A few weeks back, I woke up in the dark, happy and grateful that I’ve managed to carve out two-plus hours of quiet self-time before the day lights up in earnest. I sat with my morning coffee, watching the first gloaming of the morning, realizing that as circumstance would have it, I had no agenda for the day…
But as I sipped my morning cuppa, a sparkling idea squeaked through the cracks around the window frame into my room and said “…This is the morning. Move the bees.”
For months, I’ve been planning on moving my last bee swarm of the season into an indoor observation hive I had set up in my bedroom. I’ve read that you can learn much from watching bees as they go about their work, and I’m eager to learn more from and about these mysterious creatures whose lives are given to the good of the whole.
As the day dawned, it was clear that it was going to be…well…clear. I hurried outside to let the ducks out and felt the first touch of morning sun and knew instantly that it would be a mild day, a good day for bees to be flying, a good day for the bees to help me get them into a new home.
After breakfast, I lugged out the empty 40-gallon hexagonal fish tank I’d found on Craigslist and reworked into a space for bees, with good ventilation and a honey-feeding port, and set it gently beside the top bar bee hive in my bee yard. A small cloud of bees was already buzzing about the entrance. I took a few deep breaths to settle myself into bee time. As the bees flew around me, I moved my hand slowly up to the hive entrance, and let my fingers be momentarily covered in inquisitive guard bees.
I eased my face closer to the entrance to inhale the hive scent. This is an aroma that has been shown to have healing properties, especially on the nervous system. Before I work with our bees, I always spend this time bringing myself into bee space, allowing the bees to share the scent on my fingers as I inhale theirs. By their reaction, I would know if I’d need to bother with veils or gloves.
Sophia—the name I’ve given this hive—was calm and inquisitive, with bees tapping my fingers gently with their antenna, their organ of scent, pressure, heat, and who knows what all else. As I’ve said, bees are quite mysterious and we actually know very little about the wonder of their complex lives. No gear would be necessary on this morning.
I also had the sense that Sophia knew what I was about. Indeed, that she had sent the glimmering idea, like a sparkling comet into my room, to use this warmish, calm day to move them. So I began. I’d planned this move for so long, that its actual execution was nearly automatic.
Of course, little in life goes as planned, and there were a few glitches along the way. Mostly, the section of the hive I needed to move was just a bit larger than the lid on my observation hive. I turned the bee-covered mass of combs upside down, thinking outloud that I would need to cut a few piece of comb away to make the hive fit. Like magic, the bees moved away from the combs I had my eyes on, and when I cut them away with a bread knife, not a bee remained on them.
As I worked, one guard bee landed on my ear, and spoke to me with buzzes and hums. The sun had only risen a short notch in the sky before I had the bees all settled inside. I quickly disassembled the old hive so that there would be no confusion as to “home” now. The observation hive I covered with a blanket to give the bees the darkness they were used to. On top, I left a hole for the foraging bees to find when they returned to the hive. Around the entry hole, a cadre of maiden bees had set up a nasonov fanning circle, wafting out the “come home” scent that issues from this gland in a bee’s abdomen.
I left Sophia to her business for the remainder of the day, returning as the late afternoon sun was stealing away over the back fence. Her foragers had returned, the fanners headed inside, and I sealed the entry hole and carried Sophia inside, with Carter spotting me in case I tripped.
We have been getting used to each other, Sophia and I. She has a clear plastic tube that vents to the outdoors so she can come and go as she pleases, and the bees have found the honey feeding jar. Mostly, I leave the bees their own honey for winter food, but Sophia got a late start this summer. Plus, living indoors as the ladies are now, they should be more active through the winter, thus eating more. In deep cold, bees go into torpor, using little of their stored honey. Sophia will not need to sink into torpor. So I’ve got the honey jar filled in case they need it. I have much to learn with this experiment of keeping a hive inside, so I’m trying to keep my bases covered.
In the short time we’ve been roomies, I have already learned many things from the bees. I’d like to share these gifts from the hive with you, and I’d like to start with this first insight they’ve given me:
Bees don’t much care what the temperature is inside. They adjust their activities to the season outside. They take their cues not from my cadet heater, but from the temperature just outside the entry hole of the hive—the “true” temperature. I had expected this, because I had read that you don’t need to worry about your indoor bees all piling out into a freezing winter day, but I had not expected them to also go into cluster indoors.
They don’t need to do this. They have honey to eat and hive temperatures in the 60s, but they are committed to their winter rituals. No one is building wax, repairing comb, or making babies. Yesterday I was folding clothes in my bedroom when I Sophia suddenly began to roar. She went from utter silence to the decibels of a chainsaw in seconds. My head whipped around in time to see her bees come tumbling down the bee luge tube and into the great outdoors. It was 1:30—the warmest time of the day here now, and the bees had decided with a single mind that it was time for a “cleansing” or poop flight. Unless they are very sick, bees will not defecate in their home, holding their bee bowels for weeks if needed.
Who gave the command? Who said, “All together now, one—two—three!” This wonder of a group of creatures acting as one being never loses its newness for me. Each time they do their one-mind dance in some way, I stand transfixed with my jaw dangling around my knees.
Off they went. Twenty minutes later they returned and the loud humming trickled down to a near imperceptible hum.
My bees so often lead me to ponder, and today I’m pondering the bees’ example of living with total respect for the season outside. I think there is value to living this way. I think that no matter how high the cozy factor in your abode, it is an honorable thing to do—to keep a place in your heart and body for the season outside. Because the seasons are real, and they are honest, and you can trust this.
In winter where the climates are cold, bees cluster up together, eating slowly through their stored honey larder, comb by comb, as the dark season progresses. Nearly all of the activities of the warm months stop completely.
In warm country, bees remain busy throughout the year, but I don’t live in such country, and I want to honor the sacred rhythms of the seasons in my particular place.
So many of us in winter move from house, to car, store, work, and mall we can forget our connection to the weather—a force that molded our cultures in times long gone by. We may lose our homes, cars, jobs, and the mall may shut down, but the seasons and their weather patterns endure. Granted, they are changing up a bit these days, but they endure.
My bees remind me what is real. Their lives are testament to the quality of the hours of a given day, a given season. So much of what I read and hear and am told about the world is nothing more than someone’s bias. And the time it would take me to sort out the real from the bullpucky is nothing but precious moments wasted: Did Trump really say that? Is coffee a medicine or a poison? What really happened at the Pentagon on 911? The bees don’t care. They respond to the moment. At the moment, Donald Trump is not in my kitchen, so I don’t care either. And I’ve made my own mind up about coffee: In this house, it is medicine.
The climate talks in Paris are all over the news right now, and I have no idea at all what climate change will bring. I don’t think anyone does, really. Projections, theories, fanaticism, fear, lies, ignorance and hysteria do not make for truth. So I go up to the bee garden and sit in my rain coat beneath the shed cover, and watch the girls tiptoe out for a mid-afternoon poop run. I sweep away the dead bees, feel the rain soak into my shoes, and honor the season for the wet mess it is right now. The bees will hold hands with climate change and make their evolutionary shifts accordingly. We will all need to do the same.
Like the bees, I will spend much time inside this season, spinning spring dreams but venturing out when the weather calls me. The lies of the day are enormous. They do not have the simple truth of rain and of penetrating cold. At such a time on Earth, I believe we are all being called to develop our intuition and our “bullcrap” detectors, and to live in accordance with our own experience. And that means living—truly living—where we are planted and taking our cues from our neighborhoods and communities and the natural world surrounding us. We might all take a closer look at those who call themselves experts and scientists, and filter what they say through our hearts and our lived experience.
And we might all do well to go outside a bit more often, just to say “hello” to the season. She has secrets to tell us. The bees tell me so.