Many years ago, I read a book called The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. It was appealing in a far off kind of way, a story about something that I could never possibly understand. Set in South Carolina in 1964, it speaks of a deep seated racist culture and is the story of a little white girl, Lily, that gets taken in by a trio of black sisters who are bee keepers. They changed her life.
I couldn’t have known at the time how much meaning this story would have for me. I came to understand more about the inner workings of people, what real feminism is and a seed was planted with regard to knowing the goodness of bees.
I came to learn more about bees from a friend who took an interest in bee keeping and kept a couple of hives. From the moment that he let me come and stand over the hive as he opened it, first with trepidation, then with reverent fascination as I witnessed the miracle that was contained within the stacked boxes, I fell in love. The only knowledge I had previously of honey production was from an old bee keeper name Bill who I knew because he was also an elder in my church. The bees were secondary to the experience of the honey. The highlight was the thick, white, creamy clover-flavoured elixir that we would spoon out of a five-gallon bucket with an ice cream scoop into smaller easier to handle containers.
I never understood how much work and effort from both the bees and the beekeeper would go into making the delicious treat that we would spoon onto everything, especially my mom’s home made bread, fresh from the oven, topped first with a generous smear of Granny’s home made butter followed by the honey and melting together to create an unforgettable taste sensation. These are memories that stay in my mind when others fade…the smells, the tastes, the endorphins. Always food. Always amazing.
After experiencing my friend’s bees, I had to have some of my own. We ordered a queen and a colony of worker bees from New Zealand and they arrived several months later in the cool early spring. I was ready with my boxes and frames and My Love, although not sharing my obsession with the bees themselves, still created me a little oasis with a rock near the hive where I could sit and watch the bees. After placing the little box containing the queen carefully in the bottom of the box, I unloaded the tube of worker bees unceremoniously with a strange kind of loose “thump”. I watched the girls coming and going daily and opened the hive only when I felt I was supposed to in order to find the queen. I never did see her, but the evidence that she was present was clear – small, white larva appeared in the bottom box and soon I had a thriving colony, and I got to harvest many pounds of honey.
I loved sitting there, watching the girls work. Listening to the hum of the hive is an almost hypnotic experience, better than any ASMR session that someone might pay for as therapy.
A couple of years later, the hive died. We think it was from a February that got too cold for too long, as is the case in this climate we live in. I was broken hearted and commiserated with a few of my neighbors that lost their hives too. I intended to order another queen and workers for the next spring, but fall and winter was somewhat chaotic and I left it too long and missed my chance. “Ah well,” I reasoned. “I’ll do it next year.”
A couple of weeks ago I was called urgently to the back yard. Wiping my hands dry on a dishtowel, I quickly put on shoes and came out to see the “something awesome”. There, clinging to a spruce tree bough in my back yard in a thick, humming mass was a swarm of honey bees. I squealed. Literally. In absolute delight. What a privilege to have a swarm come to me!
Within thirty seconds, I had my veil on (I don’t care about bare legs and feet – but I CAN’T handle the thought of a swarm tangled in my hair) and we had pulled out my boxes and frames I had cleaned and put into storage after losing my girls. Cutting one of the branches from the tree, I couldn’t believe how heavy it was. Way more bees than I got from New Zealand on my first round. I dropped them into the hive with the same loose “thump” sound, strangely similar to the sound of the ignition of a brush pile covered with gasoline.
I made three trips to collect most of the bees, dropping them into the box. Disoriented, they quickly covered the outsides and interior in a buzzing mass that is both kind of freaky and beautiful at the same time. I have come to realize that if I am wearing a jacket with a veil, the worst that can happen to me is a somewhat painful sting on the inner, upper thigh and only then if you flap about like a crazy person. Instead, I whisper to them my happiness of being able to welcome them to their new home and thank them for coming, moving slowly but without hesitation and they seem to understand, started to settle happily into their new home.
They are doing well, and I discovered baby bees during my hive inspection several mornings ago. I never see the queen, but it is enough for me to see the nurse bees, bottoms up, feeding the babies in the bottoms of their little cells, and the rest of the colony busy building up the frames to hold pollen and nectar. It’s truly a sight to see and brings me immense satisfaction. When I finally close up the hive, which is likely to their immense relief, I always feel a little forlorn regret, like I don’t really want to leave their little world of magic.
Their pretty little fuzz-covered faces, work ethic and earthy wisdom attracts me to them. Interacting with bees is a “becoming one with nature” experience that I think everyone would benefit from as a growth experience. To be so close to these actual miracles may be life changing.
We can learn so much from the bees…I am sure I will have many posts on this as my love of them knows no bounds.