The Pollination Circuit

by Teresa Milbrodt

Teresa Milbrodt is the author of a short story collection Bearded Women: Stories (Chizine Publications), a novel, The Patron Saint of Unattractive People (Boxfire Press), and a flash fiction collection, Larissa Takes Flight: Stories (Pressgang). Her second novel, The Unicorn Maker, will be released by Break Away Books in the spring of 2017. She is addicted to coffee, Sherman Alexie, long walks with her MP3 player, George Saunders, and frozen yogurt, in that order. Read more of her work on her website.

 

It’s not easy to move one hundred twenty-five beehives from Texas to California. I start at night to make sure everything will be in the truck—an old moving van I got for cheap—by dawn. The bees are quieter then since it’s cool, and most of them are back in the hive so it’s less likely we’ll leave any behind. The guys at the farms where I rent out my bees are used to this routine since I’ve been on the pollination circuit for five years now.

We cover the entrance to the hives with a screen so the bees can breathe, and use a ratchet to hold stacks of supers together—they’re the boxes containing the frames where bees make comb to store honey, pollen, and their young. After tightening the ratchet, we move the hive onto a dolly and wheel it to the truck. We do that one hundred twenty-four more times, I give the farm guys hugs and handshakes, and I’m on the road by sunrise.

The truck has good ventilation since I cut a few holes in the sides to make sure my girls won’t be too warm. I get the move over with as quickly as possible, so we can settle at the new farm. Moving takes a toll, but it’s what we have to do to make a living.

We’re migrant workers, though sometimes it feels like I’m running a circus sideshow. See the fabulous, amazing, stupendous bees! Six weeks only! Daily appearances! Watch their powerful pollinating prowess! At least this is how I think of us while driving across the southwest in January, hopped up on caffeine and chocolate milkshakes, en route to our late winter home, a California almond farm.

We have a pollination schedule and move every six weeks. I’m part trucker, part entomologist, part environmentalist, part botanist, and part businesswoman, but you have to be to keep up with a job like this.


Sixteen years ago I figured I’d spend my life on a farm in northwest Ohio growing corn, soybeans, and winter wheat. I’d get married and have a couple of kids, and they’d raise sheep as a 4-H project like I’d done. But after my twenty-third birthday, Dad told me he was giving Jake, my older brother, the whole operation.

“He’s got good business sense,” Dad said as we sat at the kitchen table finishing breakfast. I almost choked on my toast. I’d been working on the farm full-time for five years and assumed everything would be divided even-steven between my brother and me.

“Jake has a head for crops and numbers,” Dad added as my cheeks reddened. So what was I, the family dunce? It seemed so old-fashioned, but was very much like my dad. His dad gave the farm to one son. My father. The girls got the stuff in their hope chests.

“I’m giving you five thousand dollars,” my dad said, “for whatever you want to do. If you decide to stay here and work for Jake, that’s fine.”

He gave me a half-smile, like he was saying, “Good luck, kid.” It was a look I’ll never forget. He thought he was being generous, didn’t care where I went, but expected me to stay.

I left two days later. If I was going to be a farmhand, I was going to be a farmhand somewhere else. Don’t ask why I drove my secondhand pickup south, to the Carolinas, but I got involved with an organic honey operation and learned to love bees. Our farm had three thousand hives, and made most of our income not through honey, but by renting the bees to other farmers who needed pollination services. The bee population had been declining for a couple decades, so pollinators had to be trucked in.

I learned the art of beekeeping and honey collection, worked hard and saved to buy my own hives, stands, and the old moving van that one of the other farm workers helped me repair during our time off. Five years ago the girls and I hit the road. It’s been me and several hundred thousand bees ever since. They’re my business partners, my warriors, my army.


“Your dad is really proud of you,” Mom says when I call her from a rest stop in Arizona. “He tells everyone how getting into the bee business was your idea to help farmers.”

“Great,” I sigh. It’s a load of shit. Dad doesn’t want to tell them he’s a skinflint who gave Jake the farm and me a consolation prize.

“It hasn’t been easy here over the past few months,” says my mother. “Winter wheat was bad last year, and we never recovered. Your dad had to buy a new planter since the old one was beyond repair, and they got this new sixteen-row contraption with GPS. It drives itself, I think. He won’t tell me what it cost, but they had to sell some land to buy it.”

I roll my eyes. You shouldn’t ever sell land—it’s your best investment. It’s better to rent it out and have an ongoing income. I wonder if that was my brother’s business sense talking. Both of us were in Future Farmers of America, but my brother was agriculturally obsessed, always researching different strains of crops, and the benefits and drawbacks of GMOs. He was ambitious as hell, so who knows what kind of talks went on between them before I was given my five grand and nod good-bye.

