Balm for the Soul


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.  





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Latest comments

27.11 | 16:01

Moustache, wax? Of course. Now if all of the drones had mustaches ...

27.11 | 12:43

One of our club members says he got into beekeeping in order to make his own mustache wax. There's the explanation for the bearded/mustached ABF attendees!

13.08 | 05:43

Good morning Mr. Barnes, I'm so pleased to see the best of history teachers is still going strong! Looking at your website brings back some great memories

21.05 | 07:18

Its pleasure to read about Boy Scout here. He plays vital role to serve humanity. I will share after my