Books and Bees

Books and Bees

Occasionally one is fortunate enough to stumble upon a real treasure trove, one that is not marked with a cross on some dubious map of a Caribbean island. 


Shortly after I joined our county beekeepers’ association I enquired as to when it was founded.  No one knew.  The old timers thought it was some time in the 1950’s - in retrospect they were possibly confusing it with the founding of the Eastern Apicultural Society in 1955.   


Then Judy Brenneman, who had been Secretary/Treasurer for 23  years, mentioned that at the back of one of her cupboards was a box of papers, she wasn’t sure what they were, and would I like to look at it.  The ‘papers’ turned out to be all of the minutes, membership files and financial records of the previous 90 years, including the minutes of the founding meeting, dated March 8, 1919. Five men had met in a house downtown and had voted to form the York County Beekeepers’ Association, with dues of 50c a year.  Dr. Sterner gave a talk on “How to transfer ones colony of bees from an old box hive to a modern hive”  and they agreed to meet again in a month’s time.  By the year’s end there were 22 paid up members.


All of these documents are meticulously recorded in neat, cursive handwriting, and one has to wonder what chronicles the cyber era will leave behind. What resources will members have in one hundred years time to muse over, evaluate and honor the past?  Do we value the present and respect the future sufficiently to make the effort to keep such records? God bless those who did so in York County starting  in 1919. 


One of the results of this discovery was that on March 8, 2019, exactly one hundred years to the day after that first meeting, we held a celebratory centennial banquet, meeting in a venue that is very close to the house in which the first meeting was held, and in a building that was surely familiar to, if not frequented by, those five men.  Hopefully the candle that was lit at that first meeting has been refueled for another one hundred years. 


Papers and documentation are an appropriate analogy for the mystique and fascination of beekeeping.  In The Honey Factory, published last year,  Jurgen Tautz and Diedrich Steen write, “Bees are never boring. A bee colony is a complex organism, rather like a book that one can read again and again each year and find new and interesting stories at each reading.”


And it is more than stories.  The image that comes to mind is a Shakespearian play - hopefully not one of the ten tragedies, nor Much Ado About Nothing, A Comedy of Errors,  or Love’s Labors Lost, appropriate as they might be for some of our experiences with bees. A Midsummer Night’s Dream or A Winter’s Tale would be more uplifting.   


Let’s take the first of the above as an example.  On first reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one is fascinated, if confused, by the story.  As Duke Theseus prepares for his marriage to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, he is interrupted by a courtier who asks the Duke to intervene in a dispute. His daughter, Hermia, will not agree to marry the man her father has chosen because she loves a gentleman named Lysander. The Duke offers Hermia one of two options: she must either die or accept a celibate life as a nun in Diana’s temple.  Naturally upset with the offer, Lysander and Hermia plan to elope; they share their secret with Helena, who is in love with Demetrius, the man whom she was supposed to marry but who seems to have abandoned her in favor of Hermia. At night, Lysander and Hermia escape from Athens but they lose their way in the woods, followed by Demetria, who is followed by Helena.


Are you following along? 


Meanwhile, a group of working men are preparing a play of the tragic love-story of Pyramus and Thisbe to present before the Duke Theseus on his wedding day. Two of those men are Nick Bottom, the weaver, and Flute, the bellows-mender.Nearby, Oberon,  King of the Fairies, has recently quarreled with his queen, Titania. She acquired a magical child from one of her waiting women, and now refuses to hand him over to Oberon to use as a page. To get his revenge on Titania for her disobedience, Oberon sends his fairy servant, Puck, to fetch a purple flower with juice that makes people fall in love with the next creature they see. When Oberon overhears Demetrius mistreating Helena, he tells Puck to anoint Demetrius so that will fall in love with the next person he sees. Puck mistakenly puts the flower juice on the eyes of the sleeping Lysander, who when he is woken by Helena, immediately falls in love with her and rejects Hermia.


And that’s only the end of the second act; there are three more to go, involving, would you believe, Titania falling in love with Nick Bottom who is wearing the head of an ass!


The point is that at first reading it is complex, even nonsensical : much as a new beekeeper trying to sift through the plethora of information presented at the first bee class, unable to recognize that everything is related, everything has a cause and an effect, that it all makes sense in the end.  One has to persist; just as with Bloom’s Taxonomy, there is a basic amount of detail that has to be understood before one can start to use that information - to analyze, synthesize, evaluate and eventually apply it.


On a second reading the roles of the various characters become more clear,  as do the various sub-plots, just as a beekeeper starts to understand the roles of the queen, drone and worker bees as well as the interactions between them, or the sub-plots of say assexual reproduction (swarming)  and the sexual mating of a queen with a number of drones.


A third reading might reveal the complexity of the characters, or the sheer beauty of the language, and we can spend an infinite amount of time parsing each sentence, teasing out different meanings, and making different applications of this fairy tale to our own lives. 

“Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind; and therefore is winged Cupid painted blind,” wrote Shakespeare.  And a little later, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” 


A Midsummer’s Night Dream, like all of Shakespeare’s plays,  portrays recognizable people in situations that all of us experience at one time or another in our lives—love, marriage, death, manipulation, power and powerlessness, fantasy, mourning, guilt, the need to make difficult choices, separation, reunion and reconciliation. It does so with great humanity, tolerance, and wisdom, helping us to understand what it is to be human and how to cope with the problems of being so.  


Similarly those who persevere are invariably captivated by the sheer wonder of a honey bee society and are drawn into the minutia of their lives, each detail of which increases ones understanding of the larger picture. Gradually a larger meaning comes through, stressing the lessons of the natural world and what is lost when we lose that connection, either through ignorance or arrogance.  That is where I am at as I read this ‘book’ for yet another time.


For Tautz and Steen, as expressed so beautifully in their epilog, “The winter cluster is a small example of the general principle that governs the bees community - an unconditional and mutual sharing.  Only while all care for one another in the ‘knowledge’ that they will be cared for themselves, can they be a superorganism.  Is this the message from the bees?  To hold up a world to us in which the Golden Rule - the principle of treating others other we would want to be treated - is a lived reality?”


Fortunately our play ends happily. Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius and Helena are joyfully reunited and agree to share the Duke's wedding day. Bottom and Flute present their play before the wedding guests and,  as the three couples retire to bed, Puck and the fairies return to bless the palace and its people.


All’s Well That Ends Well.  May it be so with your bees this season. 








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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