Grief is a sacred journey

Honeybees and Humans: Our Sweet Interdependence

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clematis

honeybee working in the clematis

“I don’t see honeybees in the Shirley Poppies this year,” I said to my son David last summer. “Bees usually love them.”

“Now that you mention it, I don’t have honeybees in my garden either,” he said. “I see bumblebees everywhere, but no honeybees.”

The next day, David contacted an old North Carolina beekeeper who sold him two supers, each with a queen, extra frames, a smoker (to encourage feeding behavior rather than defensive stinging), and beekeeping clothing for two. Gloves, bee stories, and beekeeping tips were part of the package.

David & Liz on their porch

David & Liz on their porch

David and and his wife Liz put the hives in a semi-shaded area on their land. “I won’t disturb them this year,” David said. “I just hope they make it through the winter.”

Liz told me he visited the bees every day, taking a short detour on the way to and from work to watch without disturbing them.

“The bees made it,” David said early this spring. “Lots of activity. I’m sure the warm winter helped.” His witnessing may have helped, too.

In May, they removed half the honey-filled frames and left half for the bees. David contacted a beekeeper in Franklinton, NC, president of the Franklin County Beekeepers Association.

“You can join and borrow the association’s extraction equipment,” she said. David and Liz harvested fifty pounds of delicate spring honey. North Carolina’s finest.

13239419_237960479904649_5524785151361515571_nDavid kept visiting the bees each day. A few weeks later, he found thousands of bees outside the hives in a swarm clinging to a nearby shrub. Queens commonly produce queen eggs for the old hive in the spring before they move out with about 60% of the workers. It’s a gift if the keeper finds the swarm and gives them a new home before they fly far away.

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With Liz’s help, David cut the branch, lifted the swarm along with the Queen, and gently shook it into an empty hive. The bees happily entered their new home, right next to the old one. Now there were three.

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DSC06182Humans have ancient associations with honeybees. Fifteen-thousand-year-old drawings of honey harvesting were found in cave paintings in France. When humans settled into agricultural lives, they learned the art of beekeeping so they could harvest honey without destroying the bees they needed to pollinate their crops.

There are Sumerian, Egyptian, Mayan, Minoan, Middle Eastern, and African images of beekeeping. Many ancient cultures had honeybee goddesses and gods, and bee tending was associated with temples or royalty. Their sweet products were nutritionally and medicinally essentially and good for making mead. Their wax provided candles and seals.

In many mythologies, bees are associated with prophecy and eloquence, regeneration and rebirth. Honeybees communicate subtle information to help the hive thrive through dance, a skill we humans could use.

Melissa, Minoan Bee Goddess, 700 BC

Melissa, Minoan Bee Goddess, 700 BC

We need honeybees to pollinate fruits, vegetables, and nuts. As most of us know, modern industrial agricultural practices put bees at grave risk by eliminating their food sources and habitat. They’re also weakened by pesticides and disease. Organizations such as Save Honey Bees make it easy to participate in protecting them.

While I was in North Carolina, I saw beekeeping up close for the first time. Like David, I was drawn to the hives every morning and evening. Watching them felt like a meditation. Protecting them felt like a sacred duty.

13240052_243277072706323_1272782662831945342_nThe day before I left, David arranged to buy a new Queen from the honey lady of Franklinton. I was the expedition photographer for setting up the fourth bee hive. I’ll write about that magical experience next week.

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Have you kept bees or been around someone who does? Now I understand why beekeepers are passionate about their hives and broken-hearted when a hive fails or collapses. For other posts about my relationship to nature and gardening, see Bees, Butterflies, and Blessings: Cycles of Nature and Grief, For a post about my family joining together to create something spectacular, see The Day before the Wedding. Bee swarm photos are by Liz McFarlane Mansfield

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21 Comments
  1. Hi Elaine

    Fascinating story and so nice to see what David looks like! It’s so neat to see that he shares your interest in natural things. Can’t wait for the next installment!

    • David and his wife are avid gardeners, Patt. Flowers everywhere, hundreds of hummingbirds, more organic vegetables than we could eat even though they grilled them every day. I could have gone in many directions after a visit to their place in North Carolina, but honeybees captured my imagination. I’m finding out about bee goddesses from around the world–and a friend told me about a bee chapel in Rome. Humans and bees have been close to each other for a long time.

      Perhaps I’ll see you in Cambridge in late July at my brother’s memorial service. I’d like that.

  2. Thanks for this fascinating lowdown on how the bees make honey. I’m glad to know that David’s bees did come to life and produce this year. Bees are becoming extinct, Although we need bees, I’m allergic to their stings so I’m happy when they do their thing and leave me alone. 🙂

    • I’m sorry you have a strong reaction to bee stings, Debby. A few found their way into my hair when we went to get the new Queen, but I shook them out and didn’t get stung. I work around bees often in my gardens and have always enjoyed them. Now I’m in love.

      • And so I just read in your latest post. 🙂
        Unfortunately, I don’t get any notification when you reply to my comments. This is why I check for response weekly when I come to visit your newest posts. 🙂

        • Hmmm… I wonder if others aren’t notified when I make a comment. If anyone else doesn’t get a notification when I reply to a comment, will you please let me know? Thank you.

          I hadn’t heard that before. Is it common for you to not get a comment response notice? (I’m trying to figure out if the origin is my WordPress site and I need to pester the man who is my web host and helps me with WordPress issues.

  3. I remember my dad wearing weird regalia, smoking his bees. From my distance from him in the meadow, he seemed in a trance, performing a priestly ritual. I write about this scene in a memoir draft.