They know where they can stick their farm. Actually, they don’t know where they can stick their farm since I’m too polite to tell them. I send messages through Mom and say the bees and I have a rough schedule, which is true most times.

“I’m worried about your brother,” Mom says in a low voice. “He’s playing online poker.”

“Is he going to bet the farm?” I say dryly.

“I wouldn’t put it past him,” says my mother. Farmers have a lot of winter down time, but you’d think he could come up with something more constructive to do.

“Does Dad know about the poker?” I say.

“Probably,” my mother says, “but he’s choosing to ignore it.” Dad’s good at ignoring things when it comes to my brother.

“Things will work out,” I say because life has a habit of doing that, and because the farm could go to hell for all I care. Not that I’m bitter.

“When will I see you again?” says my mother. “It’s been months.”

“We’ll try to swing by over the summer,” I say, “when it’s good weather.” Going back to the farm would make me throw up, but I get together for lunch or dinner with Mom when I’m passing through. Someday I’ll get sick of travel, but not while I have a regular schedule and regular organic farmers who expect me at a certain times. I head to the almond groves in February, up the Pacific coast for pears and cherries in March and April, then I go across the country for New York apples in May, Maine blueberries in June, and along the East Coast in the summer for vegetable and fruit stops. We winter in Texas, then return to California.

It’s not a great place for honey production since almond honey isn’t very palatable, but it’s hard to make a dollar even from the sale of good honey since so much of it comes cheap from China. I make most of my income in the almond fields because the growers pay well and know how badly they need us. The same grove will yield one thousand pounds of almonds with bees, but forty pounds without. I’m picky about farms and I’ve found good organic ones. The girls can’t be exposed to pesticides, which do nasty things to a bee population already endangered by chemicals and parasitic varroa mites. They have to stay healthy since they’re my livelihood. I can’t rent them out and hope for the best, which is why we’re a package deal. The bees and me.

I’ve been going to the same almond farm for five years, and the workers know how to help me get the stands and hives out of the truck. We finish setup in a few hours and go out for a beer. I always feel better when the girls are in their next home and can start exploring the digs.

I’ve also taken up with a guy on the almond farm, one of the owner’s three sons. It’s a family-run operation, but one that’s going to be split three ways. Bennett has heard my farm sob story, bee love story, and the travelogue of my life in a truck.

“Are you and the girls thinking of settling down yet?” Bennett asks, one of his first questions whenever I get back.

“You know my schedule,” I say. “The nomadic life is best for us.”

“But eating one kind of pollen for a month and a half must get boring,” Bennett says. “Like eating ham sandwiches for a month and a half. There are a bunch of little organic farms around here that I’m sure could use a few hives. You should think about staying a bit longer.”

After our trek through the southwest the idea is tempting, but not tempting enough.

“Are you going to ask me to dance before the third beer?” I say. Bennett stands up and offers his hand, and we do a slow, slightly buzzed country waltz.

“You’ve been doing this for four years now,” says Bennett.

“Five,” I say, trying to suppress a yawn. The coffee is wearing off.

“You’re not even a little tempted to get off the road?” he says.

“Doesn’t make sense,” I say. “And we’ve got farmers who expect us.”

“You and your schedule,” he sighs.

“Me and my bees,” I say.

“There are good honey crops around here,” he says again. “Maybe next year you could make arrangements. It would be less stress on the girls if they didn’t have to move.”

“I’ll think about it,” I say.

“Think hard,” he says, patting my hip. “But I know you must have a farm boy lover in every state you visit.” He winks.

“Do you think I have time for that when I’m caring for a million kids?” I kiss him on the cheek. We have a thing going, which makes me feel conflicted. I’m thirty-eight and Bennett is thirty-six. There have been no formal declarations about him waiting for me, I don’t expect that kind of consideration, but if he texted me and said he was dating another woman, I’d be more than a little disappointed. We call or text each other a few times every week, but romance on the road is hard. He’s come to visit me when I’ve been on the East Coast or down in Texas, making me wonder how long the girls and I should wander.

“It’s good to plant a few business seeds. Never know what might sprout.”

“You’re sure you can’t cancel your next stop?” Bennett asks me later that night, kissing the back of my shoulders as we lie in bed. It’s probably a bad idea to sleep with your employer’s son, but I have to let myself be stupid occasionally.

“It’s bad for business,” I say, ending the statement in a little moan because Bennett knows the right spots to touch. “Next year. Seriously. I’ll think about it.”

