There is endless mysticism surrounding beekeeping. I’ve heard stories of bees being able to recognize specific faces; that they understand and mourn the death of good beekeepers; that you have to introduce yourself when working with a hive for the first time. I’m not sure if any of this is actually true, but the underlying message of these stories emphasizes the importance of building respect and trust between the keeper and the hive. It’s a radical idea to be in tune with the mood of the hive. You begin to work slowly and intentionally so as not to squish an undue number of bees, and this results in a hive that is happier, a calmer beekeeper, and there is less stress all around.
Attempting to work this way with our hives on campus, I have been slowly trying to wean myself from wearing protective suits, veils, and gloves. Last year, when I first started to work with the hives, I would march into the apiary, fully decked out, and felt invincible. Wearing a full-body suit, you don’t have to respond to the mood of the hive; bees zooming toward your face glance off the mesh of your veil, and squishing bees seems like a secondary thing – no problem.
It was certainly useful to start beekeeping this way, because I was able to grow more comfortable with the bees and still be protected. Eventually, I started watching the bees for a longer amount of time after finishing my designated task, and it was fascinating. Cells filled with jewel-colored pollen, honey, eggs, and brood were all tended to with perfect care. Bees would line up along the edges of frames and peer up at me, surveying the scene. I began to be frustrated by my clumsy gloved fingers, and started working more and more without them.
I still have a lot of growing to do before I really feel comfortable with the hives. Yesterday, when I again marched into the apiary, cracked open a hive, and was stung immediately, I retreated to the garden to get a suit and gloves and then started again. This time, however, I moved more slowly, with greater care, and by then the suit was totally unnecessary.
While the bees may not be able to recognize my face, I’m sure of their ability to recognize and respond to my moods. Trying to work with the hives this way is meditative, and it’s good practice in being intentional and self-aware. I’ve been thinking recently about how this same tactic can be applied to our human relationships, where recognizing the power of our emotions affects our interactions with others, and consequently, others’ interactions with us.
Many powerful lessons can be gleaned from working with and interacting with bees. For me, the most important realization has been in thinking about fostering respectful relationships, with the bees and with others. I’m excited to continue to work with our hives and grow in knowledge and respect for the work that they do.