Keep Calm and Keep Bees

Credit: Jimmy Simpson

We tend to be bird and bee centric on this site, but somehow we missed this lovely opinion piece–What the Honeybees Showed Me–by Helen Jukes in the NYTimes.

While many people look back to the basics of gardening and baking during the current crisis, beekeeping may be next on some wish lists.

When I first became keeper of a colony of honeybees, I was thinking more than anything of escape. I’d just turned 30 and had recently moved from Brighton to Oxford, having taken a job on a whim, again, moving out of one rented house in one city and into another as I had done throughout my 20s. But the new job was stressful. I spent long hours at the office in front of a screen. I was under pressure from company targets and deadlines, thrown into frenetic communications with colleagues who sounded as stretched as I felt, and disconnected from the world — the world! — I glimpsed as I cycled to and from work each day.

Our garden was little more than a slim patch of weeds within spitting distance of a busy road, but it was secluded enough that I could go there and remain hidden, and so I began imagining a hive out there; imagined myself finding some respite among the bees, away from the hecticness of the city.

Of course, things rarely turn out as we imagine them, and when later that year I was given a honeybee colony as a gift by a group of friends, it was not respite, and not quiet that I found at first. Quite suddenly I was made accountable to another creature, many of them, really — responsible for ensuring the bees were healthy, free from predators and disease. If all went well, I might take a little honey at the end of the season; but for the first few weeks, eyeing the hive at the end of the garden, I was more concerned that they’d either die or fly away.

The thing is that honeybees are so strange.

When you look at a dog or cat — the arrangement of eyes, nose, mouth and ears — you are able to recognize and relate to a face. But with a bee you’d need a microscope, and even then the body is so alien that you might have to reach for diagrams to make sense of her: she has five eyes; her “ears” are in her antennae and in the crooks of her knees; her teeth are like pincers, arranged outside and to either side of her head. Which is to say nothing of the colony. A colony is nebulous and shifting; when it takes flight as a swarm it can seem to belong more to the air than anything in the material world. You can’t draw a ring around it; can’t make a body out of it. How, then, to begin relating to a superorganism of this kind — one I’d been tasked with keeping?

I was fascinated by the bees — though not, I realized, very confident about “keeping.” Jobs, rented rooms, relationships — all had come and gone in the last few years, each relocation seeming to hold the promise of something better or more. Perhaps this transience was just the way of things. Still, it bothered me. Did I lack the capacity for longevity? Was I missing the skills needed to sustain? And in a much wider sense, hadn’t our ability to maintain our environments and fellow creatures, even ourselves, reached a state of crisis? Humans and bees have coexisted for many thousands of years; how could it be, after all this time, that colonies were failing — that many wild species were in decline? How was it that we were witnessing great die-offs and extinctions, that we seemed to be failing the very creatures we knew ourselves to be dependent on?

One day, I looked up the word “keep” in the dictionary. While over time the word has primarily come to mean “retain,” its earliest meaning may have been closer to “lay hold, with the hands, and hence with attention; to keep an eye on, to watch.”
So, attention. So keeping by looking, by watching, perhaps even by becoming more attuned to other creatures, and to a landscape, a world. I decided to give it a go.
Once a week I pulled on my beekeeping suit and carried out a hive inspection — a new and more embodied labor than the work demanded of me at the office. I heaved the comb out and the bees clung to it, like feathers almost — like a movable and very fragile skin. And I grew to enjoy it, this work; I liked the feel of it, the smell of it, the attitude of careful concentration required when taking a look inside.
Attending like this, I noticed how the bees attended to one another. It’s pitch black inside the hive, so for the most part honeybees communicate in the dark, via touch, sound, taste and smell. Pheromones are released and spread, such as when the queen releases a scent to signal to the workers that she’s in attendance; it’s passed throughout the hive as they pass the scent body-to-body between them (if she dies or leaves the hive, they’ll sense it by the absence of her smell within a few hours).
Occasionally, on the surface of the comb, I saw a waggle dance: a series of precise movements used to communicate the location of a particular food source, even at a distance of several miles. Fellow workers follow the dancer’s movements with the tips of their antennae; the angle of her body represents the direction of the pollen or nectar source in relation to the sun, and the duration of the dance indicates the distance to travel. She dances more energetically if the pollen or nectar source is particularly sweet; less so if there are obstacles to be negotiated en route.
The colony was bigger every week. Regardless of my rather haphazard efforts as “keeper,” the bees seemed to be setting up home here, adapting to a city I was still struggling to navigate — what were they doing that I wasn’t?
Click here to read the entire piece.

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