“Okay,” he says with one more kiss, cuddling me from behind. The next day I make calls to organic farms, seeing if they might like to rent a few hives and if they could pay my fee. It’s good to plant a few business seeds. Never know what might sprout.


I check the girls every few days to make sure they’re healthy, whether or not I’m collecting honey. This means pulling on my white beekeeper’s suit with the mesh mask, and lighting the smoker. I lift the cover of the hive a little and start smoking the bees, which makes them relaxed and lazy so they don’t send out an alarm, just start eating honey. I check the supers one by one. Each hive has several supers stacked on top of each other, so it takes a while.

I take the frames out of the supers, and see which ones hold honey, which hold nectar, which hold pollen, and which hold broods of bees that are still developing. The ones with honey are capped with wax, so when it’s time to harvest I take the wax off with a hot knife and put the frames in a centrifuge where honey is slung out of the comb. I save the comb to put it back in the hive so the bees don’t have to make it again. I’ll get some almond honey after our time here, but I can’t get great price for it. Still, it’s organic and people like to use it for beauty treatments and soap. The wax I save to sell for candles. In the bee business you have to be willing to make a buck from anything.

“If you stayed here we could search for new premium organic honey markets,” Bennett says that night while unbuttoning my blouse.

“I’m set with my schedule through December,” I say. “Maybe next year.”

“You always say that,” he says.

“It’s always true,” I say. “Come on, Romeo, don’t be dramatic. What if I’m here for three months straight and you decide you don’t like me and the bees as much as you thought you did?”

“It’s an experiment worth trying,” he says, then kisses me so hard I can’t breathe for a moment. He’s very good with persuasive tactics.

At six in the morning we’re barely awake, lounging in bed and contemplating our toes.

“What do your dad and brothers think about the bee lady staying with you when I’m on the farm?” I ask.

“That I’m a lucky bastard,” he says.

I blow a raspberry on his cheek, then my cell phone rings and I have to lurch across him to grab it from the nightstand.

“I wish that happened more often,” Bennett says as I answer the phone and stick out my tongue at him. It’s two days before Valentine’s Day and I’m more excited than I want to admit since he usually plans something romantic.

My mom is on the other end of the line, but I can hardly make out what she’s saying because her voice is choked and teary. “Come home,” she gasps.

It takes a moment to understand the rest of the story. Dad had a heart attack. I inhale sharply. My father was young, just sixty-nine. It happened in the barn with the tractors. My brother found him after he didn’t come in for dinner. I’m sad for Mom, even though I was done with my father. Still, he gave me his DNA and five grand. I should thank him for that, though he gave my brother a farm worth at least a couple million dollars. Love is not measured in things, but it’s hard to overlook favouritism. Or your mother when she’s crying.

“Please come home,” she says. “I know you had your differences but … ”

She starts crying again.

“Mama,” I say when I can find words, “I’m sorry.”

“I need you,” says my mother. “And your brother needs help running the farm.”

We can talk about that later. My dad will be cremated. There will be a memorial service in four days. After the snow melts, they’ll sprinkle his ashes on the farm.

“Please come for spring planting,” she says. “Your brother can’t do this alone.”

I snort. “Dad thought he could. If I was hired help, that was my business.”

“He was wrong,” Mom says. She’s never been so frank about the matter before. “Your brother doesn’t know what he’s doing. We’re in a lot of debt. You need to talk sense into him.”

“He never listens to me,” I say.

“Come home for me, then,” says my mother.

“I will,” I say quietly. Dad left a trust for her to live on, but if she’s this worried about the farm and my brother’s poker playing, how bad have things become? He’s too smart to go broke since he’s got a wife to support, and two kids I’ve never met, though Mom sends me pictures.

I explain the situation to Bennett, who hugs my shoulders. I don’t feel like crying, which makes me feel bad. “I’m an awful daughter,” I sigh.

“You’re a fine daughter who’s going to comfort her mom for a few days,” he says. “I’ll look after the girls.” He also says I can borrow his car since it gets better mileage than my truck. I kiss him on the lips.

“You’re too good to me. And you’d better take damn good care of the girls.”

“Of course,” he says, kissing my cheek and rubbing my back, which thankfully leads to other things.


I spend the day reviewing the basics of bee care with Bennett—he’s watched me enough so he has a pretty good idea of what do to—then I leave early the next morning. The trip back takes four days. I can’t push through the plains as fast as I’d like because of Nebraska and Iowa snow, so I arrive the day after Dad’s memorial. It’s strange driving back on the farm, which is home and not-home. I expect to see peeling paint and decay, but everything looks like I remember, if not better. I hug my mom and brother and sister-in-law and little niece and nephew who peer at me shyly from behind their mother’s legs. I say they can call me Auntie Bee. That makes them smile. We have macaroni and cheese for dinner. My family is drowning in casseroles that everyone brought over after the memorial.

“Tomorrow I’ll take you out to see the new planter,” says Jake. “It’s something else. Practically runs itself.”

“So I heard,” I say.

“Farms around here are going more high tech,” he says. “You can plant at the speed of light, so I’m going to buy more land. The price of corn is going up, and that planter will pay for itself in no time.”

I raise an eyebrow, thinking of corporations that grow too fast and are crushed under their own weight. First he decided to sell land, now he’s buying it back. Smooth business planning there. Not that it’s any of my business. At dinner I watch my mother’s pained smile, her eyes flitting from my brother to me. Sometimes she daubs them with her napkin, but I think she might be on empty. That can happen right after funerals. You just get tired of crying. Now that Dad is gone, I think she needs to get off the farm and find her own apartment in town, a place close enough for the grandkids to visit whenever they want, but somewhere she can plant a new life.

When I bring this up later that night, my mother is not excited.

“I’m sixty-eight,” she says, “I’ve lived here for forty-seven years. I don’t want to move.”

“Maybe you need a little vacation,” I say. “You could come back with me to California and meet the girls. You always said you wanted to see what I do.”

“Maybe,” Mom says in a slow voice that makes it hard to tell whether she’s considering the offer. I kiss her forehead, then sit in the living room with a beer and text Bennett.

Made it safe, I type. Mom holding up okay. Brother got expensive planter. How are girls?

Girls are fine, he writes. When you coming back?

Couple days. Need to talk with Mom. Miss girls. Thanks for taking care of them.

Miss you, he types back.

Miss you, too, I say. I’ve thought about using the four-letter L- word with Bennett, but I’m nervous. I’d like him to use it first.

My brother doesn’t seem to be doing an awful job with the farm, and he’s not a bundle of nerves over finances, which makes me wonder how much of what my mother told me is true. Did Jake and Dad actually sell land to buy the planter, or did she say that because she knew I’d get worked up?

My brother is the kind of guy who’d gamble, but my mother is prone to drama and exaggeration when it suits her. Please come and save the business that you were kicked out of fifteen years ago, even though it may or may not need saving. It does in my mother’s estimation, but I think she dreams of a family unity that never existed.


The next day my brother makes breakfast. Buttermilk pancakes—my dad’s recipe. He’s a good cook just like my father was, and we eat the pancakes with a jar of Texas honey.

“I love the honey you send us,” says my sister-in-law. “You can’t buy honey like that in any store around here.”

“My girls do good work,” I say. Every year I send my family a box of honey at Christmas, a sort of I’m-sorry-but-I-need-to-be-where-I-am-gift. My sister-in-law seems like a decent person, sweet and down-to-earth. The kids are wide-eyed and well-behaved, but they probably don’t know what to make of Aunt Bee. I’m treated like a guest, which is nice and a bit strange, because Mom won’t let me load the dishwasher after breakfast.

“You go out and see that new planter,” she says. “Give me a call if you get lost.” Mom winks as I pull on my coat. I’m not used to the damp Ohio chill anymore. I stroll around outside, feeling like I’m on a field trip though everything is familiar. Mom still has her chicken coop, and chicken shit is still one of the worst smells imaginable. But I miss fresh eggs, and rendered chicken fat instead of butter makes some of the best cookies you’ve ever tasted.

“I inhale deeply, remembering how it feels to fill my lungs with cool air.”

There are good memories nestled in corners of the farm, like playing in the barn around the tractors and combines when I was a kid, and canning beans and tomatoes and peaches with Mom every summer. I inhale deeply, remembering how it feels to fill my lungs with cool air. Being on the farm doesn’t make me want to vomit, but it does make me realize I’ve truly given up my claim to the cold and the cornfields. Maybe I can really brush all the dirt from these fields off my hands.

The sixteen-row planter is something to behold. I’m sure it cost more money than I’ve made in my life, but my brother was always heading in that bigger-and-better direction. In high school, along with being president of the FFA and the top seller for every fundraiser, he ran sports betting pools which were against the rules. Jake was always looking for a way to make a buck, and he’s got finance and farming magazines all over the house. In the afternoon, I flip through a few of them, looking for articles on organic farms. My brother has business sense, even if I don’t always agree with it, so more power to him. Maybe I could stop back for a visit sometime when the girls and I swing through on the way to New York.

That night my brother is up late in his office, attached to the computer and playing Texas Hold ’Em. Growing up, when we didn’t have to worry about planting and harvesting, we were both night owls.

