Many of us fantasize about far away places, about different and strange cultures, musing as to how other people live. And as beekeepers we are the recipients of such conjecture. In today’s profound disconnect from our
ecological dependency in general, and from food production in particular, we quietly do what many consider to be madness - work with insects which (so others think) want to sting us.
Those who have survived the initial
physical and emotional turmoil of working with honey bees know both the brilliance and the brutality that comes with our commitment, the wonder and the dismay, the rewards and the anxiety. Subject to the weather, pests, pathogens and diseases, and the
apparent whimsicality of the bees - “Why did they abscond in the autumn, with no chance of survival in the bigger world, and after all that I did for them…?” - we are also treated to the visual joys of foragers at the entrance of the
hive loaded with pollen or of a newly mated queen, the sensory delights of honey made by our own bees or of newly made glistening wax, the audible hum of a contended colony or the sense of rapt immersion that comes when one loses oneself in observing the inner
workings of a hive.
And once one has experienced that ‘zen of beekeeping’, heard the hum, witnessed the dances and smelled the brood, one can develop a very protective instinct towards the bees, to the extent
that the loss of a colony is heart-wrenching. In Slovenian the term for colony is ‘family’, and yes, it can feel like one has lost part of one’s family.
The tension between doing what is necessary
to keep the bees alive and healthy, and enjoying that process, is what makes the life of a beekeeper difficult to understand for many. What words describe adequately the hours spent worrying through the winter or working in the summer, or the romanticized
idyllic pastoral reverie of communing with nature? There is joy to be found as one is pulled between theory and practice, between growth and survival, between acceptance and intervention, which is difficult for those who are detached from the
agronomic ethic to comprehend.
And not everyone can manage honey bees. How useful it would be to develop a profile of a successful beekeeper which could be used to assess the potential of every wannabee.
My guess is that the prime characteristic would be a yearning for reconnection, a realization that he or she will never move back to the land full-time but needs to experience again, even if only temporarily, what was a vital element of the human existence
for thousands of years, was central to the agricultural revolution and which diminished when mankind began to industrialize. Today, in a post-industrial age, the world is witness to 400 cities with populations in excess of one million inhabitants, most
of whom feel that the natural world is not important so long as there is a park of some kind in the neighborhood.
Nor does everyone want to keep honey bees, but in and age of Nature Deficit Disorder, to use Richard
Louv’s phrase, those of us who do need to bring others on the journey with us. Not least, it determines the caliber of the world our grandchildren will inherit. We cannot escape our responsibilities to the quality of the soil, water and air, and every
time we sit down to a meal we are the beneficiaries of this interdependence. Becoming familiar with the ecstasy and the heartache of beekeeping, even by proxy, offers an insight into the larger and vital world of food decisions, land-use policies
and environmental health.
Perhaps that is why, when a meeting of beekeepers is asked if they love what they do, almost all hands go up. It can be hard to find the right words to describe the feelings that lead
to that sense of satisfaction, of fulfillment, but perhaps keeping bees allows us to connect briefly with that never-ending cycle, and to experience first hand what Forrest Pritchard calls ‘an ancient biorhythm’ that the bees intuitively understand
and we are in danger of forgetting.
Honey bees, to steal a phrase from Joel Salatin, can be ‘nature’s balm for the soul,’ provided we can step back long enough from the sugar roll tests, the sticky
jars of sugar syrup, the mantle of smoke, the odor of the guard bees and the gummy propolis on a hive tool, to see them in a larger context, not least as a sophisticated yet sensitive super organism that is the culmination of some 40 million years of evolution.