Waking up early one morning in November with the first snow of the season falling outside, and wondering how the girls were coping in their hive (winter is an anxious time for a beekeeper in that one can only trust and hope that the right things
are happening in that dark apian womb,) it became clear that beekeeping is an intellectual, emotional and spiritual journey. Intellectual in that increasingly one has to be a well informed, well read apiarist for a colony to survive successfully; emotional
in that honey bees allow us to participate in their lives, which is amazing for an insect; and spiritual in terms of the sense of wonder and awe that arise as one begins to understand the interactions and complexity of a living hive.
Honey bees originated in tropical Africa possibly as long as 80 million years ago when a species of wasp became vegetarian and began the evolutionary voyage that resulted in some 30 000 species of bees worldwide. As they moved north bees had
to adapt to harsher winters. Most species left eggs or a queen to emerge in the spring but honey bees learned to cluster, with the queen in the middle (she is the future of the colony) and keep themselves at a steady 75 degrees F. To do this a
bee disengages her wing muscles and agitates the muscles in her abdomen, producing heat much as we do when we shiver. When her body temperature drops she works her way toward the center of the cluster, warms up, and then returns to the periphery to
shiver some more.
This is one of several critical behaviors that honeybees have learned over the millennia; others include communication through dance and continuation of the species both sexually (eggs laid by the queen)
and asexual (swarming.)
The honey bee was introduced to the Americas from Europe in the 17th century, first from Germany and later from Italy. The 390 years since that introduction are but a drop in the bucket of evolutionary
time. Apis melifera has not yet fully acclimatized to our conditions and is thus reliant, first on the beekeeper to feed and nurture it through the dearth in return for its precious gifts of honey and pollination, and secondly on the general
populace not to despoil the countryside which is so bounteous when correctly nurtured. Increasingly the successful management of honey bees requires an intellectual commitment, an emotional connection with their predicament and a sense of awe
at how they function and what they achieve. And this does not mean management by beekeepers alone; we are all stewards of our environment and thus managers of life bigger and greater than ourselves alone.
wisdom and beauty,” writes Gunther Hauk, “come together in the honey bee.” We talk easily about compassion and love but they are more difficult to find in action; instead our egotistical selves lead to the exploitation of nature
as we stumble from one calamity to the other, whether in Tripoli in Libya, Damascus in Syria, Gaza in the Middle East, Fukushima Daiichi in Japan, or the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In the face of both our successes and failures
to create man-made wisdom and beauty, the bees are there as an inspiration as to how we can solve the problems facing both them and ourselves.
A colony of honey bees, for example, has a long term view
on life, despite the short life of the worker and drone bees. Everything is designed to assure the survival of the colony. It is surmised that honey bees ‘think’ several generations ahead, for example, swarming on the basis not only
that two colonies have a better chance of survival (a kind of prehistoric insurance policy,) but also diversifying their DNA, and the devotion they give to the queen, knowing that their future literally rests in her hands (or her ovipositor.)
So the question arises, what is our ‘queen’? What is it that we must protect at all costs if we are to survive as a healthy, prosperous society? What is it that lives longer than any of us as individuals, that
gives birth to new life and without which we shall all surely perish? For me it is best described as ‘beauty,’ those qualities that please our intellectual, emotional and spiritual senses, those attributes that fill us with awe, a state
in which love, compassion, empathy, brotherhood and peace combine with industry and commitment and enable us to find joy both in the chores of daily life and in the challenges of long term survival.