tagLoving WivesThe Man Who Talked to Bees

The Man Who Talked to Bees


Author's Note: Many thanks to LSD for his careful reading and thoughtful critique of several story drafts.


"This drought's probably going to hit us pretty hard, Kelly. Water prices are going up again, maybe 10%."

"We should have sold the damn place before all this started. Now we won't get shit for it."

"Kelly, you know how important this farm has been for my family."

"Well a lot of good it's going to do if you can't grow anything on it."

Ryan knew better than argue with his wife about the farm.


Ryan grew up on the family farm, but he wanted something else after high school. He left home to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering at Cal Poly, a well-known state university in Central California. His years on the farm taught him how to innovate and solve problems which helped him immensely with his studies, and propelled him to the top of his class. While still a senior he was recruited by a large engineering firm in Los Angeles. He accepted, though he had almost no experience with city life. At times, the pace and crowding overwhelmed him, but it was new and exciting. He never fully adapted, but learned to enjoy many of the benefits of a large, thriving city.


He met Kelly through a coworker. She had been raised in a nearby suburb. The proximity allowed her to enjoyed many of the benefits of a large city, but her home life was more sheltered and privileged in the suburbs. Kelly majored in art. After graduation, she continued on to get her high school teaching credential. She'd been modestly successful at selling some of her sculptures through galleries, but the demands of her high school teaching job made it difficult to find quiet time to do more.

When they met, Kelly was surprised to learn Ryan grew up as a farm boy. He was charmingly awkward at cultural events or fancy restaurants in the city, but far from being a "hick". They bonded quickly. Together they learned the social graces and rhythms of city life.

Within a year, they were married, and settled in suburbia. They bought a small condo in a trendy neighborhood, hoping to build equity for a larger home. She continued her job teaching high school art. He commuted to his cubicle in the city. Both enjoyed their jobs. Kelly ensured they had an active social life with friends and neighbors. They had even talked of starting a family.


The call that would change their lives came late one evening. His parents had gone for dinner in their 1946 Dodge pickup, restored to the same condition it was in when Ryan's grandfather bought it new. Ryan's dad had installed lap belts, but without all the other safety features in modern vehicles, they didn't survive a head-on collision with a drunk in a 4x4 pickup. It had happened on a dark rural road not far from their avocado farm. They were dead at the scene of the accident.

Ryan and Kelly drove to the hospital to identify the bodies for the coroner. It was a gruesome formality that left them both too shaken to drive home. They spent some time in the hospital cafeteria to calm down and collect their wits.

"I guess we're going to have to sell," said Ryan.

"Yes, but we don't have to worry about that tonight. I doubt farms sell all that quickly. We have time."

"I was talking about our condo. We can't sell the farm, Kelly. I grew up on that farm. It's been in our family for over 100 years. How can I sell it?"

"Jesus, Ryan. We can't just uproot our lives, leave our friends and give up our careers to go play farmer. What the hell do I know about farming?"

"Come on, Kelly. We're talking about starting a family. What better place to raise kids than on a farm?"

"Ryan, you've lost your mind. We're both exhausted. Let's go home. We'll talk about this in the morning."

Ryan agreed. He walked out of the hospital like a zombie. Kelly took the wheel. He would have never made it.


The days after the accident were spent sorting out finances with attorneys and accountants to settle his parents' estate. The only real asset at stake was the farm and equipment. Ryan had been added to the deed several years before. He had no siblings to complicate probate, so everything was expected to go smoothly.

Ryan and Kelly discussed their future, but most discussions dissolved into an argument and Kelly dissolved into tears.

"I have to meet the accountant at the farm. We're checking everything against the asset inventory. Come with me."

"Is this a ploy?"

"No, Kelly. You know I don't do anything important without you."

They arrived at the farm a couple hours before they were to meet with the accountant and his farm appraiser. Ryan intentionally got off the highway an exit early so he could drive through the quaint little town on the way to the farm. Kelly had been to the farm for family functions many times, but had never been to the town.

The town center was old, but well-kept with many of the buildings restored to their original splendor. The town was along a well-traveled highway that terminated on the coast. This attracted beachgoers and vacationers who helped a number of boutiques and interesting restaurants to prosper.

