I heard about Meredith May from the founders of UC Davis’ Art and Science Fusion program, artist Donna Billick and entomologist Diane Ullman. As part of their program they've created a honeybee haven and forage garden.
“A reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle was up here," Donna told me, "Meredith May. She has two beehives on top of the SF Chronicle building.”
A few days later, I was at UC Davis interviewing Billick and Ullman. What they're doing at UC Davis is inspiring on several levels. And what the reporter from the Chronicle was doing was inspiring, too. As soon as I got home I put in a call to May asking for an interview. “Sure,” she said. “Bees are my favorite thing.”
Every spring the
[Pride of Madiera] plants in my East Bay front yard send up a forest of dramatic floral spikes. Bees and butterflies love them. I remember standing out on the sidewalk in front of my house one sunny spring morning. It was such a chorus of beauty, I suddenly had the impulse to count the butterflies on a section of the blossom stalks. I wanted to get an estimate of the total number butterflies present just at that moment. It was well over a hundred. And there were too many honey bees to count.
Then one spring morning, five or six years ago, I didn’t see so many honeybees and butterflies. It was disturbing. Where did they go? Ever since, the issue of climate change has had a different feel for me. Now it's real.
I met with Meredith at the offices of the
Richard Whittaker: So Meredith, you were telling me that your family goes back three generations in beekeeping.
Meredith May: It does. I was raised by my grandfather in Carmel Valley. He’s a descendent of William Post, one of the early pioneers in Big Sur. The Post Ranch Inn is named after him. And his mother was born in Big Sur. His father was a beekeeper, a backyard beekeeper, mostly. Then my grandfather had a hundred hives up and down the Big Sure Coast from 1940 to 2010.
RW: Seventy years!
MM: Yes. So he was THE beekeeper of Big Sur.
RW: Did he supply the community with honey?
MM: Yes. And I was his sidekick. I would go with him to go work the bees and then we’d make honey deliveries in his dilapidated Ford half-ton truck.
RW: You must have amazing memories.
MM: I do. It was a wonderful place. We would drive to all these funky
cabins way up dirt roads at the top of the Santa Lucia Mountains. He never advertised. It was all word of mouth. He sold anywhere from two to five tons of honey a year. He supplied all the grocery stores in Big Sur. Then people would just knock on our door in Carmel Valley at all times of the day with their empty jars looking for honey. So he had a rep.
RW: What are some of the memories that are most meaningful for you?
MM: He instilled in me a love of bees and their gentle nature, but I think what I absorbed from it—without even realizing it—is how his relationship with the bees gave him a relationship with everybody up and down that coast. I'm speaking about him in the past tense, but he’s still alive. [laughs] He loved home delivering the honey because he liked to sit with people and answer all their questions about bees. He was just a natural teacher. I was just talking with somebody today who grew up in Nepenthe Restaurant, one of the family members. My grandfather was also a plumber and so he did all the plumbing for Nepenthe. This man was saying, “I remember your grandfather. When I seven or eight he would show me how to thread a pipe or unclog a toilet.” That was just my grandfather. He loved teaching people about things.
So I would go with him on his deliveries and I’d watch him have tea and sit and talk with people. There were all the questions people would have about bees, how did they make wax? How do they communicate? Why do they do the things they do? It’s funny that now I’m doing the same thing, but in an urban setting. I get visitors weekly. People contact me from all walks of life and I’m very eager to show them the bees.
RW: So your grandfather’s work with the bees allowed him to do something else he loved, which was to relate to people.
MM: Right. He’s an amazing storyteller. He was also a fisherman on Cannery Row. I remember reading Cannery Row
in high school and saying, “Hey, grandpa, we’re reading this great book and there’s this guy named Doc Ricketts in it.” And grandpa would say, “Oh, yeah. I knew him.”
Grandpa was real salt of the earth and very humble. But he is a very interesting man. It took me until I was in my 40s to realize that he’s a fixture of Big Sur and everyone knows him.
RW: Did he ever run into Henry Miller?
MM: Oh yes. He said Henry Miller cussed a lot [laughs]. Henry Miller used to sit at the bar at Nepenthe late into the night and trade stories with this sculptor friend of his. My grandfather went to those parties at Nepenthe in the sixties, the astrological parties and the Halloween parties and rubbed shoulders with the artists and writers and starlets.
Grandpa was very simple and I couldn’t image him buying a fancy outfit for these parties and I asked him, “What was your costume when you went to the Halloween parties?” He said, “Oh, I just put on my fishing waders and went as a fisherman.”
