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On Bees and Be(e)ing

15 February 2011

I’ve been a partially-involved bee keeper for about two years now. Really, I’ve been more like a bee-haver than a bee-keeper, as far as personal participation has indicated, but more on that later. Initially my interest in beekeeping came from the fact that I was at the time producing mead (honey wine) commercially (see Beowulf Mead) and I felt that learning to keep bees would not only close the loop of authenticity on my mead production, but would allow me to build the skills necessary in order to one day have my own estate hives and create my own estate mead, once I established my meadery on property in West Marin (still a dream, someday).

I attended a local beekeeping beginner’s class held through the Marin County Beekeepers club, and after my first class came home with a split from a locally caught colony in a nuc box, ready to start my home hive. I pretty much left the bees alone, peeking in every few weeks or so, but didn’t take any honey and just watched in amazement as the colony grew to fill one deep box, then a second. I started late in the season, so I didn’t have time to coax the bees into producing any honey for me in the short super I placed on top, and decided to just let the girls winter over with whatever they had stored.

After a relatively characteristic winter, I peeked in on the hive and was dismayed to discover the entire colony had died on me. The innards of the hive were moldy, and I pulled everything apart and washed up what I could. I was saddened, but persevered, chalking it up to beginner’s bad luck and decided to start again. Our club was in the process of putting together an order for bees collectively from what they could find as solid surviver stock, and finally went with an outfit out of New Mexico, Zia Queenbee Co. Again I allowed the bees to acclimate and I did not pull any honey off of the hive, but let them build reserves to overwinter. In the meanwhile, my life in 2010 became very complicated, and things like hobbies tended to fall off of the radar. I let the bees ‘be’ and hoped they were running off the wisdom of their genetics. They appeared to be happy and thriving, and yet as the months got colder and colder, I saw little to no activity, and had to just hold faith they were in there somewhere.

Over the last few months, temperatures have been rising, and other beekeepers have been reporting in on their hives coming back into productivity, but my hive showed almost no activity. Every once in a while I might see a flyer or two, but for the most part, nothing, and I feared the worst. Eventually, I just gave up hope and figured the girls had died again, but I dreaded looking in to confirm the truth of the matter. Finally, last week I just gave up and decided that not only were they gone, but my passion for beekeeping had gone as well. My partner in my mead business had gone out of business, thus I had lost my means of production, and it just felt like beekeeping took too much time to do it right and I wasn’t giving it what it required. I put a post up on the local beekeeping forum, and put my wares up for sale. I got a number of different potential buyers, and this past Saturday I picked the first off the list and gave her a call. She told me she could pick the hives that day, and I said great, and all I had to do was go disassemble the boxes and get them ready for her to take.

Sadly, but with purpose I went out to the back yard and lifted the lid off of my hive, only to be greeted with a small burst of flying honey bees coming right at me. I wasn’t wearing any of my gear, as I didn’t expect to see anyone in there, so I quickly put the lid down, ran inside, and gave the buyer a call. I told her that the situation may have changed, and I had to go in to the hive and discern if what I saw was truly remnants of my colony, or just robber bees showing up to thieve away some of the honey stores. I donned my gear, and went back in to the hive to take a look around. What I found shocked and surprised me, as there was a tiny little cluster of bees up near the top of the top box, and in the center of that cluster was my Zia queen, clearly marked with blue paint on her thorax. Somehow, there were survivors, and even though the numbers were small, and likely wouldn’t survive, I was greeted with an emotional resurgence of care and interest in my colony and in my hobby.

Quickly I let the buyer know of my situation, and she was quite happy for me – losing bees is something that we’re all getting used to, and it’s a pleasure for all beekeepers to hear stories of survivors. What’s more, I posted my situation to the local forum, along with a few pictures of the cluster, and got a lot of suggestions on how to help the bees get a fighting chance at coming back. Chances are very slim for these girls, as they can’t effectively maintain heat in the hive necessary to survive, and they can’t roam to the other frames to find honey. A few fellow beekeepers came by and lent me a feeder, some pollen patty and sugar solution, and helped me set up a feeding station for the girls up near the top of the hive. I have no idea if it’s going to work, but at least I did something, and I was aided by an awesomely supportive community in my cause.

