I walk through morning light among the apple trees to the circle of seven hives as a half-million bees begin a new day. I sit by the small hive over on the left looking for pollen saddlebags on the arriving foragers which will tell me there are babies being fed. This hive is a refugee remnant from one that fell prey to an infestation of wax moths. Many bugs beside bees are attracted to honey and wax—small beetles, ants, “destructor mites” too small to see. And, the most disgusting, wax moths that tunnel sideways through the comb leaving stringy goo the bees can’t remove and can quickly overrun the whole hive.
The Mother and 6 or 8 thousand sisters abandoned the lost hive, flew 100 feet across the circle and attached underneath an empty box and built comb as if they were waiting for me to do something. This situation is not covered in my dozens of beekeeping books, which the bees don’t read. I was anxious about hurting the already traumatized refugee Mother so I gently picked up the bottom board under which they had attached themselves and put it on top of a small box with their new comb dangling down into a box. I added a bottle feeder to help them settle in.
Mother might have time for two three cycles of babies before frost. The sisters don’t hibernate, but they’ll quite raising babies and push the drones out to save food and bother. The girls form a tight ball to keep Mother warm until February when she’ll rev up again if—a big if—the hive can recover its strength. I’ll always pull for the underbee.
Meanwhile, the other half million sisters around the circle need treatment for those damn mites. This involves a 14 day regime of stinky chemical pads inside their hive which makes them grumpy as I check carefully for other bugs. The only nectar around is goldenrod so I’ll feed them after this treatment with a last shot of formic acid till we tuck them in for the Winter.
We say “beekeeper” but I am the one being kept. Why do all this? Not the honey, although I did harvest 18 gallons from four of the hives this summer; should be twice that If I can nurse these hives along. But the longer I am kept by the bees, the less I think about the honey. These sisters have watched mountains, oceans and glaciers come and go—taking lightly the latest annoyance, we silly humans. I savor being inside their generous circle on a season of their 30-million-year journey.
On every one of those 11 trillion days, they read their environment and adapted to the unexpected. They focuses on the babies who thought only of the babies after them. Bees will let you have honey, but sting for brood. On the other hand (bees have six) their survival depends on radical diversity. Honeybees are impossible to tame; certainly not be me. The mother mates with 10 boys a few seconds each 50 feet in the air. She flies right past the neighborhood boys to those a couple miles away. Her daughters have random fathers so every bee and every hive is a slightly different mix of inherited traits. Don’t worry about their survival; some hive somewhere will have the traits to survive the worst we dumb humans can do. We humans on the hand (we only have two) are far less likely to survive. We don’t think about the babies, resist diversity and have tamed ourselves.
But now and then an improbably wild human hive emerges with traits fit for the future. Last month TC and I took rail, ferry, bus and footpath to the rocky island of Iona on the western coast of Scotland. People have come here for millenia to experience its “thin veil” between human and the Ultimate. The abbey was built 1,460 years ago and Druids worshipped here a thousand before them. Its Christian phase attracted pilgrims and, unfortunately, my ill-behaved Viking kin for centuries until succumbing to the protestants who let the rubble crumble. In the 1930’s until a muscular Presbyterian, George McLead, founded the Iona community restoring the abbey, and more importantly, built a movement for enspirited mercy and justice. My Norwegians gave them the lumber for the ceiling they had burned earlier. Now Iona is a hive of radical spirit. If honeybees invented humans, we would look like the Iona community—women leading with maybe 15% men allowed, as long as seemed relevant to the babies.
About a mile across the strait from Iona is the pink granite “island of the strong women.” The founding priest Columba shipped the women and cows over there, which didn’t last long as boy energy is too brittle for the harsh climate. Today the spirit and practice of the Iona community is distinctly feminine, unafraid of the bitter winds or the venal proud boys now having their day in so many places around the world. Spirit with sting ,if the babies are threatened. And they are.
Iona tunes my ear for the songs of freedom rising up where you don’t expect it. An unlikely young hive, the Sunrise Movement, rose up in Texas demanding the government to reinvent the depression era Civilian Conservation Corp to fight climate extinction. It is led partly by Aaryaman Singhal, who reads his environment like the a honeybee. After slogging through steaming heat in east Texas and Louisiana, this week he stood by President Biden and AOC announcing the American Climate Corps infuriating the republicans (who rather remind me of the wax moths the way they go sideways). It will set another 20,000 people free to give themselves a chance to give the world a chance.
This is how life works. Hope comes from the edges, from the experiments you’d least expect to work. Look to where the veil is thin between human and ultimate; where you can see the inbreaking of the future.