I am looking for eggs. Not the hard-shelled ones you cook for breakfast; these are very small, half the size of a grain of rice. It would be great to meet the queen, but I am satisfied that she’s close – I see evidence of her in her subjects’ focus, the calm her presence brings. I look for baby food – not Gerber purées, but pollen packed into storage cells. And of course, I’m checking for honey. I have escaped the world and am inside a beehive. I’m an intruder here and must watch my step. A wrong or hasty move can set off an angry defense that I have learned to regret. But while things are going well I’m loving my temporary immersion in nature.
An astronaut begins his journey when he climbs into a spacesuit and has a partner screw on his helmet. Mine starts when I flip down my veil and secure the seams. My launch comes when I pry off the lid of the hive, the loud crack of the broken propolis (bee glue) seal standing in for the boom of booster engines.
It doesn’t matter where the beehive is located; the mini-world I enter is always the same. Sometimes hives are in lonely, grassy fields, with wildlife hidden in nearby woods. At other times, I ride elevators up skyscrapers, climb stairs, and walk through rooms full of whining machines, out onto flat roofs high above city boardrooms full of suit-wearing executives. New York City is all around me, the Hudson River far below. Elsewhere, lower down, I step out of apartments into rooftop gardens where the streaks of racing bees point me toward the hive. But whether I pry off the lid next to the corporate offices of a beauty-product company, a suburban mansion, or a barn, it’s always my entry point to a harsh and beautiful world.
It is not my world. Despite being called a “keeper” I have no control here. I am an observer, capable perhaps of small assistance for the needs I see, or of compensating for the limitations of the manmade boundaries that I put them into. I don’t understand half of what is going on; I am often reminded of that. I can discover a problem only to find the bees are already halfway to fixing it themselves. I have seen a queenless hive, doomed to fail, and rushed out to buy a queen – only to find on my return that the bees were well on the way to making their own, feeding a larva with the special food that transforms her. In fact, there have been times when the queen I bring is rejected and killed by the one they make. I’ve baited empty hives with ready-to-use comb and tempting honey right by a fleeing swarm, desperate to catch them, and seen it ignored. If ever I feel important to them, I soon remember that they don’t know me.
The beehive is not my world. Despite being called a “keeper” I have no control here.
The concentration bee-watching requires seems to free other parts of my mind for creativity. Solutions to issues I didn’t know I was even thinking about, inspirations and mini-resolutions have suddenly presented themselves to my mind while I’m in a hive. The balance of wonder and danger energizes my thoughts. Sometimes the humming cloud I work in seems friendly, like I am being welcomed as a temporary co-worker on a sixty-thousand-member team. At other times the angry buzz of bees bouncing off my veil and gloves reminds me of the deadly power that I’ve intruded on. The ones that manage to sting me punctuate the fact of their power to kill me. I am glad for every square inch of protection.
A hive is a superorganism that makes single decisions powered by tens of thousands of individuals. Each bee has a specific role – foragers work so hard collecting nectar and pollen from a three- to five-mile radius during the spring, summer, and fall that their one-month lifetimes are less than a fifth of those of winter bees. There are nurse bees, cleaners, food processors, and guards who also take care of the hive’s temperature. When it overheats they go on fan duty at the entrance, planting their feet and revving their wings up to full flight thrust to push in fresh air. A few drones get to mate with the queen – and die immediately afterwards; the rest seem to wander around the hive all summer before being kicked out. Guard bees are ready to give their lives, protecting others with a venomous sting.
But this high level of specialization in roles is also what constitutes the tight body made up of all the bees. A body that makes one decision, has one health, and makes a product that is replenished, apparently without complaint, after we take what we decide is our share. Each hive seems to have a character, its own microcosmic Volksgeist. It can turn on me suddenly, and then change in response to the smoke I puff, and turn away. One hive can work hard at making honey when a hive right next to it, started on the same day, makes hardly any. A hive can be so friendly one day that I wonder if they even notice I am there, working alongside them. On another, especially after a wrong move that startles or threatens them, some signal seems to go out and bees are all around, filling my head with their buzzing and following me away from the hive, waiting to sting after I take off the veil.
Recently, I delivered honey from a client’s hives to his home. When I was leaving he walked out with me. “Thanks again for the honey,” he said, tapping me on the shoulder for emphasis. “You don’t know what this means to us.” But I understood that this household in the middle of a large city had just connected with nature. “You are a farmer!” I told him.
Philip Britts – writer, poet, pastor, and visionary observer of his natural surroundings – speaks of the soul-deepening value of being close to nature and even warns that the loss of connection to the simplicity and faith of rural life leads to the loss of “inner stability.” Britts wrote ten points that define a “good farmer.” Here’s the last one, which I find both humbling and deepening. A good farmer, he says, “realizes that he knows next to nothing of all that there is to know, that he is dealing with eternal laws which he did not make and cannot alter, and that the most brilliant achievements of human knowledge are simply the closest obedience to these laws.”
Like the urban-farmer client I’m assisting, I am thankful for any such connection to eternal laws. I also enjoy the taste of the rewards, and hope to be a part of bringing them to many more.