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Bring Your Garlands Home

Last year I became, rather reluctantly, a beekeeper. Bees fascinated me from the time I was little, but all the folderol of beekeeping, with the white hazmat-style suit and the smoker and all the stuff seemed a little much for me. But stubborn and resourceful friends saw to it that I had special hive boxes as a gift for my 50th birthday and an old friend from college surprised me on his birthday with two colonies of golden Italian honeybees. He returned a month later for the real gift — teaching me his own special technique for working among these fiery and beautiful creatures. I told him in advance that I hadn't gotten my protective suit yet and he assured me he'd bring everything I needed when he came to help me "go through the hives."

Now, bees in their natural state — and here in North America there are fewer and fewer bees in their natural state, fewer wild bees than before — build bulbous wax castles in which to raise their young and store their foodstuff. They shelter in rock crevices and hollow trees. In fact, beehives used to be called "bee gums" because they were sections of trees, fat round hollows that held wax and honey and all the mysteries of the honeybee world.

In 1851, L.L. Langstroth developed the kind of box hive we use today, which is called the Langstroth hive. It consists of a wooden box containing removable frames. It is easy to manipulate and easy to get into, to check if the bees have enough food and if the queen is doing her job. And it's easy to add more boxes — called "supers" — as the colony grows.

I had bought some white clothes at Goodwill. I put rubber bands around the cuffs of the shirt, tucked my pants into my socks, and covered my hair with a white bandanna. I was careful not to use any scented hand-cream or deodorant.

My friend arrived as I was attempting to light the smoker. He showed me the best and fastest way to do that and then he ate some of the ripe raspberries that grow near the bee yard as the smoke cooled to bee temperature. I looked around expectantly for our white suits, our veils, our protective gear. He finished snacking, picked up the smoker and asked me to remove the lid from Hive One.

"But…but…aren't we going to put on bee suits?"

beekeeper smoking a bee hiveHe smiled, a scary little smile. I was done for, or so I thought. He carefully explained to me what we were going to do and how we were going to do it. We pumped cool smoke over the top and under the bottom of the hive box and we waited. The key was to move slowly but purposefully. He took a special little crowbar called a hive tool and pried off the inner cover, then puffed a little more smoke over the now-exposed frame. The bees scurried away and we waited. He used the hive tool to pry one of the frames away from its companions and he pulled it slowly, firmly, cleanly out of the box. We looked at it together and he showed me the eggs, the larvae, and the baby bees.

"Your queen is doing a great job," he said. He showed me stores of pollen and some water. And honey. We moved slowly through both hives. I even got to taste some honey. We kept moving slowly and steadily and the bees never got agitated, aggressive, or even curious. They had their own agenda and, as long as we didn't startle them, they kept doing what bees have been doing for millions of years.

I was drenched in sweat when we finished, as much from stress as from the mid-June heat. All those thousands of bees! No protection, but no alarm. We damped down the smoker and went inside for some ice-cold tea. The bees flew in and out of their wooden home, collecting pollen and nectar, not seeming to care if we were there or not.

The next time I went through the hives, I was on my own. It was one of the most terrifying moments of my life, as I took the top off a box filled with thousands of stinging insects. Surely, my bee-teacher had some sort of secret that I was too inexperienced to know. How in the world would I do this without the safety of the white suit?

I moved slowly, that's how. As slowly as my teacher — maybe more slowly. I probably gave them too much smoke and I know my movements were sometimes jerky and ungraceful. But I looked at the frames and scraped off errant bits of beeswax — called "burr comb" — and I did this in my Goodwill clothing and white bandana, with no gloves. No bee suit. No veil. Just me and the bees. "My" bees. In all the months of summer and fall, I looked through the fat combs of honey and bees and never got stung once. I learned to listen to their buzz and back off if the colony sounded agitated. I routinely opened up a box containing thousands of stinging insects and they never stung me because I met them as they were, I let them be bees and didn't expect them to behave in any other way. They went through their days oblivious to my presence, and I watched in wonder as they built, saved, and created. (I did read recently that bees do recognize their beekeeper, and that comforts me — I'm not sure why.)

Since those first fumbling attempts, I have broken several beekeeping rules, sometimes out of stubbornness, sometimes out of curiosity. I was told that one should never work bees while wearing black because the bees think you're a bear and are threatened by this dark predator. Rubbish. These animals can tell a poplar blossom from an amazing distance and they're going to think I'm a bear? Didn't make sense. Yes, they may feel threatened by a darkly dressed beekeeper, but the bear thing didn't and still doesn't make sense. Besides, I'm Asheville's Village Witch; I wear a lot of black. So, yes, I've messed around in my hives wearing black. They didn't seem particularly interested in my apparel and I did what I normally do. Black is hot, though, and I sweated a lot. White is cooler, if nothing else.

The point of all this bee rambling is this: My friend learned to work in beehives in a way that works with the natural organization of a colony. He observed their behavior and was careful to listen and pay attention to the subtle changes that mark a potentially cranky colony. And he taught me to be respectful and curious but not afraid.

I am here to tell you that the feeling of pride and accomplishment when you have met a colony of honeybees on their own terms is simply amazing.

I am here to tell you that the feeling of pride and accomplishment when you have met a colony of honeybees on their own terms is simply amazing. Sure I take a risk doing it this way, and I haven't been beekeeping long enough to test how well this technique works over the long run. And I'm only working two colonies, so I choose perfect weather and a day when I have plenty of time. But I come away from each experience humbled by the complexity of the natural world and more alive than when I started. And each adventure in the bee yard teaches me about loving life because every minute is precious, even the hard ones, even the scary ones, even the sad ones.