What I’m struck with is a deep sense that these bees, and bees in general, still have something to teach me, and somehow align with what’s going on in my own life right now. I am opening up to signs and this feels like one deep in my gut, so I’m committed to listen and if I’m lucky, join in the dialog.

Bees have a rich mythological and metaphorical history, and have been seen as sacred insects that bridge the natural world to the underworld, and have been associated with the worship of such deities as Potnia, Aphrodite, Artemis, Demeter, Melissa, and is connected to the Oracle of Dephi. Homer wrote in a hymn to Apollo that Apollo’s gift of prophecy first came to him from three bee maidens (Thriae), the San people of the Kalahari Desert claim a bee played a hand in the creation of humankind, the tears of the sun god Ra would turn to bees when they hit the desert sand, and the bowstring on the Hindu Love god Kamadeva’s bow is made of honeybees.

Pythagoreans worshipped bees for their mathematical proclivities in the creation of the perfect hexagon; their endless symmetry suggesting an underlying order in the cosmos. In ancient Greece, the dead were often embalmed in honey in large burial vases, crouched in the fetal position for their next birth. The Greeks associated lips anointed with honey with the gift of eloquence, and gave its gifts to Achilles, Pythagoras, Plato, Pindar, and Ambrose of Milan. Bees were associated with the kingdoms of Lower Egypt, the long-haired Merovingian kings, and of course Napoleon. Bees have been associated with the soul, and are mentioned in the Koran as taught by God to produce honey, a healing salve.

Much to think on, and as a native English speaker, I am not unaffected at the play that can be made between ‘Bee’ and ‘Being’. Bees are incredibly productive and create a system of relative complexity in their divisions of labor, the structures of their home and the exact precision by which they define the confines of their living spaces. They each have their role, and work tirelessly without thought of reward or plan for the future. We are tempted to anthropomorphize their actions as ‘planning for the future’, but they are both deeply engaged and relatively detached from their work. When honey is harvested from a hive, the bees do not fall into a fit of depression or anger, but continue to work, and rebuild, refill and reconstruct what was removed. They guard their hives with vigor, but only to the extent that they feel threatened. As a beekeeper, it never ceases to astound me that I can reach into a live hive and move frames of honey, bees, brood and eggs around without arousing a mass attack response. For the most part, bees leave be and continue with their activities. They seem to possess a certain kind of Dharma, knowing to continue with their purpose, and to be fulfilled in their activities, and to weather disturbance and disruption with equanimity. Before the advent of modern hive boxes, colonies would see large portions of their hives destroyed in the harvesting of honey, and yet would go right back to work and rebuild what they had lost, regaining their noble composure and working calmly and diligently at their goals.

I’m at a crossroads in my life, a transformation and a crossing-over between an old way of being and a new, and I feel that I have much to learn from the Dharma of bees. I’m learning to listen to my soul’s purpose, and to not get caught up with the future purposes and designs of my activities. I do what I do because it fulfills me, and not solely so that I may do something further. I’ve gotten off the rat wheel of attempting to find fame and fortune in activities that I could care less about, and I’m returning to the things that gave me pleasure and purpose in my youth – my soul’s calling, my particular metier, my way of being in the world. I’m turning what once looked like a hobby into a way of life, and I am reincarnated and┬árejuvenated by the activity. And no, I’m not speaking of beekeeping – however, in some small way, perhaps I am. I am viewing my beekeeping now as a pure activity, for its own sake, and not for the sake of creating a means of production for my mead business. Yes, I will make mead from my honey, but I will not be doing it for that sole purpose. In this, I can allow myself to be taken with the bee, and to hear her voice for what it has to give me. I submit to the activity and the wisdom it brings, learning of life and loss and rebirth and resilience… and perseverance.

In a week or two’s time I’ll have a sense if this colony will live or fail, but I’ve decided to stick with beekeeping, and will be expanding my footprint by a few more hives this year. I hope it will bring me honey and wisdom, and I hope to be able to share both with those that I love.

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