Kelly pointed out a restaurant they could try on the way home when they were done with the accountant. Sorry, Kelly...this detour was a ploy, he thought, smiling to himself.

The long driveway from the county road to the farmhouse was lined with citrus orchards in full bloom. Ryan parked in front of the garage. He led Kelly up to the single story Victorian house with its inviting covered porch around three sides. Ryan's mom had insisted on painting it bright yellow with orange and green gingerbread trim representing the orchards that made it all possible.

A crow, perched on the eaves, cawed at them loudly at their arrival. Kelly was intimidated by the noise, and the bird's aggressive stance.

"What a disagreeable little pest." She hurried up the steps to the porch.

Ryan laughed, "I raised a crow from a chick when I was a teen. It's just wary of strangers. I wonder if it's a descendant?"

"You raised a crow?"

"Yea. I was a farm boy, remember. Still am, I guess."


Ryan opened the front door for Kelly, resisting the temptation to carry her over the threshold. They still hadn't come to an agreement. He didn't want to push it. She already knew the house so she didn't need a tour. They separated to explore on their own. Ryan busied himself with poking through family possessions that would have to be disposed of in some way. Kelly seemed to be deep in thought as she went room to room. Ryan thought she was appraising the house like a prospective buyer might. He left her alone.

A breezeway connected the house to a three car garage. The farthest bay was full of mementos from the earliest days of the farm before WWII. That bay was where the '46 Dodge Pickup had been lovingly parked all these years. Now the garage was just an empty reminder of their loss.

The house was surrounded by a small mandarin orange orchard. It was too small to be commercially viable. Ryan's dad maintained it as a hobby.

The main working acreage was about a mile farther up a rocky dirt road at the top of a 300 foot hill. It included almost 200 acres of some of the most productive avocado trees in the area. His grandparents had pioneered avocados in the area. His dad spent his whole life on the farm. Ryan did as well before going off to college. He knew as much as anyone how to run it.


On the way home, they stopped at the restaurant Kelly had pointed out. They talked about the town and the farm house. Kelly was full of ideas about how the house could be remodeled, that is, when someone buys it. Ryan let her talk.

"Kelly, we could do great things out there. What do you think?"

"I don't know, Ryan. It's just such a big change for me. For both of us."

"Big house instead of a cramped condo. Plenty of room for kids. Room for an art studio. You could reestablish your art career." She sometimes complained about life being too hectic to think about sculpting.

By the time they got home, they were exhausted. They stripped, showered and flopped on the bed in their small condo. They tried to sleep through the booming bass from the next door neighbor's stereo.

For weeks, Ryan and Kelly talked about the possibilities for both of them living on the farm. Reluctantly, Kelly agreed to the move. It would have to wait a couple months until the end of the current school term. She would stay in the condo until then or until it sold. Ryan had just wrapped up a major project at work, so he gave notice. He planned to use the time getting the farmhouse ready for Kelly.

By the end of the school term, their centrally-located condo had sold and Kelly moved to the farm.


Kelly tried to immerse herself in the farm and the surrounding community, but with neighbors so far apart, she was alone much of the time. The community was small and not friendly to newcomers. People in town only spoke to her because they had known her late in-laws so well.

She also faced an unfriendly resident of the farm. She'd pissed off the noisy crow who liked to perch on the eaves of the house. She'd gone outside and beat the side of the house with a broom to chase it away. It got to the point where the crow, seeing her come out, would fly high up into a eucalyptus tree, raucously berating her. Other crows picked up the habit. At times all of them would be scolding her in chorus.

Kelly asked Ryan what could be done. "They'll just have to get used to you, Kelly."

"Why don't you just shoot the damn thing? Your dad sure left enough guns."

"Are you nuts, Kelly? Shoot it for doing what crows do? That's ridiculous."

Ryan thought he might appease the crow with a little peace offering. Every morning when he left the house, he'd place a few nuts or dried fruit on a fence post. The crow watched him intently, but wouldn't swoop down on the treat until he drove off. He'd watch the crow in his rear view mirror taking the offering back up into the trees.

