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Polish Peppers and Bumblebees

Bill Meredith

"A bee’s life is like a magic well: the more you draw from it,
the more it fills with water." …Karl Von Frisch

(Nov, 2015) September 23 was much like September 20 this year; summer drifted away into the past, and fall slipped in to replace it, unnoticed unless you happen to be one of those folks who make a fuss over things like equinoxes. The leaves have been slow to change color, and it didn’t seem like fall at all until October 18, when the first frost appeared. I was talking to a fellow West Virginian of my generation, and we both recalled that back in the 1930s frosty nights commonly began in mid-September. Most things seemed simpler and more dependable then.

One of the few things we could think of that have gotten better since then is the art of predicting the weather. I checked the forecast on Columbus Day, and it said the first frost would happen on Oct. 18; so I went out and picked the last bushel of peppers in the garden a couple of days before that, and sure enough, the computer was right. My wife was of two minds about it; the garden produced an abundance of peppers this summer, and she had already canned more of them than we needed; but she has never outgrown the influence of the Great Depression, and she still can’t stand to see food go to waste. So, although she really isn’t able to work at the pace she used to, she sterilized the jars and cooked several gallons of peppers, using the secret recipe of tomato sauce, onions, garlic and cooking oil that originated centuries ago in Poland and was brought to this country by her grandmother around the turn of the 20th Century.

In one sense, the recipe isn’t a secret any more; she gives it freely to anyone who asks for it. But I have deduced that, unintentionally, she leaves out one component that she is not aware of herself, and that cannot be substituted. She whistles while she works. It is not intentional, and most of the time she doesn’t even know she’s doing it; but it is essential to the process, because she whistles in Polish. She doesn’t speak Polish; the whistling was picked up from her grandmother 75 years ago, and reinforced by her mother over the years. To the untrained ear, it sounds the same as whistling in English, but somehow the peppers can tell the difference. I have tasted peppers made from this recipe by cooks of many nationalities, and although sometimes they are very good, they never quite meet the authentic standard. The only thing that is different is the whistling, and it cannot be imitated. It’s in the blood.

The day after the frost came, everything in the garden was wilted and dying… pepper plants, tomato and squash vines, marigolds, even some of the weeds. I stood and looked at it for a while, wondering if the task of cleaning up the remains of the dead plants was worth the effort it would take. While I pondered that question, a bumblebee flew up to one of the pepper plants and buzzed around it, apparently hoping to find a blossom that the frost had missed. I knew where she had come from; last month I found her nest in a rockpile below the garden.

About this time last year, a young female bumblebee, destined to become a queen, left her own home and mated shamelessly with any male she happened to meet for the next few days. Then she found my rockpile, crawled into a hole among the rocks, and went into diapause (the insect version of hibernation). She spent the winter there and came out early last spring when the trees started blooming; and she began collecting nectar and pollen to build a few crude wax cells, where she laid her first eggs. Those eggs hatched into sterile worker females, which went to work collecting more nectar and pollen, and building more wax cells. As spring passed, the population of new workers grew, and they took over the task of foraging. The queen spent less time outside; through the summer she continued to lay eggs. As fall approached, some of the eggs developed into males, which were kicked out of the nest and went off to mate with females from some other location; and eventually the old queen died. The bee that came to my garden that day was one of her last daughters. Before long, she also will die; but she doesn’t know it, so now she continues to do the only thing she knows how to do.

All of that was running through my mind as I stood there in the autumn sunshine and watched that bee. In the old English tongue that was used in the days of Chaucer, "bumble" was a verb that meant to blunder clumsily about; it was applied to "bumble bees" because they flew slowly and more erratically than honeybees. That was what my bee was doing. In some dialects they were called "humble bees" because their nests were more simply constructed than the hives of honeybees, and they were on or under the ground. Charles Darwin studied bees, and he called them "humble bees" because the word comes from the same Latin root as "humus."

As I watched the bee, it occurred to me that I am in the same position as she is… approaching the end of life, but not knowing when that will happen. So I decided that although the bee has no knowledge of her future, or even awareness of it, there is some wisdom in how she spends her remaining time… doing what she knows how to do, as well as she can, for as long as she can. Wisdom is an increasingly scarce commodity in the world today, and we should be humble enough to grasp it whenever we have the chance. So, first chance I get, I will clean up the garden and rake some leaves to mulch the garlic cloves that I just planted, and get ready for winter once again.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith