I finally got to don a bee-suit and get my (heavily gloved) hands into a hive this week. What a thrill! Beekeeping is something I’ve been interested in since we lived in Baltimore 6 years ago. I even went to a beginner’s workshop in Albuquerque, and have read books, blogs and literature on bees. But the timing and space just never seemed right. So I’ve been really eager to just get some actual hands-on experience, to see if I’m just being romantic, or if I’ll actually enjoy working with these mysterious, delicate, and not a little threatening, tiny creatures.
M told me not to take notes on her methods, since she is a fly by the seat of her pants, intuition-guided beekeeper. But she gave me a great little children’s book on bees (one of the Magic School Bus series) which was a quick read and actually a really useful primer on the basics.
A bee-suit is an experience in and of itself. As a first-timer, the protection of the gear was absolutely necessary to keeping a modicum of control over my state of mind (more on that below). But I can’t say the suit provided complete peace of mind – a determined little buzzer could find a way into that suit. The baggy folds of thick fabric and netting produce a slightly claustrophobic sensation, and restrict fields of view and motion. Once in it, you can’t scratch an itch, wipe a perspiring brow, or swat that buzzing thing away from your ear. I felt a bit like the Pillsbury Dough Boy, clamoring about, nearly knocking things over and causing all sorts of wacky, Three-Stooges style physical comedy hi-jinks. Plus, it’s hot as Hades in there. Sweat slowly trickles down skin and crevices, feeling disturbingly like a bee crawling on skin that urgently needs to be batted away.
On the state of mind: the key, M tells me, is to be relaxed and calm with the bees, moving slowly, with gentle gratitude. Try not to panic. The problem was that the threat of panic was ever-present, below the surface, ready to make an appearance at the first sign that things are not in control. And things are certainly not in your control. These aren’t like excited dogs on a leash, or even horses, where verbal commands or physical cues can be understood and followed. Certainly body language, movement, and tone of voice go a long way with bees, but there is no bringing them into submission.
I’ve heard beekeepers say that it is good to get the first sting out of the way, because the anticipation is worse than the actual thing. But it wasn’t the single sting I was worried about. It was the angry horde, the nightmare, horror movie version of being covered in a writhing mass of bees, entering orifices and stinging delicate tissues. It’s not that I thought that was likely (in fact, bees don’t want to sting except as a literal last resort, because they die shortly after), but that is how my brain works – always conjuring the worst-case scenario my limbic system can come up with. Anything else that could go wrong would be a cinch next to that one. M graciously preempted any embarrassment or shame on my part by sharing that she has, on multiple occasions, run away from the hives screaming (but has only very rarely been stung). This switched my worst-case vision from horror movie to Saturday morning cartoon, which helped a bit.
So this is where my experience centering myself with yoga and meditation came in very handy. At M’s suggestion, we paused before going into the hives to do some deep breathing. She expressed our gratitude and good intentions; to care for the bees, not to harm them, promising not to take anything from them that they need. It might to some seem sort of silly and new-agey to talk to bees, but saying it out loud reinforced the idea for me that we wanted to remain calm and gentle, not just so we didn’t get stung, but also to reduce harm and stress to the bees themselves.
As an aside, this is a feature of life with H & M that I really love and appreciate. Their attitude is one of gratitude and appreciation for the abundance that the universe, god, mother earth, (pick your divine presence) provides. They strive not to take any living being for granted, no matter how small. I remember on a hike asking H to identify an especially beautiful purple flower. H said “Oh, that is just a violet.” A single beat passed, and then he said, “Excuse me. Not ‘just’ a violet. I’m sorry, pretty little violet.” He smiled, somewhat sheepishly, as if he appreciated the humor of this statement, that some might roll their eyes at his tree-hugger-ness. But he’s right; when we fail to see the beauty of the common and the small, the every-day, we’re missing the point.
