By Gordon Kubanek, CACOR Board of Directors
I had managed to be sloppy enough to be bitten again by one of my ‘lady friends’, the worker bees living the good life in my backyard. You may be thinking: “Well it serves you right! If you play with fire you get burned….” Too true. Fortunately, this moment of pained birthed some reflections which I now deign to share with you dear Reader.
Being in a rush that morning, always a VERY bad idea when working with bees, I had put on my rubber boots (which bees can crawl down into) instead of my work boots (whose laces I could tie up tight). So I suffered the inevitable outcome of impatience when around bees; I was stung. However, I learnt that lesson and now have some good news; since that sting last Spring I have had no more bites!
Or is it bad news? You see, I started keeping bees to learn Patience. My wife had suffered for many years from my erratic behavior and eventually I had to admit that she had a point when, one day, 9 years ago, she exclaimed: “You’re 50! Isn’t that old enough to stop being as impulsive as a little boy?” So I took up beekeeping. So now you know the truth: it’s taken me 9 years to become patient enough to select the right boot to avoid being stung, but you know what they say: “It ain’t too late if you’re not yet six foot under.”
Enough of me and my follies, let us examine my teachers – ‘the ladies’. For most people bees conjure up tow contradictory images: fear and beauty. We are afraid of being stung but love the beautiful flowers made possible by bees and other pollinators. My experience has, however, shown me alternate side of that beauty – the harshness and brutal death required of bees, their sacrifices that make possible all pollination and the resultant life and beauty.
Did you know that there is only 1 Queen per hive? That she quietly lays eggs every day of her life (except for the middle of winter), never leaving the hive. And does that earn her a nice retirement when she gets old? Not a chance! As soon as ‘the ladies’ detect that her pheromone odour is decreasing they create a ‘Queen cell’ (by feeding a regular female worker egg a full supply of Royal Jelly in a larger than normal cell) and presto! A new Queen is born. This new Queen goes to battle with the old Queen and normally kills her with her stinger. Harsh, yes, harsh.
Also pity the poor drones, the non-working males, who are kicked out of the hive the Autumn once the evenings cool to freezing. As they are ‘escorted’ out they may protest, but, if they fight back their wings or legs are ripped off. By morning their frozen corpses litter the front of the hive. But it gets worse. Last week, in the early morning, I went to look at my hives and happened to look down at my sedums which had been covered with bees the day before. Lo and behold there were several bees dead among the blossoms, crystalized in the morning dew, looking as if they had died in the midst of working hard to extract the last drop of nectar when the temperature became too cold for them to return home. Death, again, death, but death that makes possible new life.
So it is that to live among bees is to realize that only by death, a sacrificial death, does the hive survive. Each bee is an ‘expendable crewman’ (for those fans of Star Trek) whose sole purpose is to make the hive stronger. The sterile female worker bees forage for pollen and nectar for, at best, a few short summer weeks until they die working; the drones, while lazing about all summer, suffer the ignominy of expulsion at the first sign of frost; and even the Queen, the Empress herself, is speared to death by her usurper once she has done her duty of laying perhaps a million eggs. So, the Truth of Hive is this: a life of great beauty is made possible by great sacrifice – each life, each fertilized flower, each new bee, the gift of a willing death.
While there is more that I could share with you I must now return to my bee yard. We have so much to learn from them as we humans are only now slowly and painfully learn that we have so much to learn from all creation surrounding us – a creation we seem to be willfully destroying, at our peril. For, while bees are unconscious beings, they are knowing, while we may be conscious beings, we are unknowing. It seems to me that the knowledge of the bees brings life to the world while our consciousness brings death.
Perhaps, given the many crises we have created, it is time to take the wisdom that the bees have to offer seriously and change our relationship with each other and creation. We imagine we are lonely individuals and from that imagination have created a lonely world. Bee know they are of the hive and with that knowledge have created a world of great beauty – a beauty made possible by a life that is a sacrifice. Only time will tell which species vision of self will survive the lottery we call evolution. My bet is on the bees.