You have probably heard the latest incredible news about our pollinating friends, the honeybees. They are disappearing, even the domestic ones — the workers are leaving the colony and flying away, never to return. It is now being called "Colony Collapse Disorder" and many reasons have been suggested, from pesticides to cell phones to UFOs. Beekeepers are worried and the media are drawing all of us to a fevered pitch of anxiety about the fate — not of the bees particularly — but of the fruits, nuts and vegetables that the bees pollinate. What will we eat if the bees are gone? Who will pollinate the almonds, the apples, the cucumbers?

I look at the ways we relate to the honeybees as a microcosm of how we relate to the rest of the biosphere. Lots of beekeepers have a little apiary like mine — a few hives in the backyard that are tended by hand and observed lovingly by someone acting almost as a priestess to the hive. I spent months gazing reverently at the to-ing and fro-ing. Then one day I opened the lid of my beloved and gentle Hive One and turned my loving gaze on the colony within. The sun was warm on my shoulders. The honey stores were heavy and the bees were, well, busy as bees. And it suddenly came to me — this is a box full of bugs. I counted legs. Yep, bugs. A big box of stinging bugs. I shook my head. Bugs, amazing bugs.

The reverential attitude may be expected from someone like me — a tree-hugging dirt worshipper — and being who I am, I take it too far. But there's also the "agricultural" attitude. Like apple orchards and soybean fields, bees are a part of nature that serves humankind in a very visible way. We know what they do for us: honey and pollination. If you are a beekeeper with a thousand hives and the honey prices tank globally, you have to find a way to boost the income from this massive investment. Some beekeepers put their hives on flatbeds and truck them thousands of miles to pollinate fruit trees.

So animals with a normal range of three miles are released in a distant environment, where they may encounter things to which they have no natural immunity or defense. Compound that with the stress of moving on the back of a truck — the jostling and movement, the diesel fumes, the disorientation of an insect that has amazingly sophisticated orienteering abilities — and you have a recipe for disaster.

For all their history, bees have created a perfect food to feed themselves. It's called honey, and we love it as much as bees do. So we take the honey from bees and feed them sugar water or high fructose corn syrup. Now, you and I can drink a sugary soft drink and it won't kill us. It doesn't kill the bees either. But it is energy without nutrition and that isn't good for people or bees.

natural bee hiveOur bees are also subject to diseases and pests that are fairly new to the species and to which the species is adapting. We humans intervene — because we always know best — and we use pesticides to keep the mites and beetles at bay. It's tricky, you see, because pesticides kill insects and bees are, well, insects. And we're using pesticides on the "bad insects" and on the plants that bees are asked to pollinate. Maybe the pesticides don't kill the bees outright. but do they compromise the bees' immune systems in some way we don't know? Gregg Rogers — a local bee-god-man — told us that some people prefer to leave the bees to fight off these new predators, without using chemicals to contain the mites and beetles. He calls these apiaries "James Bond bee yards" because the principal is "live and let die," allowing the species to develop natural immunities, if possible. The concept is to work with what we know of evolution, instead of propping up a particular species because it is so precious to us. Nature doesn't do that, not for the bees, the dinosaurs, or the humans.

As we see the damage our species has done to this biosphere we call home, it is important that we react with passion and joy, not guilt and dread. Why? Because guilt and dread give us the unreal sense that we are actually doing something, when in reality we are only feeling something. We walk through life feeing bad about our actions or those of our country or those of our ancestors and we are frozen into grief and inaction, incapable of responding to the garlands of living, like the garlands and bounty that are such a beautiful part of the harvest season.

At this time of year, we are bringing in beautiful vegetables and fruits from our gardens and from the tailgate markets that are becoming such an important part of the urban and suburban shopping scene. How nice to think of going out into the back yard or the south forty and coming home with tomatoes warm from the sun or that baseball-bat-sized zucchini that we somehow had missed for over a week. How blessed we are when we can snip flowers from the rose bush in the yard and fill our noses with that precious scent of life lived in the rich soil and warm sun. But many of us — especially city-dwellers — can only dream of the crispness of cucumbers which have traveled in a basket, not from California to Carolina but from the garden out back to the kitchen table.

Maybe we need to re-think and re-frame the word "garlands." Are garlands only boughs full of sweet blossom, or are our garlands those things that fill our souls with light, that empower us to change our world for the better? When Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement plant thousands of trees in the dust of Africa and commit to tending them, knowing that they will never see the full growth and bounty of that commitment, they are bringing garlands home to all of us. When we fight the good fight against steep slope development or litter or air pollution, we bring garlands home. When you tell your child a story of your grandparents or teach them to plant a garden, are those garlands? I believe they are.

Close your eyes for a moment and think about your own garlands and the garlands that are so profuse in this community. Take a deep breath and put your warm hand over your warm heart.

I believe that when we fight our way past guilt and fear to live fully in this marvelous place we call home, we follow the ways of the ancients in new ways that are as valuable as the old. Living in the place that is our place, living in the moment that is now, is as rich a bounty as a flower crown or bouquet. Being a beacon of love in a world that seems so wounded and fraught with anger and terror makes you a garland, too. Like the bees who come home to the hive, covered in golden pollen, carrying nectar.

Graphics Credits

  • garland, courtesy of June C. Oka
  • beekeeping, courtesy of Ronnie Bergeron
  • natural beehive, courtesy of MadMaven/T.S.Heisele
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