After a few weeks, he found a button on the post. A few days later a worn piece of blue glass. He smiled knowing they had come from the crow. That night he explained it to Kelly. She took over hoping to finally make peace with the crow. The crow took her offerings, but continued to berate her.


Ryan usually left the house around 7 am. Fortunately, they had no animals to feed or care for. Trees were more patient about such things so no need to be up at 4 am.

"More coffee?"

"No, I'm good, Kelly. I'll be down for lunch later. You going to be around?"

"Where else would I be?"

"I didn't mean anything by it, Kelly. It would be great to have lunch with you is all."

"Sorry, Ryan. I didn't mean it like that."

Ryan kissed her, then left for the orchard.

She sat there wondering why she snapped at Ryan. The phone rang.

"Hi, Marla. Aren't you supposed to be at work?" Marla and Kelly had been room-mates in college and best friends since.

"Took today off for a doctor's appointment. Hey, if Ryan's busy this weekend, what about coming into the city? We can do some retail therapy or something."

"Really? God, I could use a break. But could I take a raincheck?"

"Sure. What's up?"

"Just the highlight of the whole social season here in our little farm community. The annual avocado association BBQ."

"Be there or be square, right?"

"Yea, I guess. Ryan has been looking forward to it for weeks. I wouldn't dare miss it."

"Everything OK? You sound kind of down."

"I don't know. Ryan and I just seem to be snapping at one another more than usual. He's worried about costs going up. He just doesn't seem to have the same interest in me anymore."

"Uh oh. Trouble in the sack with a hunk like Ryan?"

"No, no, not that really...maybe...there's sex, but not really the romantic things he always used to do. I don't know. He's tired. I'm bored."

"Maybe you should have an affair," Marla said.

Complete silence at the other end.

"Kelly, I was joking. You'd be crazy to risk losing Ryan."

"I know...you just shocked me. Don't worry. We're OK."

"OK. Anyway, let me know about coming over soon. We'll hit the Galleria for the day. Maybe you could stay over."

"Sounds great. I'll talk to Ryan tonight."

Kelly did her best to stay in contact with her old work friends, but with their busy schedules the only way they could socializing was on the phone. It just wasn't the same as having a quick drink after work, or visiting an art gallery on a workday evening.

Occasionally, on weekends, Ryan and Kelly would meet friends for dinner in the city or attend a BBQ or swim party. Less frequently, they'd host one at their farm, but since everyone had to drive so far, fewer were accepting invitations. They also had less in common with one another as events in their lives diverged.


Once they settled in, the farm would provide a decent living as it had for decades. Water costs had been creeping up year by year, and market price was always a big variable. To make matters worse, avocados were "alternate bearing". One year would yield a huge crop of small fruit which glutted the market. The following year would yield a small crop of large expensive fruit which consumers didn't like. But dealing with adversity is what farmers do.

There didn't seem to be a way out of the "alt-bearing" dilemma until Ryan met Dr. Tom Rotzak at the Avo-Cal barbeque. Rotzak, a professor and scientist at the state university, was there giving a short presentation on his current avocado research.

Ryan listened as Rotzak droned on. Even for him, the talk was pretty dry. He glanced over at Kelly expecting her to glare at him for bringing her to the meeting with him. He was surprised to see her focused on the speaker. Leave it to her to find something interesting in almost anything, he thought.

Ryan perked up as soon as he heard the professor mention "alternate bearing". That was exactly the problem he was having with his orchard.

After the talk, Ryan grabbed Kelly and headed for the podium. He waited for a few other members to thank Dr. Rotzak, then introduced himself.

"Dr. Rotzak, we enjoyed your talk. I'm Ryan, this is my wife Kelly. We have an orchard off Topanga Road.

"Oh...I think I know your place. I'm glad to finally meet you and your beautiful wife...Kelly, was it?"

"Yes, and thank you. I don't know much about farming, but you managed to hold my interest, Dr. Rotzak."

"Tom...call me Tom. Well, nice to meet you both."

"Actually, I wanted to find out more about your research," said Ryan. "When do you think you'll have results that we can put to use?"

"Well," Tom chuckled, "I've worked on the problem in the lab for several years, but we haven't started field trials yet. We need a couple of hundred trees to do the research."