“How’s the game?” I ask as I peer over his shoulder.

“Not as well as I’d like,” he says. “I haven’t bet the farm.” He grins at me. Jake has been in an oddly good mood since I got back. Is he showing off, or honestly happy to see me? I thought he’d be more upset over Dad, but maybe he’s going to run things differently, the way he wants to run them. I return to the living room to text Bennett good-night since it’s only ten o’clock in California, and find my mother sitting on the couch in her bathrobe. She has dark half-moons below her eyes. I doubt she’s been getting much sleep.

“You should go to bed,” I say.

“You left me,” says my mother, her voice barely a squeak.

“I didn’t have a choice,” I say. “Dad forced me out.”

“That wasn’t my decision,” she says.

“It’s what happened,” I say. “It’s okay. I have a new business.”

“Don’t you ever want to settle down?” she asks.

“This guy in California just asked me the same question,” I say.

“Is he a friend?”

“He’s taking care of my girls and loaned me his car to get here,” I say.

“Sounds like a good friend to me,” she says. I give her a tiny smile. “Are you happy?”

“Yeah,” I say, because I can’t think of a way I could be happier at the moment. I’m doing what I need to do. Earning a living. Traveling with my girls.

“I have twenty acres in the trust,” she says. “You can have it if you stay. I want to put it in a conservation easement and make it into prairie and grow wild clover. You could bring your girls here, and they could pollinate other farms. We have organic operations in the county.”

“That still wouldn’t earn enough,” I say. “My girls need to work year-round to keep the business going, and I need to travel with them. You haven’t heard the horror stories about truckloads of bees being lost. If they get too hot, they’re goners. Not everyone knows how to move them.”

“Do you care about your bees more than you care about me?” My mother’s face looks older than she is.

“Mom, that’s not fair,” I say. “I don’t want to go back to this kind of farming. If you want to give Jake the land or put it in an easement, that’s up to you.”

My mother starts crying. All she wants is a bargaining chip, something to make me stay, but that doesn’t exist.

“I should have stopped your father when he got that stupid idea in his head,” she says. “I tried to talk sense into him once, but he wouldn’t change his mind. It wasn’t fair to you.”

I hug my mother. I rock my mother. I don’t say that I’m glad things happened the way they did. My parents and grandparents and great-grandparents were rooted to the land, and Mom wanted to keep her family close. Even with Dad’s decision, she didn’t think I’d leave forever.

“You can come with me for a break, or you can stay here,” I say. “Maybe you need time away. The farm will be here when you get back.”

“Lord willing,” my mother mutters, but I’m not going to get into that drama.

My mother gives me a long look. She wants me to stay so bad, this feels like a betrayal to her. She’s sorry and indignant and frustrated and angry and grieving. But most of all she’s tired.


I’ll be on the almond farm for two more weeks, before heading north for fruit trees. Mom packs a bag. I tell her she can stay with me as long as she wants, or I can swing her back to Ohio when I drive through the Midwest on one of my crazy long-distance stints to New York. California will be good for her, give her a chance to relax. The morning we leave, my brother and sister-in-law and the kids hug and kiss us goodbye. Mom promises to bring them souvenirs. We load ourselves into Bennett’s car, and I tell her how beautiful California is this time of year and how she’ll love the almond farm.

Since I’m chattering on and on, I’m startled when we get ten miles down the road and she says, “No, I can’t. Turn around.”

I pull over to the gravel shoulder. “Mama, really, are you sure?”

“Please stay,” she says quietly, almost a whimper

“I can’t,” I say.

“I need to go home,” she says.


“Okay, Mama,” I say. I drive her back to the farm and unload her two duffels from the back seat. She hugs me, grabs her bags, and runs into the house before she can change her mind again. I sit in the cab for a moment and watch the screen door close, but I don’t look for anyone in the window to wave before putting the truck in reverse. I turn around and return to California the same way I came, alone. I want to see my girls, see Bennett, and talk about pollination and the future. California isn’t a bad place for that mythical someday when I might want to settle down.

Now I just need to get back to the pollination circuit, where we’re all needed.

 


Teresa Milbrodt is the author of a short story collection Bearded Women: Stories (Chizine Publications), a novel, The Patron Saint of Unattractive People (Boxfire Press), and a flash fiction collection, Larissa Takes Flight: Stories (Pressgang). Her second novel, The Unicorn Maker, will be released by Break Away Books in the spring of 2017. She is addicted to coffee, Sherman Alexie, long walks with her MP3 player, George Saunders, and frozen yogurt, in that order. Read more of her work on her website.

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