The Sweet Bee

When people learn that we keep bees, they think we’re in it for the honey.

That may have once been our intention–a pantry filled with honey jars–but so far we’ve only harvested enough to sweeten the occasional pot of tea. As you know, the bees are fragile these days, weakened by pesticides, nosema, climate change, and so we let them keep their honey; when there’s extra, we share with weaker hives, hoping they might make it through the winter. Honey is sweet, it’s true, but we’ve learned the bees have other things to offer.
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When I was a child, insects existed for squashing, for running away from in fear, or for burning with the white-hot eye of a magnifying glass. I never learned to distinguish the bumble from the hornet. As far as I was concerned, bees were mean, and honey came from the store.

But Smoke, my five-year-old son, knows bees. On sunny days, he says excitedly: The honeybees are out! He knows to inspect their legs for pollen, and that busy bees are good news. Today was one of our first sunny spring days, and I watched him approach the hive, carefully, and drop a rock in their water tray so that they would have a place to rest as they drank. When he finds a dead bee on the ground, he picks it up and holds it tenderly.

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These bees have made their mark on me too, have helped me to appreciate the beauty of spring in a newly functional way: flowers are food. In our yard, plum and cherry blossoms seduce our bees and we witness them drinking nectar, gathering pollen, helping to ensure that my family will eat fruit from our own yard this summer. With the bees’ help, there will even be a surplus, and I will remember them as I preserve the plums and berries, storing away sweetness for the winter months.

And I’ve come to respect the bees for their inherent selflessness. The bee does not live for the bee. The bee lives for the colony. They don’t share our self-absorption, don’t fret over how to spend their limited days, over how to balance family time and me-time. They serve. That’s all.

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The queen is in the middle.

When I travel now, I look for honeybees, and am surprised and relieved when I find them. Seeing a bee perched on a lavender plant in Waltham, Massachusetts, or on an ocotillo in Phoenix, Arizona tells me: this place has been bee-approved. Wherever you smell the thick scent of wax and heat, nectar and propolis, you are home.

As it turns out, honey is a minor perk compared to the gifts the bees have delivered to my world: their steady hum, their motion, their treatment of beauty as a purpose, not to conquer, but take and give at once.

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8 comments

  1. So interesting… so easy to think of bees as these stinging creatures when, as you say, left to themselves all they want to do is serve. Sounds like an enlightened bunch.

    1. My partner’s the one who handles them, but as a close observer I can testify: I haven’t been stung once. Neither have either of the kids. Yellow jackets are a different story…

  2. I love the optimism in your bee-spotting. In my own neck of the woods, I worry about the bees, the frogs, the bats with nose/mouth fungus and the monarchs. I didn’t see a single monarch butterfly last summer. The fact that you transfer extra honey to less productive hives is touching and lovely to me.

      1. Yesh. I visualized her throughout the post. I suspect she is an awesome apiarist. I love the old timey bee house.

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