I remember being 10 and climbing through the narrow passages between the limbs of a tall cedar in our backyard toward a dark mass of honeybees that had split and swarmed from a hive in my parents’ apiary in Hampton Bays. A colony dividing is a spectacle. The bees leaving the hive in such numbers sound like a jet being scrambled. The noise of their wings deafens a bee yard and their flight darkens the sky. A novice beekeeper only needs to experience this once to understand exactly what it signals. The bees swarming provide a brief opportunity for a beekeeper to double the size of their apiary. Away from their hive they are at their most vulnerable. All a beekeeper has to do is capture their naked kingdom. The queen knows her vulnerability and has surrounded herself with thousands of armed guards.
The bees had gathered on a high branch like a blood clot. Being the smallest in the family I was suited up and sent up the tree with a saw to cut the limb and the swarm down. I climbed through the narrow rungs of the cedar, bending the branches the higher I ascended along the tapering trunk. My father called up instructions and caution from where he stood beside a sheet spread beneath the tree to capture the colony when it fell. They were so loud where they hung it was difficult to hear my father’s words. Approaching a swarm is like wading downstream toward a waterfall, beautiful to behold yet so loud you cannot hear yourself saying this is probably a bad idea.
Honeybees bear their economies through the trends of seasons and they thrive and suffer all the same as any economy. A boom produces growth difficult to contain within one hive and under these favorable conditions the only feasible solution for the bees is to divide the hive, swarm, and establish a new colony somewhere else.
A swarm is a process. A new queen has been hatched and raised in a cell of wax. She has been determined to be a queen and has been fed a substance called royal jelly ensuring her sex and rank. In a sense she has been elected to this before she even grows wings. At the same time the existing queen is being harried about the hexagonal comb from which she raised and ruled her nation. Her term in office has come to an end. The dissenting bees chase her so that she will lose weight, making her once again able to fly. Flight is something she has not done since she first flew for the solo purpose of mating. While these things are taking place, scouts loyal to the old queen have gone ahead and found a suitable location where they can establish the new colony. Within a few days the harried queen will take flight and take with her half of the existing colony to the new location.
All of this has been done by a civilized and organized group of insects. They are committed to moving the queen from one place to the next. These ladies do not mess around. If one of the bees protecting the queen feels threatened she will sting the attacker. For a honeybee this is a death sentence. Her stinger is shaped like a fishing hook, and upon stinging it will tear from her body, taking with it bladders of formic acid, the agent that causes the pain of a sting, and most of her intestines, causing enough collateral damage to ensure that she will die. Looking at the bees, I always know that they believe certain truths, death before dishonor and long live the queen.
And so I am 27 and caddying at Sebonack Golf Club. Vice President Joe Biden arrives to play golf and of the candidates to caddy for the VP my name gets called and two officers from the Secret Service request my identification and Social Security number. They take the information and they tell me it will be discarded after the round.
I meet Joe. His hair is gray and turning over in the breeze. Behind him, the parking lot of the club is clogged with a spread of official vehicles. They are thrumming away like a beehive preparing to swarm. His guards surround him. Men, mostly, their shirts loose fitting and bulging with concealed arms they can easily access. I am told that the personnel of the Secret Service are typically selected from a pool of retired Special Forces. Many of them were career Navy Seals that retired into this opportunity.
Where we go, Biden’s guards go. Their demeanor gives the impression that they too believe certain truths, death before dishonor, and long live Joe Biden. Their weapons, like the hooks of the queen’s guard, are loaded with reservoirs of rounds. While Joe plays the course, the Secret Service lead, follow, and surround us. For the time being I am a part of this naked kingdom, and it is an intimate view of the nature of the United States’ protection of the presidency. There is no job these men and women hold higher than protecting Joe’s life. He quips that he is not too worried. They’re pretty good shots, he says. Their colleagues fired the simultaneous rounds that removed the pirates from the besieged Maersk ship. Their colleagues killed Osama bin Laden.
There is a point man that rides in a golf cart beside Joe while he walks. He is in constant communication with the other members of his team and the command center of vehicles assembled in the parking lot. On the hole behind our group, and on the hole ahead, there are two more carts, and in these vehicles are blue heavy-duty cases. A colleague of mine asked what the cases contained. The officer in the cart looked at him and smiled. Anything flies over this course that isn’t supposed to be there and we can take it out of the sky, the man replied.
I recently was having coffee with a friend, a retired breast cancer surgeon. He had called me to his house that morning because there was something he wanted to talk to me about. We discussed nature and the lessons that are being taught to us all the time. The same rules apply to our natural world as they do to us, and I have always been fascinated by the concept that there is no separation between man and nature and yet we live a life of complete separation. But all living things thrive and suffer the same. No living organism does exist without the death of the things that have come before it. We are connected just like that. Similarly, the queen bee and Joe Biden are protected exactly the same way. Scouts precede them, and while they move they are led, followed, and surrounded by guards that believe those aforementioned certain truths.
A young woman asked me recently, why are all the bees dying? There are many suitable hypotheses to use in order to try and explain the die-offs that have recently occurred in apiaries across our country, but these explanations prove again and again to be unsuitable. We don’t really know. Environment, pollution, disease, starvation, cell phone signals are all possibilities. In my own experience disease and starvation cause the most serious problems. Bees were introduced to this continent by colonists that came here by means of dissent and swarm. Those first colonists almost all died of disease and starvation.
And so Joe Biden finishes his round of golf and we shake hands and say goodbye and he is turned into the folds of his personal guard and they in turn lead him into their vehicles and leave in a deafening swarm.
So I guess the bees are teaching us things. Apparently they knew how to protect leaders long before we did. What can we learn from their failing nations? And how can we apply it to nations suffering the same failures, nations as small as our own homes, our own homeless? For now the queen is safe and all along the fairways honeybees unaware of Joe Biden’s urgency as he travels within his own naked kingdom bounce along, their wings are shimmering in the sunlight as they dot the flowers of a summer afternoon.
The author of this essay, Joe Carson, lives and writes in Southampton and is a graduate of the Southampton MFA program. His work has appeared in the The Southampton Review, The East Hampton Star, New York Golfing Magazine and The Sag Harbor Express. He is currently finishing his first novel. “The Naked Kingdom” is one of the two runners-up entered in the Dan’s Papers $6,000 Literary Prize for Nonfiction competition.