There is an interesting dialogue going on down at the Marin Beekeepers Association. I wouldn’t call it a schism, not yet, but it certainly has the makings. It is about what is happening to our honey bees, why they are dying off so fast, and what we can to do about it. The thing that really interests me, apart from the fact that there is a highly motivated, highly concerned group of really sharp people thinking carefully about sustainability, is that people are being forced to confront their more closely held convictions in response to calamity––and they are being asked to take sides.
Hobbyist beekeepers are a funny bunch, fanatical and intriguing to me in a kind of metacognative way––I mean, I am one, but what captivates me about beekeeping is a bit unclear. I don’t know why I do it beyond the fact that I find it challenging and fun. But I know there is more to it than that. There is something deeply compelling about bees but what it is isn’t obvious or easily expressible.
Commercial beekeepers are different, of course. They do it for different reasons. They may or may not love what they do, but for them it is a livelihood; why they do it isn’t mysterious. Most commercial beekeepers keep thousands of hives, they rent their colonies as pollinators to farms and orchards, and they harvest bee products to sell, honey wax, pollen, propolis. It is a kind of farming like any other.
Hobbyist beekeepers (read: those who don’t have to do it to make a living) on the other hand, all have at the root of their connection to bees a mystical experience. A faith in something bigger than themselves. Ask. Find out. You’ll be surprised. You might have to probe a little. Many of the initial answers you get may seem superficial, but if your questions are skillful, you can get deeper into their attraction to beekeeping and their communion with bees. Go beyond “What do you like about beekeeping?” and get to “What drew you to keep bees? Why did you start?”
In the beginning, at the center, holding them, you will find a mystery, a set of questions that cannot be answered but can be contemplated, a truth that cannot be touched but can be approached by keeping bees. People keep bees to be in the presence of a great and ineffable thing, and in that way beekeeping has a religious tone to it. And people will express that in the language they use, their own words, and the stories they tell.
A friend of mine told me this story of his first experience with bees. He said while walking in the woods near Santa Barbara years and years ago he came upon a swarm of honey bees clustered on a low hanging branch. He said it was the size of a basketball, and docile, as bees tend to be when they are swarming. The sound it made he said he will never forget, a deep, resonant, biological, single-noted hum. He said it was beautiful and fascinating to see, captivating, and he was drawn to it by a curiosity that was stronger than his trepidation. He approached the buzzing mass of bees and as he got close, to within just a few feet, it expanded, all at once, all together, to the size of a beach ball. The sound it made went up in pitch, too, now a full, high, almost electric buzz. He froze, stunned and amazed, and then slowly took a step back. As he did the bees contracted, all at once, all together, as one organism, to the size of a basketball again. He stepped closer, and it got big. He stepped back, and it got small. He was absolutely awestruck and profoundly amazed that this mass of insects doing its thing on the tree branch was aware of him––and he felt that it was communicating with him, the whole swarm as one entity, perhaps twenty thousand bees all expanding and contracting together, in unison, agitated by his approach and relieved by his withdrawal. It was a live encounter with raw, powerful nature.
He said that more than anything else he remembers feeling like there was something going on and he was in the presence of it. He felt in the presence of something big and natural, highly ordered and in control. He felt he had to know more. Soon after, he landed an apprenticeship with a beekeeper in Santa Barbara and started learning about bees. His experience had become a quest for answers. He is gardener now by trade but he has been keeping bees for 30 years now, ever since, and what bees can do has never ceased to amaze him.
And that is typical. Beekeepers are a zealous lot and they tend to talk about their faith as a quest or a calling. So, I suppose it is not surprising when faced with the plague of Colony Collapse and the loss of fully one half of our hives in December to Varroa mites and the diseases they vector, I suppose it is not surprising that the discussion takes on an apocalyptic tone.
It is hard to describe, but when a hive dies, it is rending. You feel like something’s gone wrong, like it has turned and gone sour, like it is rotten, like the center cannot hold, and things are falling apart. We keep chickens, too, and it is not like when a bobcat takes one of our chickens. That is unfortunate, sometimes maddening, but there is nothing really wrong about it. It is not unnatural. But bees are magical and powerful and mysterious, and they are supposed to be able to take care of themselves, to do it on their own, and when they can’t, you wonder why? What happened?
Now, take that up a few degrees. Intensify it by an order of magnitude. The feeling you get when you raise your hand, one among many in answer to the question, “Who among us has lost a hive this season?” and you see that fully half of the room has its hands in the air, the feeling you get is a kind of low level panic that something very big is happening to the bees and not just your bees. You begin to feel like dark and ubiquitous forces are at work. Like something is loose upon the world.
And you say to yourself in words that are your own, “What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?”