    Our son, a beekeeper in the city, supplies me with jars of gold, just right for sweetening tea. Your reference to mead reminded me of scenes from Beowulf. May the hives prosper!

    • That’s it, Marian! Like a priestly ritual. I witnessed that when we went to get the Queen and wrote about it for the next blog. That was the most amazing part of all. Calm deliberate movement in slow motion meant only a little smoke was needed. If you don’t end up using that story in the final memoir, it will be a great blog.

      I now know of two city beekeepers, one in Ithaca and your son. I’m grateful they keep our cities beautiful and pollinated.

  4. We once had a swarm of honeybees behind the house. Thousands of them — they followed their queen out to a new location and landed on a branch, just like you described with David. I know a couple of beekeepers and called one. He came and picked up the bees and still has that hive. It was so fascinating to watch — one of nature’s wonders!

    • I’ve never seen a swarm in person, Ann Marie, but I’ve been told about them many times. The photos taken by my daughter-in-law are amazing–and my son looks so damned happy. David added more supers to his other hive so the bees would have room to build and store. That hive didn’t swarm. I look forward to sharing images I took of the fourth hive project. It was a magical afternoon and night, not over until 10 pm. Nature’s miraculous wonders.

  5. Fascinating story, Elaine. I have friends who keep bees and have became passionately devoted to them. And another Fellow next fall at the Collegeville Institute does a blog about beekeeping. You might enjoy: https://thinklikeabee.org/2015/04/23/lessons-from-the-hive-is-there-a-queen-in-the-house/

    I hope humans can keep bees alive. If we don’t, we are doomed.

    Everything is connected to everything else.

    Shirley

    • There’s so much to keep alive or keep in balance. It’s hard to imagine how we’re going to do that. On the other hand, in our small corners of this world, we can protect bees and plant wildflowers from butterflies and keep some semblance of a healthy mini-ecosystem for now.

      Thanks for the beekeeping blog. I’ll have a look and I imagine my son will want to see it, too. That doom world makes me feel sad about the mess we’re leaving our kids and grandkids. We are interconnected. May we find a way to remember that.

      I hope you’re having a delightful summer. I’m out to do more watering. It is dry, dry, dry.

  6. My relationship with bees is limited so I thoroughly enjoyed your post. I remember catching bees as a child in glass jars and trying not to get stung. It was a fun activity on lazy summer days playing with my sisters. Then a few years ago, my husband discovered hornets in our house. They were coming from our fireplace and had made a hive in our chimney. Needless to say, they caused quite a ruckus.

    I loved reading about your recent bee experiences, ancient bee practices and your reverence for bees. Your additional post about butterflies and using photography during your grieving process uplifted me too. I’ve also found myself taking more nature walks with my camera when grieving or worry plague me. Thanks, Elaine!

    • Hi Kas. Thanks for taking time to comment.
      Hornets are another story! I hope no one got stung in that adventure. It’s firefly season on my land and those are the bugs I caught in a jar as a kid.

      I had no idea I would become so interested in photography, but I picked up my husband’s pocket camera (after giving his big high tech camera to my son) and started watching for beautiful bugs and birds, flowers, funny scenes, things to make me happy. I’m glad this works for you, too. Being outside in any way at all is a good antidote for sadness and anxiety rather than thinking I have to do one more “worthwhile” thing or write one more “worthwhile” sentence. Sometimes the most important thing is to appreciate beauty.

  7. Lovely post thank you Elaine, it brought back memories!

    When I was small my brother kept beehives and we used the delicious honey harvested.

    Many years ago, we had a birthday party for my son. I saw the bees around the borehole in the morning and asked the bees not to disturb the boys while they were playing cricket and games. When the parents came to drop their sons off, I brought them another way around the house and said about the bees and instructed their sons to not disturb them while playing. It all went off so well. I was so grateful to bees and boys for keeping their side of the bargain!

    In another part of our property there were bees hiving on a part of the wall. My gardener was terrified of them and wouldn’t mow the lawn. So I mowed the lawn while he watched. He was amazed.

    I love bees – and am always so pleased when I see them in the garden doing what they are meant to do.

    • I love your stories, Susan. There are many bee stories in mythologies of every country and, the more I know about bees, the more magical they become. Such intricacy and intelligence along with so many other insects. I’ve loved bees many years and they never sting when we both work in the flowers. I’m sad they are weakened and tried to get a beekeeper to keep a hive here, but couldn’t find anyone interested. It’s too exposed on my hill in areas close to the road where a keeper can drive a pick-up with equipment and hives. (All these views mean open exposure and wind.) It’s unwise for me to take on anything more, so I won’t become a beekeeper. I might have loved it in a different phase of life, but now I’ll enjoy my son’s and daughter-in-law’s bees–and I’ll enjoy writing about them for next week.

  8. Very fascinating, the whole bee thing. I just finally got into gardening this year. I mean big-time, can’t-go-a-day-without-buying-and-planting-a-new-flower big-time. Addicted for sure now. But maybe a hive is in my future?

    • I’m already a mad gardener and have been since the 1960s. It’s a hard year for gardening. We need a good soaking deep rain, but I’m sure the plants are grateful for today’s sprinkles. I don’t think I’ll get my own hive, though I’m tempted. I wrote the second installation of my bee adventures for this week–building a new hive and getting a new Queen for it. Another magical experience. My son and daughter-in-law lure me to North Carolina with honey.

  9. Wonderful and decent post, bees information this much helpful, nice honeybees tips. Thanks for such post and keep it up.

    • Thank you. I had a wonderful time learning more about bees and watching my son and others work with them. I’ve always been a protector of honeybees, but hadn’t had such a close experience with them.

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