As both reporter and swinging bachelor, it's my job to keep up on what's hip. Even if that means listening to community radio, skimming the local alternative weekly, and, on payday, stopping by the local independent coffeehouse for a bottomless cup of organic, shade grown, fair trade bean juice.
Which is where I learned that beekeeping had suddenly become hip.
I don't mean beekeeping in the plain agricultural sense. I'm talking extreme beekeeping, beekeeping that keeps it real, beekeeping in crowded neighborhoods with lots of kids running around, beekeeping with a potential for both a good story and lots of mayhem.
My suspicions were validated last week when a certain apiculturist with the wonderful name of Wendell Watson asked one local municipality to allow beekeeping within its city limits. According to Wendell, beekeeping is all the rage. (I would have advised Wendell not to use "bees" and "rage" in the same sentence.) St. Louis, New York, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. have all jumped aboard the urban beekeeping wagon (I don't write the metaphors, I just report them). Wendell droned on for about 20 minutes about how important honeybees are and how they get a bad rap because God gave them the ability to defend themselves, and how dogs are far more dangerous, if one is to believe Wendell's cat.
The council decided to punt and revisit the issue at a later time, which gave me a chance to do some research. Turns out he was right about the popularity of urban beekeeping. It's part of the burgeoning urban farm movement, which is part of the urban pioneering movement, which is no doubt part of some even greater historical movement that I am completely unaware of.
In short, it's the idea that poor urbanites can alleviate some of their poverty and hunger by growing healthy vegetables in their little rented patches of contaminated soil instead of choking down Rally burgers every night.
The urban farmers -- mostly young, white, straw-thin hipsters -- frequently take over weedy abandoned lots full of broken 40-ounce beer bottles, used condoms and discarded needles, and turn them into thriving community gardens. There are two or three of these near my girlfriend's house in south St. Louis. Urban farming is also about setting a good example for the unenlightened neighbors.
It is important to note that most of the urban poor don't buy into this. They think the urban farmers are whacked. And the last thing most poor folk have on their mind is gardening. (The first thing is whether anybody was hit by those gunshots.)
I WENT OUT TO see Wendell's hives for myself. Since beehives remain illegal in town, he keeps them in the backyard of a friend. Wendell's 17-year-old daughter, Ansley, showed me around the hives. She's the real apiculturist in the family, and has been since she was 14.
Soon we came upon two white hives swarming with Apis mellifera. "There sure are a lot of them," I said anxiously. So many, in fact, that I had some difficulty maintaining my jaded, cynical newspaperman pose, and not running off in a panic like a pre-teen girl.
We moved in closer, as Ansley calmly slipped on her gloves and netted hat.
That's when a bee attacked.
For some reason, he went directly for my head. I could hear him buzzing angrily in my tragically thinning hair. I'd been stung before, when I was a kid, but never in the head. I waited for the jolt of pain and for my brain to swell up the size of a watermelon.
Instead, Ansley calmly removed the bee. Talk about relieved.
A few seconds later another honeybee attacked. Or maybe it was the same militant, extremist attacker. Anyway, he was back in my hair and mad as a hornet. This one she had a harder time removing, and my cool, good-natured disposition began to unravel.
"I thought they weren't supposed to attack?"
"They perceive you as a threat," she said. "You probably shouldn't have worn dark clothing."
"You tell me now?"
I retreated up the hill, and finished the interview from the patio, but the rest of the day I had the distinct feeling that a bee was hiding in my shirt collar and that at any moment I was done for.
Later, when I wrote the piece for the newspaper, I left out the crazed bee attack. I suppose, therefore, that if the city approves beekeeping and some five-year-old kid gets stung to death by honeybees it'll be on my conscience.
Until then, I'm enjoying a cool Arnold Palmer and watching my girlfriend "foodscape" her front yard. Right now, she's putting in a small crop of tomatoes, spinach, and bell peppers along the sidewalk for all her neighbors to see. Like any good boyfriend I'm supportive of her idealistic tendencies, and I'm sure when the time comes I'll be all over that spinach salad.
But please God, don't give her any ideas about making her own honey.