RW: By all accounts, Henry Miller was a great talker. It sounds like your grandfather was extremely comfortable talking with people. And telling stories.
MM: Anybody! Famous people. Little kids. And I’m just realizing the impact of him now.
RW: It’s interesting that you’re a reporter here at the San Francisco Chronicle, so your job is to go out and talk with people.
MM: And tell stories. Right. I think I inherited a lot from him just by sitting in the passenger seat listening and watching how he moved through the world—and how people responded
to him. He has this Buddha face and this big smile. He’s part Native American and has dark skin, and he’s very strong. People just melt in front of him.
RW: Tell me some memories about encountering the bees when you were little. There must have been some important moments.
MM: Oh, yeah! Our phone used to ring with emergency bee swarms and we’d go capture them. One time we were at, I think it was at Gardner Tennis Ranch in Carmel Valley, getting a swarm. It was in a tree. I was standing back and
grandpa was in the tree getting it out when someone started a lawn-mower nearby. It irritated the bees. I got five or six in my hair. I remember he didn’t see me at first. I was trying to get them out. I wasn’t screaming. I was just rubbing my head and bending over and they were stinging, stinging, stinging. Then he saw me floundering and came over and helped pull them out. He was telling me, “Just wait, calm down. You’ll be okay.” I was six or seven. I was stung eight times in the head. That’s pretty dangerous, especially if you don’t know how allergic a kid might be.
He said, “We might have to take you to the hospital.” I was fine. And afterwards, he said, “You were so brave! You didn’t cry. You didn’t scream.” I remember, we were driving home and he said, “You know what? You can be a beekeeper.”
Looking back on it, it was a much more important moment than I ever would have thought. It was almost a premonition.
RW: I’m curious about the bees themselves and your experience with them. You must have looked very
closely at bees. What do you see? What happens? Tell me about some of the impressions you’ve had with that very close relationship you’ve had with the bees.
MM: Well… [pauses] You ask really good questions. I’m learning their different behaviors. When a bee is born it has a series of jobs ahead as it goes through its life. It’s kind of like a factory; it’s gets promoted to different jobs. When it’s first born, it’s a house bee. It cleans the honeycomb, the cells; it scrubs and polishes everything. Then it becomes a receiver bee. It waits at the entrance for bees to bring in the pollen and nectar. It takes it and goes to store it. Then it is promoted to being a nurse bee, and it feeds the larvae. There are all these jobs and the final job is that it becomes a forager.
So when I hold them that close and look at them, I'm starting to understand what their jobs are. Are they one of the bees that attend the queen? The queen has her own retinue, her entourage of bees that simply follow her around and make sure she’s fed, warm; they clean up after her, her excrement— everything.
Or I can look at a bee and say that bee was just born a few days ago. Its hair is brighter yellow and it looks kind of wet. It hasn’t grown into itself yet. You know, when you pull a big frame of bees, it kind of looks like of a mass of bugs, but I can look and see who is doing what job and how old that bee might be. So I’m starting to understand the hive as a whole, and what they’re doing and what stage it’s in. And that’s really fascinating.
RW: You’re describing a quality of seeing. Before you knew the bees, they were just bees. But now you’re seeing them with such clarity. That principal must apply all across the spectrum of life. Some people can see.
MM: Yes. The hive is a metaphor for life, on so many levels. What I love about having them in my life again is that they really bring me down to earth. I feel so calm knowing that I have two hives within steps of my computer. If something is going on at work or with one of my stories, or if one of my interviews doesn’t go well or if my editor is on my case, I can just put everything down and say, you know what, I’ve got to go work with my bees for an hour. Then after I’m with them for a while nothing matters as much. Because what they are about is way more important, if you think about it. That’s life. That’s food. They pollinate—for every third bite of food that goes into our mouths. And they’re in danger. That’s way more important than whether my story is going well or not.
So it really grounds me. And it reminds me of my grandfather as well, and the importance of family and having a legacy and passing something on. When people like Logan [present at the interview], young people call me and ask me to show them the bees. of course, I drop everything and do that—because my grandpa did. I’m very interested and concerned about the bees.
RW: That short journey from your desk to the hives is a journey from urban life and its distractions back to nature, isn’t it? Is that a good way to frame that journey?
MM: [laughs] Yes. You can frame that way. Because that over there [pointing towards the newsroom] is all about a job, a job I love—telling stories is very important—but it’s also about making money. And working with the bees is about being alive
, which is a much grander thing, I think.
So this is about my purpose. This is why I’m here. This is my connection with my grandfather. And yes, people are very surprised that we have this agricultural phenomenon right here at Fifth and Mission with bus stops and parking garages and coffee shops. It’s just odd. In almost a protest in a way against… I guess I’m a country girl living in the city.
RW: I was surprised to hear about your beehives on top of the Chronicle building. I was delighted, actually. But the truth is that, even if we live in the city, we’re still animals living in nature. But we’re so out of touch with that.
RW: I wonder if you could say anything about the feelings you have connected with the bees. We don’t talk about feelings too much in this culture. I’m assuming a big part of your connection with the bees has to do with the way you feel about them.
MM: When you hold a bunch of bees in your hand, you can feel
the vibration in your heart. There is something alive
about being so close to something that, really, is so fearful to a lot of people. But bees are very
gentle; bees do not want to sting you because if they do, they’ll die. So they’ll do anything they can to not do that.
The thing that is so great about bees is that they take nothing
. I think they’re the most generous creatures on the planet. They take nothing from anybody. They take nectar and pollen that would go to waste anyway. And they pollinate more flowers. Then they turn that pollen and nectar into honey. And they make so much of it they make more than their hive can use. hen we take the honey. So they’re giving back to us and we didn’t give them a thing. They’re such amazing, selfless creatures. I admire that.
RW: That’s profound, the way you’ve described that. How could you not love creatures that serve life that way?
MM: And I didn’t even mention the wax. The candles. All the balms. And we turn their honey into mead. It’s been used in ritual. It’s been used medicinally. It’s naturally anti-bacterial. You can put it on a cut. It’s been used since caveman times. They’ve found honey in Egyptian tombs—still good. It just lasts forever.
RW: That’s astonishing. I’m guessing it’s been mentioned before—the curious conjunction of you working here at a newspaper and having bee hives here on the roof. Beehives, with colony collapse, are threatened all over the world, and newspapers are threatened, too.
MM: I hadn’t thought of that [laughs]. That’s true. But I think in both cases, the alarm has been sounded. With newspapers, I do see a bit of a rebound. They may not be printed on paper anymore. But they’re coming out with iPad versions, apps, people are reading them on their kindles. People still need stories. It’s just that the vehicle is going to change. I think five years ago or so, there was a big love with news blogs; I think the good ones have stayed, but the majority of them have fallen by the wayside. I think people are shifting back and wanting something that’s been edited, researched and copy edited and fact-checked. There’s been a swing back to what they call the legacy media, the dinosaur media. [turning to Logan] What do you read?
Logan Vogel: I actually don’t read newspapers, really. My uncle has a newspaper and he showed me an article about bees and how they’re dying off. That’s how I actually got here.
MM: Oh, the one I had written about the woman from Botswana?
MM: See, there’s an example. You should read newspapers [laughs].
RW: So Logan, you just moved to the Bay Area from Georgia. You’re in school.
LV: Yes. I’m a freshman at San Mateo College.
RW: And you were telling me that you were moved to try to help the bees.
LV: Yes. It seemed to be something that was going unnoticed. But thanks to stories that are getting out there, people are getting more aware of it. Especially now.
MM: As I was saying, I think the alarm has been sounded on this issue. For instance the European Union banned a certain form of pesticides called neonicotanoids. They’ve been found to be extremely toxic to bees. They spray the seed and so the plant grows with the insecticide already in it.
The European Union, after years of protest—they had beekeepers in their suits protesting in the street—they’re trying a two-year temporary ban and there’s a movement to do the same thing here. I think there’s state congressperson here who has a bill to ban these pesticides. Just judging from that, and also from the number of emails and phone calls I get from people who want to interview me, or they want to see the bees or start their own hive, this is—I think the decline of our bees is the breast cancer of 2014. I really think there’s going to be a lot more attention and movement on this. It’s going to be a health movement.
I was reading about a certain area in China where the bees have been wiped out. Now they have to pollinate their crops with paint brushes. They have to manually pollinate their crops.
RW: That’s a stark reality to think about. One last question. What do you think it is that makes stories so important?
MM: Well, ever since we’ve been painting on the insides of caves, we’ve been telling stories. I think in reading or in listening to stories we’re trying to find guidance about how to live our own lives; we’re comparing ourselves to that story to see if we’re the same or different—and if we need to change, or not. The central question, I think, that drives everybody is: why are we here
We’re all going to die. And in some lizard part of our brain, we know that. We don’t accept that, but we know it. So while we’re here, we want an answer to a question that will never be answered, which is: why are we here? I think we try to answer that by listening to people try to explain why they’re here. Then maybe we can try that on and maybe get some comfort, or borrow a part of it.
You can learn more about Meredith May at http://meredithamay.net/