Back In Harmony With Bees

A honey bee, hard at work. Photo by Rita Clagett.

A honey bee, hard at work. Photo by Rita Clagett.

By Rita Clagett, North Fork Bureau Reporter  (June 18, 2013)  Yesterday the honeybees descended on the blueleaf honeysuckle. Today the aroma of this amazing shrub burgeoned as the sun warmed the morning. Also known as blue velvet honeysuckle, or honey rose honeysuckle, it is amazing to behold for a few weeks a year. The rest of the time, it’s quite nice, too. But this week and next, Lonicera korolkowii is in its glory, and the bees have exactly four yards to fly from their hive to their feast. The bush is alive with bees.

And I’m not afraid anymore. After a visit from the bee doctor last month, we’re all getting along smoothly. I’d been anxiously awaiting the arrival of the bee doctor for eight months, three of which I’d spent back east and the previous three here in a deep freeze. One missed message or weather delay after another led me to arrive home just two days before his expected visit.

He pulled up about 4:30 that afternoon. While I went inside to put on my bee suit, Corwin Bell walked around the hive. “They’re speaking a language I don’t understand yet,” he said, when I joined him outside. “They’re very aware, very wild.”

I told him they’d come out of a cottonwood known to have had a hive in it for at least twenty years. “That explains it,” he said, “they’ve got a very old language.”

He spent the next hour slowly moving into the bees’ space, gradually getting on their wavelength. He circled the hive a few more times before settling down to one side of the door and watching for a long time, as bees came and went. He gently waved his hand a few inches in front of the door to determine the level of defensiveness of the hive, and a few guard bees flew out to inspect it. The level of the buzz ramped up for a few seconds, then settled down to what he called “a nice sense-of-self hum.”

He held his hand in front of the doorway and swept it backwards away from the door into the crowd of bees approaching the landing platform. “Wow!” he said. “Look at that! They’re very aware.” As his hand swept back into their path they backed away from it. Not a single bee crashed into his hand. “Most bees don’t move that fast,” he said, “they crash right into my hand. These guys are aware and agile.”

After awhile of making their acquaintance this way, he moved his face close to the door and blew gently into it, again to gauge their reaction to his exhalations. Bees don’t like carbon dioxide, a big huff of it into their hive signals a predatory invader like a bear. But they didn’t react badly to his breath. And then he shared with me a mystical yet scientifically sound technique for bonding with the bees, to let them know that I am one with them, that we are all one.

Once he had literally gotten himself onto the same energetic plane as the beehive, we opened it up. Very gently we pried a bar loose from the hive and lifted out a perfect wedge of honeycomb. He spoke little, putting all his energy into reading and responding to the bees. He called my attention to the shifting energy of the buzz of the hive, high-pitched, louder, softer with their mood.

We went through two spray bottles full of water, misting the bees if they got aggressive, pausing in our ministrations to let them settle back down if they got too agitated. As he worked with each comb before removing it, he used a small wooden bee-herder to encourage the bees to move down the comb to the floor of the hive

“Oh,” he said, “they’re running!” Some of those on the floor of the hive were running toward the front. “Don’t get wigged out,” he went on, “but that’s something Africanized bees do, they run like that.” Just one more example of their wildness, he assured me, not that they had gotten Africanized.

Gradually, we removed three combs. One at a time, he carried each bar through the yard, softly sweeping a handful of garlic leaves down along the capped comb to dislodge the bees clinging to it, making his way to the house; by the time he reached the door the bees were all flying back to the hive, and he brought the clean comb into the kitchen where we hung it in a box until I could harvest the honey the next day.

Corwin stayed in the yurt overnight, enjoying the garden for the evening while I kept a dinner engagement across the valley. In the morning when he came inside, he announced, “Here’s what came to me in my morning meditation with the bees: They chose you. They didn’t convey to me why, that’s for you to find out, but they chose you.”

I was prepared to believe that, considering the uncanny way they had come to me. In a weird sense, I might have known these bees for twenty years. I used to play with an old boyfriend along the ditch they came from.

Corwin validated several hunches or intuitions I’d had about the bees and what to do next. He understood my sense of the gravity of my infraction during the beetastrophe last summer, but, he said, the hive couldn’t have looked better. “It’s perfect,” he said, “whatever you guys did worked out just fine after all.” This went a long way toward assuaging the guilt I’d been holding all winter, and also salved my fear of the bees.

After he left, I spent hours collecting honey from the combs, and managed, after smashing them and straining them, to pour almost a gallon into enough small jars to share with almost everyone to whom I’d promised honey. The rest of them will have to wait for the next honey harvest, and who knows if I’ll have the time or the nerve for that before next spring.

In the month since Corwin was here, I’ve delighted in the honeybees as they discover each new blooming flower or shrub in the garden, and also delighted in all the little wild bees and flies that also pollinate. As I meditatively pull weeds each day, or walk through the garden with the camera, I am learning to discern the sound of a single bee, recognizing from the buzz alone whether it is one of the frenetic native bee-flies, or the red-banded solitary bee, or a bumblebee, or a honeybee.

This time of year, the rare moments I get to breathe in the beauty of all that’s come in the garden, all that’s been done, all that’s in order, growing, blooming, thriving, are few and far between, crowded out by sights of what still needs doing. But I am at the threshold today of passing on to the sweetest part of the carnival ride through summer; the ratcheting crash of the roller coaster into full-on weed season has slowed to a slog uphill to equilibrim, and now what’s undone diminishes incrementally, while what’s done bursts into a profusion of blooms.

The bees have drawn me back into the garden, and the garden has drawn me back into connection with the bees. We are finding again right relationship. Bees weave me like a documenting thread through all that happens in this garden now: Each day I am eager to step outside with the camera, asking “Who’s on what today?”