining what actually happened, at first using the scientific methods of the day and interviewing people, all to no avail.

Eventually, unable to resolve the dilemma, Foster goes down to the Niobrara River every day and throws his notes into the water until most of them are gone. Then, he, too, disappears, “‘like a surprised grouse whirring off across the prairie.’”

Nature provided a riddle for the fictional Foster who was unable to solve the disappearance of the river logically and scientifically.

Nature and memory supplied one for me in the disappearance of the beehive. In Zen Buddhism, teachers often pose riddles, called koans, so their students experience the limits of logical thinking.

According to Gary Z. McGee, “The Zen koan serves as a scalpel used to cut into the mind of the meditator. Koans...are ambiguous and paradoxical, waiting for our minds to open up enough to allow the space for deep intuition to emerge.”

Perhaps when Benjamin Foster cast his notes like petals into the river which had caused him so much perplexity, his mind finally opened.

Today as Oggie and I walked, I couldn’t resist trying to spot the hive again. However, the sun was hot and the sky smoky, so I didn’t linger.

After we crossed the stream and climbed to the upper trail I waited for Oggie in the shade of a pinyon. I didn’t have to examine its every branch to know it wasn’t the bee tree.

Despite my relentless search, I was now willing to let the location of the hive remain a mystery. I took a deep breath, and as my mind opened to the Westwater world, a bee landed near me.

For what seemed a long time, it remained still, its veined wings, like stained glass windows, shimmering in the sun.

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