Interlude: Telling The Bees
In times of stress I find it therapeutic to go out and commune with my twin beehives. The gentle humming, the purposeful shuttling back and forth, invite you into a gentle world where the most important things are flowers and honey. If you stand under a flowering tree, you will feel the murmur run through you as the bee crowds gather its pollen.
The other day, a bee-keeping acquaintance of mine passed away. He was as gentle as his bees; Alex Krouse was a serious beekeeper, unlike me, who had more than 300 hives scattered through 15 bee yards. At this scale, if you asked a beekeeper like Alex what he did in his spare time, he would either look at you blankly or ask what you meant.
Even with his weight of responsibility, he was patient when beginners like me asked beginner questions; he smiled and shared his wisdom…the wisdom not only of the bees, but by the bees. Here’s the world these incredible little beings inhabit:
· We met the bees very early; in fact, they were the first animals to be domesticated by people. Rock art from 2700BCE in Egypt, depicts stacked cylindrical hives.
· They are the smartest of all the insects, which at first doesn’t sound like much of a boast. But remember that there are 30,000 bees or more inhabiting a colony, and they share decision-making. They wiggle their butts and bump heads to communicate and share emotions. Much like ourselves.
· Bees like people. They can remember individual human faces. If you have been kind to them during your first visits to a hive, they will assume that you are a friend.
· Bees can count, learn and memorize to solve problems. They can learn from their mistakes.
· Honey is incredibly long-lived as a food. 3,000-year-old honey was found during tomb excavations in Egypt and it was perfectly edible. It is low in water, high in sugar, and has small traces of hydrogen peroxide which inhibits the growth of bacteria.
· Bees can age backwards. When there is a lack of worker bees, older bees revert to their more energetic, younger selves to take on the task.
· Honey is easy for people to digest and provides an instant sugar hit, with some fat, protein, vitamins and minerals. This ready store of energy may have helped humans develop their big brains. Brains capable of making more beehives. Talk about long-term planning!
· Bees are able to keep their hives warm or cool, depending on the need. Although my hives are well insulated during winter, I can still see a gap between the snow and the hive, where the hive’s warmth has melted the snow. During a volcanic eruption in the Canary Islands, five bee hives out of six survived the heat, buried under the ash. They sealed themselves in their hives for 50 days and lived on their honey. The sixth hive succumbed not due to the volcano but because it was already weak.
· Planning for bees helps you plan for a better garden. I seed white clover in my garden’s walkways, and now the garden produces vegetables and honey.
It is no wonder that people have long had a ritual of departure associated with these ancient companions. When Alex passed away, we knew what to do.
It’s called “Telling the Bees”.
There is an ancient British/Celtic tradition that whenever there was a death in the family, someone would go to the hives and tell the bees. Failing to do so could result in further losses, death or illness to the bees themselves. This also included happier events like births, marriages and long journeys. This custom was known as “telling the bees”. Alex’s bees were so important to him; over the past few weeks his friends and family followed this tradition and visited the bees so that they could share in the mourning.
Many words have been written about this custom, like the poem by Eugene Field that contains the lines:
He spake this-wise to the murmuring bees;
“The clover-bloom that kissed her feet
And the posie-bed where she used to play
Have honey store, but none so sweet
As ere our little one went away,
O bees, sing soft, and, bees, sing low;
For she is gone who loved you so.”
But the bees carry more than bad news. As the song goes:
And the bees were told
On the day we wed
Wild flower garlands
Draped our marriage bed
Now two years on, we have our son
The bees were told and we carry on.
They are our most ancient companions. Patient, uncomplaining, the bees carry our legends and our admiration. If something so humble can succeed, surely we can rise to their expectations of us. Our world will not end, as long as there are flowers, meadows, and sunlight.