“For so work the honey bees, creatures that by a rule in nature teach the act of order to a peopled kingdom.” – William Shakespeare
Albert Einstein once said “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better”. While most of Einstein’s theories need to be broken down by men/women of science and may take a lifetime to fully understand, I came to know this as truth in just a scant few months. My teachers were not physicists or theorists. They taught with neither book nor equation or spoken language. I was brought to a deeper understanding of the man-made world by observing the one created by nearly 100,000 beautiful, sweet and fascinating honeybees* – my girls.
When it comes to pursuing new interests, I think it’s fair to say that whittling soap or making duct tape wallets probably comes to mind before beekeeping. Most, like me, fall into it by hearing the passion and awe expressed by other beekeepers. Even the most seasoned keeper has difficulty articulating the mystery and wonder of these creatures and what they show you about the bigger picture – and yourself. It is as hard to convey to a non-beekeeper as walking on the moon is to a non-astronaut. But once you’ve immersed yourself in their world, you see parallels to the way we humans act and live in communion with others – and how we get it so wrong.
In all of nature, there is a need for shelter. For the honeybee this can take the form of a hollowed tree, a rock crevice or a stack of man-made wooden boxes called supers. But the where is not as important to the honeybee as the why. The honeybee lives a life, albeit short, of selfless service to the hive. Whether foraging for nectar and pollen, or creating comb to house its spoils and larvae, the bee is always working for the good of the hive. A honeybee doesn’t think of itself as an individual, but rather, a small piece of a bigger whole. To a bee, its hive is the epicenter of their universe. It is the place they come back to every evening after miles and miles of flight out in the bigger world. In fact, before young bees leave the hive for the first time they spend hours on its surface, imprinting texture, smell and nuance. This is their home, the one they want to return to at the end of a long day.
I have spent many a hypnotic hour observing my bees and their habits. It’s fascinating to see that there is great order in the hive, which, at first glance, looks like a hub of chaotic activity. But the hive is actually the epitome of the organized home. Its inhabitants all have specific jobs, which they carry out without complaint. There are those that nurse the young, those that forage, those that tend to every need of the queen and even undertaker bees to quickly and quietly dispose of the expired honey bees. The hive is kept immaculately clean. Even eliminating of waste is done outside of the hive on a cleansing flight. There is order everywhere. That order helps to make the life of the bee simpler so they can focus on their given task, which is of benefit to the individual and the communal hive.
When a hive is in order and the energy is balanced there is a beautiful hum that resonates from its 80,000-100,000 occupants. The sound is so meditative that it has truly brought me to a place of deep connection on more than one occasion. That hum reminds me that a home in harmony has profound effect on the wellbeing of its occupants. When all is well, every one is at their best when venturing into the world beyond the hive. Productivity is maximized and all reap the rewards. That hum also reassures me that nature, when in balance, knows what it needs and how to heal itself.
I often sit with my face next to the entrance of the hives and watch the comings and goings of my fuzzy wards. Oblivious to my presence, the early rising foragers exit the hive and make a quick vertical ascent before buzzing off to their day. The others set about their assigned tasks without hesitation or fuss. When the workday is done the hive is again the center of the bees social life. I typically observe them sitting at the entrance or forming a beard-like cluster on the exterior of the hive in an attempt to avoid the summer heat trapped inside the hive. I imagine them socializing and telling tales of the new meadow they discovered or the menacing predator they avoided.
Watching these interactions leaves me in awe that these thousands of bees choose the well-being (and survival) of the hive instead of individual gain. At how they are able to socialize peacefully with one another or fight to the death with any outsider who threatens their home and caches of honey and syrup. Can you imagine an apartment building where everyone gets along with their neighbors? Or an office building full of people excited to do their jobs, and build something bigger than they could on their own. Or a home that is so peaceful, orderly and happy that you choose to go there to recharge and relax.
If there were more opportunities for people to observe these amazing creatures they too might wonder why we humans make things more dramatic and complicated than they need to be. Watching them go about their tasks while the sun is shining and then coming home when the day is done is the simplicity that many of us wish for in our overworked and overscheduled lives. One could argue that there’s no comparison between man and bee. That the bee is a simple creature who’s life is quite mundane and without the same complications as ours. I would argue that the bee, like almost all of the inhabitants of this earth, has the same primary needs to provide shelter, food and sociability, and that is what they spend their time focusing on.
My dear little bees are far from mundane. Their days are spent hither and yon, discovering new flowers and foraging in new swathes of land. Their work not only benefits the hive, but also the food supply of many other species, including man. Although their lives are relatively short, they are filled with a curiosity and drive to see and do. They are an integral part of the bigger natural universe that we humans seem to have little time for. But keeping these bees has allowed me a glimpse into that universe, one that has shown me so much about the world we humans have created. The natural world is wise. It does not have the need to self-sabotage and destroy itself. It does not collect or hold onto that which it does not need. And given the chance to be left alone, it always chooses healing, regeneration and the continuation of life.
April not only brings warmer weather, but it is the month when most keepers (in this part of the country) get their new hives. I am excited to get 3 more. My new batch of buzzing beauties will take up residence in the comb filled hives left by their predecessors. They will resume the duties that millions of generations before them have done. They will leave this planet having done a something of benefit, something good. And they will continue to remind me to do the same.
Note:*There is great misunderstanding and mid-identifying in the bee species. While many lump all flying and stinging creatures into one menacing group , I am
referring to the very sweet Italian honey bee sub-species Apis mellifera ligustica.
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