"You got 'em," Ryan said. "Tell me what you need. I'll set you up."

Dr. Rotzak explained they would be spraying the research trees with various growth hormones during the year. Periodically they'd measure plant growth and take fruit samples. They'd use a couple of experienced graduate students that the professor would provide.

"Does it hurt the trees?"

"No, no harm to the trees, but the research fruit can't be sold. We'll buy it from you, so no loss to you. We just dispose of it."

"We're in," said Ryan and shook hands with the professor.

"I'll be out in two weeks to look at the orchard. If everything looks good, we'll get started on the field research right away."


Ryan was a hands-on owner. He enjoyed working with the trees himself. He was owner, foreman and worker all in one, though he hired locals when needed. He enjoyed the business side of farming, but he loved getting out with the workers and pickers.

Ryan planned to be in the thick of it with the research as well. He would work alongside the graduate students, picking their brains for any information he could get.

Professor Rotzak came out two weeks later with three graduate students to begin the first week of the experiment. The white university Expedition would become a common sight at the farm as Rotzak's crew would be out every Wednesday for at least a year, maybe two.

Ryan jumped in his pickup and waved at the professor to follow him up the hill. At the top, the professor introduced Ryan to the students.

"This is Olivia and Sue. They're key members of my research lab as well as graduate students at the university."

Dr. Rotzak pointed to the third member of the crew, "And this is Dave. He volunteers his labor to the lab. He's not a botany student, but he's a valuable part of our team."

Rotzak walked the orchard with Ryan and the students to pick the trees that would be involved in the research.

The professor explained what was to be done, mostly for Ryan's benefit. The grad students already knew the drill. They would go through the orchard, measuring and recording growth on the selected trees and noting other changes relevant to the project.

Once he was satisfied, Professor Rotzak excused himself to meet with another grower in the area.

It would take a full day each time they came. Ryan would be right there helping. He liked the work and he liked working with the bright young students who came out.


Olivia was the de facto leader of the group. She took charge right away.

"OK, I'll work with Ryan. Sue, you and Dave know what to do. You can start on the next row over."

"Dave is Sue's boyfriend," Olivia explained when they left. "They'll be screwing in the bushes if they get a chance so keep an eye on them."


"No, they're both very professional in the field," she laughed, "but very much in love. He's here to keep an eye on her."


"No, protection...never mind. Let's get to work."

Olivia made measurements on the small tree shoots, calling them off to Ryan who recorded them on a form. She kept yelping and swatting as bees flew around her aggressively. They were not pleased with her disturbing their foraging.

"I hate this part of the job," she said.

"Don't swat them, Olivia. They'll sting you."

"I'm swatting them away so they can't sting me!"

"No, you gotta talk to 'em."

"You nuts?"

"No, seriously. Let's change jobs for a minute. I'll show you."

Ryan handed Olivia the clipboard. He approached the first shoot which was full of blossoms and bees.

"I'm out here working just like you are," he told the bees. "I won't bother you, so leave me be."

He kept up a similar patter while he read off measurements to Olivia. He never stopped talking to the bees in a low, calm voice. They became less agitated with every passing minute.

Olivia looked at him like he was crazy. His hand approached a shoot, the bees moved an inch or so out of the way, and he held the shoot while he made the measurements. There might be 3 or 4 bees around his hand with new ones flying in all the time, but they stayed just out of his way, busy with their own tasks. He chatted with them, they settled down, and he wasn't stung. Occasionally one would land on his hand. He just ignored it.

"How the hell do you do that? You some kinda bee whisperer or something," Olivia laughed.

"There's no real mystery here. The bees don't hear me, let alone understand me...probably."

"So what does it do? Your voice relaxes them?"

"No, it doesn't relax them. It relaxes me. That's all."

"I don't get it."

"It relaxes me so I don't keep swatting at them when they get too close. That agitates them. They feel threatened. That's when they sting. If I stay calm, they stay calm. Simple."

He takes the clipboard away from Olivia and says, "Your turn."

"I feel like a fool," she said. She started talking to them just the way Ryan did. In no time the bees accepted her as part of the landscape just as they had Ryan.

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