I’m not allergic to bee stings – I never have been, I probably never will be – but I am more afraid of bees than anything else. More afraid than heights, than fire, than opening up to others, than death by drowning. I have been stung more times than I will ever be able to count. My skin has since grown thicker, but I remember when it was soft, and I was small. I used up the entire allowance of pain I was given for life in less than four minutes.
Perhaps I should specify that it’s not bees that I am afraid of, but wasps.
When I was nine years old, much younger than I am now, I stepped on a yellow jacket nest. My bare foot went into the hole and came out covered in their little striped bodies. There was this buzzing noise that at the time I’d thought was normal, but I now know that it was the sound of the wasps that were in my ears. They had been trying to crawl down my ear canals. I wonder if they had mistaken my canals for their burrows, and had been trying to get back to their queen, but were disappointed to find my ear drums, instead.
My sister – the same age – covered in wasps alongside me, screamed and screamed, but I made no noise. By the time I even thought to cry, I had been stung so many times it would have been pointless to weep for my swollen, red toes. I remember being unable to feel the wasps’ venom running through my veins because I couldn’t even feel my veins. If I would have cried for anything, it would have been for fear that, being unable to feel them, I might have lost track of my tiny feet. They could have walked away without my body and I wouldn’t have known. They could have walked to school and back without me.
Of course, my feet could barely walk. After my initial disgust, I watched my sister run away from where we had been standing and I knew that I should run, too. I could still feel the wasps crawling, clamoring, on my skin, in my clothes, in my hair. I remember the feeling of these bees crawling around among the roots of my hair, making themselves well-acquainted with the tender skin of my scalp. I remember being unable to get them all out of my hair before I walked into the house.
I knew that I should run, and so, balanced precariously on my numbed feet, clambered after her.
I followed my screaming sister down to our farmhouse, past my stepmother who was also screaming, even louder than my sister. I don’t remember where my father was that day.
We ran down the dirt road that led from the barns to our house, removing our shirts as we went and stopping to strip down to our underwear on the front porch. I remember the honks from cars as they passed by. I remember not knowing why they were honking, but knowing that I was angry with them for honking, for ogling, rather than stopping to help. I remember not knowing how they would help, just knowing that I needed help, desperately.
The irony of our stings is that my sister, a year later, was cast in our school’s operetta, and ended up playing the part of a yellow jacket, a sort of elementary-school-gangster, part of a group of them, who wore – you guessed it – yellow jackets and stole other bugs’ lunch money. I would say that, if the wasps that attacked me had been human, they would definitely have been after the money I used to buy Little Debbie Oatmeal Crème Pies in the lunchroom.
If I had been stung even three years later, I would have been big enough to know that one doesn’t run around in untrimmed grass with no shoes on their feet for precisely this reason. If I had been stung three years earlier, I would have been too small, and dead. So I am grateful for even the smallest of coincidences, the tiny droplet of fate that had given me those stings on that day, at that age.
I would like to talk about pain transference. In your body, nerves often run between parts of yourself you never thought would be connected. If something hurts in your elbow, it wouldn’t shock you to find that your fingers hurt as well, but if your elbow hurt and so did your lower spine? You’d be a little confused.
This is pain transference.
It’s a form of generalized pain; you can locate the pain, it’s just not coming from any one place. You can feel the pain in more than one part of your body, though there’s no reason for anything other than your elbow to ache. This is also your body’s way of protecting you from pain. It’s not that this pain is more manageable, but that it is easier to understand. Your elbow might be more hurt than the ache lets on, but you can’t tell, because your lower back is throbbing.
Now imagine your body as a hive of wasps. Imagine each of these wasps as a nerve inside of said hive-body. Imagine the queen as this hive-body’s brain. What is your body’s goal? To protect the brain. What is a hive’s goal? To protect the queen. Each wasp is born with an instinctual dedication to the queen. They must protect this individual at all costs. Your body, on the other hand, does everything it possibly can to protect the part of you that makes you so unbearably you.
Yellow jackets are social creatures. Each wasp has its own purpose in the hive, and the three different ranks within this hierarchy are the queen, the drones, and the workers. The queen (who is the only member of the colony equipped by evolution to survive the winter; every other wasp is dispensable) lays eggs and fertilizes them using stored ***** from the spermatheca. Her only purpose is to reproduce. Occasionally the queen will leave an egg unfertilized, and this egg will develop into a male drone whose only purpose is also reproduction. The female workers are arguably the most important part of the hive. They build and defend the nest.
Only female yellow jackets are capable of stinging, and wasps will only sting if their colony is disturbed. This fact is new and interesting to me. I remember thinking that it would make so much sense if the only wasps in the colony who could sting were the females. Females have a motherly, nurturing nature about them, but they are protective and willing to make sacrifices as well. Lo and behold.
The females are the nerves. They transfer the pain from the queen to themselves (and then, if disturbed, to the third-party individual who has disturbed them).
Psychics view pain transference as the transferring of pain between bodies rather than the transferring of pain between separate parts of the same body, but it works in a very similar way. Different types of energy vibrate at different frequencies; loving energy vibrates at a higher frequency than dark energy, therefore they transfer between people at different rates. Pain is simply dark energy that holds a fatalistic power over us.
According to psychics, energy can be transferred through the mind, the body, and the spirit, but pain is mostly transferred through physical touch. To transfer pain to another human being, you must touch them in a way that is not beneficial to their own or your spiritual growth.
I would like to talk about smallness. I was nine when I was stung by these yellow jackets. I was nine and the first time I’d ever been stung was at a friend’s birthday party at maybe the age of seven, behind the knee, and it’d swelled up so large I couldn’t bend my knee for two days. I knew the dangers of disturbing wasp nests; I’d watched my friends all through elementary school getting stung on the wooden playground on the premises. I, myself, stuck to swing-sets and splinters.
I was always so careful. I never went near trees if I saw a nest in its branches. My teachers had told me that I should stay away from the part of our playground made up of tires, because the hornets liked to nest in the rubber. I was terrified of being stung again after that first time because all the mud in the world didn’t seem to make a difference. The wasp’s venom, even after drying up pile after pile of soft, wet dirt, made my limb stiff and sore. I was always so careful; it seems appropriate that the one time I’d been careless, I’d been stung enough times to make up for all the times I had avoided wasps as if my life had depended on it. Maybe it had.
I was small enough when I was nine. If I had been stung at six, or three, I would have been in a lot more trouble. I would have been in a lot more pain. At nine, my stings required calamine lotion and mud for the venom, and ice baths for the swelling. At six, they might have required a trip to the hospital. At three, they would have been much more alarming, considering I had never been stung by a bee by that age.
I was careless. It was summer and I was old enough to wear denim shorts and I had kicked off my flip flops so I could feel the grass under my feet and I was careless and I was punished for it. Now I watch my cousins and my niece play outside and I have to hold my tongue, remember that I am not responsible, that I cannot prevent their being stung, their stings, no matter how badly I want to.
I would like to talk about fate. I would like to talk about how, if I hadn’t been running barefoot, I wouldn’t have gotten stung so badly. I would like to talk about how if my father had been around to tell me not to run barefoot, at least my feet would have been safe. How, if I hadn’t been too stubborn to listen to my stepmom, too, I probably would have had shoes on. How, regardless of all of these things, I probably would have been stung no matter what.
In a world where people are stung by hornets every day – where people are stung by as many as I was, at once – I would like to say that I know now that this experience is not as unique as I had previously thought it to be. I know more people than I thought I did whose trauma involves insects smaller than their pinky finger but together cover their whole body, and venom. I know people who, when I tell them I was stung by hundreds of yellow jackets at the age of nine, shrug and say nonchalantly, “Hey, me too.”
I would like to talk about smallness, and fate. I would like to talk about not only physical smallness, but the smallness one feels when they are in pain.
Belittled might be the word I am looking for. My pain wasn’t belittled, per se, but my pain belittled me.
My pain made me feel small. My pain made me feel small when I was stripping my clothes off on my front porch, cars racing by on the state highway that ran past my house. When I was running my fingers through my hair under the faucet in my kitchen sink because my sister was older and always got first dibs on the shower. As these wasps that hadn’t suffocated under my hair stung my fingers, too, until they were as swollen as my toes. My pain made me feel small when it made me pity myself.
I would like to talk about standing up for yourself as an act of causing pain.
Honeybees, when they sting, are defending themselves and their queen, but they don’t know that when they sting, it will become lodged underneath the skin of whomever they sting and it will pull them apart and they will die.
I imagine the first time a wasp stings to be a sort of power trip. Female wasps can – and will – sting repeatedly to protect the colony. I also imagine they don’t know that their relative the honeybee dies after it stings, but it must be strange for them, nonetheless.
Have you ever seen a video of a woman protecting herself and those she loves? She’s vicious. She won’t stop until the perpetrator has retreated.
When a woman stands up for herself, though, it’s as if she’s tearing herself in half.
A woman standing up for herself is a dangerous thing, both dangerous for her and for those around her. It is an act of bravery and defiance and saving grace all in one.
A few weeks ago, I overheard someone equate being female with being terminally ill, as if we have no place to go but down. As if we are dying creatures, on our last leg of life, with no will to fight for what we want.
As if the pain of the world is being transferred into us all at once.
I would like to argue that it is the exact opposite. There is nothing more alive and breathing than femaleness.I am inseparable from my femaleness. I am inseparable from the that leaks from me when I think of all of the times I have been harmed But I am not inseparable from the pain that I have caused others. I cannot forget that.
I like to imagine sometimes what my stings would have been like if I had gotten them ten years later, as well. I am much bigger. I am much stronger. I am much more capable of handling pain than my nine-year-old counterpart.
I wish I could have been the one to have to handle that pain. I wish my nine-year-old self had known better than to let her foot fall into a yellow jacket nest. I think it’s unfair that, at such an early age, I had to deal with something so terrifying and painful and traumatic. My extremities were swollen for over a week. I couldn’t write, I could close the zipper on my backpack, I couldn’t turn the pages of a book. I couldn’t go to school, and I couldn’t read in bed, so it might be enough to say that the week I was kept out of school to elevate my legs and let the swelling go down was the most boring week of my entire life.
Sometimes I look at my ankles, swollen from blood flow, from standing too long or from sitting too long or from doing anything except elevating them, and I’m reminded of this time when my ankles were much thinner and I watched them on the end of the couch, my toes pointing toward the ceiling. I remember how terrified my mom was. I imagine that phone call must have been harrowing for her – Hi, Michelle, Em’s been hurt. No, she’s fine. Just a few bee stings is all. – and for her to see me for the first time, red and splotchy and itching myself like mad must have been even more so.
I think about my father’s reaction, how I hadn’t been around to see it, but how he must have been heartbroken at knowing he wasn’t there to protect me, to prevent the bees from attacking me. I believe, however, that there was no protecting me, that there was no preventing these wasps from defending their home against me, an infiltrator. I had stepped inside of their burrow and was instantly seen as a threat. Anything I see as a threat to myself, I instantly want to rid myself of.
This is the way of the world: we see something, we determine it to be good or bad, and we either bring it into our lives or defend ourselves from it depending upon which it turns out to be. I happened to be the ultimate evil in these wasps’ lives. They were simply protecting their queen, without whom their hive would no longer exist. I was dark energy, vibrating in a way that spoke to them as threatening. I was transferring pain to them when my foot stepped into the hole, and they were transferring it back to me when they stung me. I transferred energy into the ground as my feet thumped against it. Water transferred energy into me as it helped me rinse wasps out of my hair.
From pain to protection to pity, back to pain. From bee stings to womanhood to sadness and back again. One shouldn’t be afraid to introduce the things they’ve lost to the things they’ve loved, or the things they love to the things they’re afraid of. And I am afraid of wasps. Petrified, even. The other day, driving in my car, I rolled the window down and in, immediately, flew a yellow jacket. I watched as it she flew past me and then around the back of my head. I heard her and was immediately transported back in time. I wondered what she was doing in my car, so far from her queen. I wondered what was in my car that she possibly could have wanted. But I knew that she wasn’t there to hurt me, because I hadn’t invaded her home. I hadn’t made an attack on her queen. I knew there was no sense in panicking, so I didn’t. I didn’t panic.
I am afraid of things even though they won’t **** me, but I have watched myself face these fears. I have stumbled onto a Ferris wheel and then walked confidently off. I have left candles lit without standing to check on them after every episode of The Office I watch. I have loved people I never thought I would, and I have seen the other side.
“And such bees! Bilbo had never seen anything like them. If one was to sting me, He thought, I should swell up as big again as I am!”
-The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien