Sitting drinking beer in Chen Da Jie’s garden, we notice motes of bamboo sawdust drifting down on us from the roof. “Those bumblebees, they’re li hai,” she complains. In rural China, li hai is normally a term of approval. When you complete a long-distance hike at altitude, or a bruising cross-province drive, or swim across a river just free of its spring skim of ice, you’re li hai. As we watch Chen Da Jie batting the eaves with a broom, it is clear that in this case li hai is firmly negative.
Bumblebees, with their erratic hive habits and preference for hunkering in their hundreds in abandoned rodent tunnels, are considered a nuisance. Chen Da Jie tells us about her neighbor who had been hoeing his field the previous year and unwittingly disturbed a ground hive. He was taken to the local hospital in Lin’an but died from the stings. Being li hai, one bumblebee can sting many times. “They even steal nectar,” she grouses, alluding to their anti-social habit of biting a hole in a blossom, and shirking their duties as pollinators.
Honeybees, though, are treasured. While the news from Europe and America is of colony collapse, here on the mountain, apiculture is a thriving part of the local economy. Every farmstead has at least a couple of hives, and some neighbors combine their summer guest house business with honey farming. During a good summer, jars glowing molasses-black to chamomile-gold are ranged for sale on upturned crates by the roadsides.
The local style of beehive is a round wooden bucket capped by what looks like an upturned iron wok. When we first moved to this mountain, we mistook them for cooking vessels, and wondered what delicacies were quietly steaming inside. In the larger villages down in the valley, honey is farmed commercially, and sometimes we see the more familiar square crate hives stacked in courtyards. Those bees are fed sugar-water, and their honey is blandly sweet.
Mountain honeybees feed on the nectar of wildflowers, and their honey exudes the complexity of terroir. It has the depth and nuance of single malt Scotch whiskey. Amber and dense, its sweetness is cut by a pleasing, though almost medicinal, bitterness. By midsummer the honey is runnier and milder. A mountain-induced synaesthesia convinces us we can taste the magenta of lilies, the delicate mauve of iris, the waxy white of magnolia.
Each November our home fills with great black wasps. Their arrival is as predictable as the flightpaths of migratory birds. After a last burst of activity over the National Day holiday in early October, the guest houses shutter, and with the onset of winter their owners evacuate to the milder valleys. The mountain is given over to a great stillness. At certain times in its history, this must have been how it felt all year. My artist neighbor began visiting during the 1970s, at the height of the Cultural Revolution. “There wasn’t a soul here then,” he tells me, “It was completely empty.” His drawings from that time are spare charcoal studies of solitary trees.
Our house is one of the few winter-proofed homes on the mountain, warmed by underfloor heating that proves a siren-call to the wasps. Objectively, they are beautiful—elegant thread-waisted creatures with matte black bodies and trailing legs. They are the fertilized females, searching for a warm place to winter-over. Despite our alarmed attempts at eviction, they are entirely non-aggressive. Sated, impregnated, drowsy from the heat, they resist our provocations and settle among the beams of our sleeping loft. Over all the years of their occupancy, no one in our family has suffered a single sting. By next spring, they will be hunting the grasshoppers that chew the farmers’ vegetable crops.
For now, our own aversion is the only hostility.
Lindsay Shen grew up in Scotland, then spent several years as an adult living in China with her family. She writes for Reaktion Books (UK) Earth series, and has published in the United Kingdom, China, and the United States. She is currently writing a memoir about living on Tianmushan, a mountain and UNESCO site in Zhejiang Province, China.