Anyway, back to bees and yogic self-control. Despite my dramatization of my nerves above, I was relatively relaxed when we finally approached the hives. M did most of the work, but gently encouraged me to handle more as we proceeded. The first hive was easy – the bees were docile and not too numerous, and the frames, where they build the comb and store the honey, were only partly filled. This meant the colony had room to grow, and we wouldn’t need to expand the hive just yet. “This isn’t so bad,” I thought to myself. “I can handle this.” A sure way to make things more exciting.
The second hive was certainly a different story. We removed the cover to reveal that writhing mass I was worried about, and I immediately felt the pot of suppressed panic (we’ll call it my POP) start to simmer. Cue the deep breathing and affirmations of gratitude.
There were so many bees, it was difficult not to disturb them, no matter how gently or slowly we worked. They were buzzing much more loudly than the first hive, and a several were now circling around us. Once or twice M stepped away from the hive saying, “Now we’ve made them mad,” turning up the heat under my POP. A single bee was spending an unwelcome amount of time on my shoulder, buzzing quite insistently. This was seriously starting to damage my calm. M had warned me that a bee will sometimes get into the mesh of the hood, and may go for the glistening eye. I was sure this particular bee had prior knowledge of a gap in the mesh at my shoulder. Impossibly, the buzzing grew louder by my ear, calling forth the memory of rushing my brother to the emergency room when a bee (or maybe it was a firefly) crawled into his ear canal on a camping trip. (I still sometimes sleep with my hands over my ears when camping.) With my limited motion and field of vision, I couldn’t discover whether the bee was still on my shoulder, or had already infiltrated the protective membrane of the suit. M had prepared me with a strategy – squint the eyes and walk slowly away to remove the hood and let the bee out. But with this sideways assault, would I have time to implement defensive maneuvers before the attack? This bee was starting to piss me off. So much for goodwill toward all creatures great and small.
Of course, all these thoughts were subterranean, fleeting ideas the conscious mind cannot prevent from emerging, swirling around under more purposeful thoughts of peace and goodwill. As in mindfullness meditation, I found that I could have panicky thoughts without actually being panicked. I found I had the capacity to both feel uncomfortable and comfortable at the same time. My mind could reel, but I could choose to concentrate on breathing and moving slowly. So, on the surface, I somehow maintained my cool, or at least appeared to do so. Through my training in counseling I’ve gotten pretty good at keeping a neutral facial expression even though my thoughts might be anything but. M didn’t seem to be aware of my POP, at first. Eventually, though, she kindly offered to manage the rest if I needed a break. But I was determined to persevere.
Nevertheless, it took a lot of courage to not only approach the hive when M asked, but also put my hand near the pulsating mass and wedge my hive tool under a frame. It was also at this moment that I realized that my gloves had slid down and the button placket on my sleeve was gaping open, revealing the tender pink skin of my wrists. POP bubbling again.
With my hands full of bee comb, though, there was nothing to be done about the gloves. Its not like I could throw the frame down and jerk my gloves up. Both of us having just about reached our capacity for self control, we only pulled one frame partly out to confirm that it was bursting with comb that had already been filled and capped. This hive would need some more room, or would be at risk to swarm. We quickly put on a new super, and things calmed down a bit once the girls (most bees are female) were covered up again.
I’m sure this was a walk in the park for M, but I felt immensely proud to have kept my cool through the whole thing, sans sting or angry mob. I’m eager to get out there and try again, though the less we disturb the hives the better for them. Sudden, unexplained hive collapse is a serious problem, and though the cause is a mystery, M feels that we can reduce stress on the colonies by limiting our intrusion.
More later on harvesting berries and making jam!
PS: Based on some of the comments I’ve been getting both on and off site, I thought I’d write a little post-script about my encounter with the bees. The thoughts and feelings I shared here were just part of the experience. My goal was to be honest about my fears, to make it a fun read, and also share my pride that I was able to accomplish something I really wanted to do even though I was nervous. But I hope I didn’t dramatize the experience so much that I’ve scared anyone away from beekeeping! I should have balanced it out by also sharing the sense of awe and wonder I felt at having an opportunity to peer into the world of these amazing creatures. They are fascinating little things, and the home they construct is beautiful and mysterious to me. I hope I’ll have many more opportunities to interact with the bees and to share that experience!