Ten Lessons from the Hive:
What Beekeeping Has Taught Me about Alchemy, Sustainability, and Community
(here is Melissa's TEDx talk given in Marquette MI on March 31st...video will be posted soon at www.tedxmarquette.com/ )
I will spend one minute on each of these topics as they relate to bees and life in contemporary times. Each topic will be accompanied by photographs I have taken of the bees/honey/art from beeswax.
Crisis of the Colony: Millions of bees disappearing from hives, first seen in 2005-2006, caught the attention of the media and the honeybee that is responsible for every 1/3 bite of food we eat. The gradual decline of pollinators has been occurring for years, but this was something different, more catastrophic. I remember the day if finally hit me-- the “mysterious die-off” of my name-sake, Apis Mellifera, floored me. In the summer of 2008, my husband and I got our first two beehives, and I began working in encaustics, or painting with beeswax. This crisis or call for alarm spurned a collective “wake up call” for beekeepers, gardeners, artists, and foodies alike. Within crisis lies opportunity for greater awareness, appreciation, and re-focus. By directly participating in beekeeping, we are engaging in this ancient and sacred art—this collaboration between humans and insects and flowers: symbiosis in its highest form.
Super-organism: Entomologists consider the colony as a superorganism. Like organs in a body, bees provide different functions for the hive to sustain itself as a whole. An individual bee without a colony cannot survive for long. At the height of summer, a bee colony contains anywhere from 40-60,000 bees. There is one queen, several thousand male bees (drones) and the rest are worker bees (females). The queen spends her day laying eggs, while the worker bees (living a short 6 week life in the summer) has a different job each week of its life. Scientists propose that evolving into this superorganism is what makes possible a whole new level of complexity for the colony. What could we as a community accomplish if we focused on what was good for the hive rather than the individual?
The Alchemist: the last few weeks of her life -- are spent foraging for honey and pollen. Forager bees suck nectar from flowers using a long proboscis and stow the nectar in a special sac called a honey stomach, where the nectar mixes with enzymes; when a forager returns to the hive, she regurgitates this nectar, and another bee will transfer it to a honeycomb where it is evaporated into honey.
Simultaneously, worker bees collect pollen in pollen sacs on their rear legs; this is also brought back to the hive to be used as food, but in the process of collecting nectar and pollen, bees inadvertently transfer pollen from flower to flower. Alchemy: turning nectar into honey. Lead into gold. As a teacher and an artist, I feel like my job is also a lot about alchemy: taking everyday materials and resurrecting them as “art”. Teachers, I feel, are also alchemists: we strive to help our students turn the knowledge or nectar into their own honey, their passion.
Winged Apothecary: Propolis is a sticky resin, which seeps from the buds of certain trees. The bees gather propolis, sometimes called bee glue and carry it home in their pollen baskets. The worker bees then take the resinous material and add salivary secretions and wax flakes to it and use the bee propolis in two ways: firstly to reinforce the hive itself, and secondly propolis protects the hive from bacterial and viral infection. Propolis and Honey are becoming more commonly used in burn treatment on humans and wound therapy because of the antibacterial properties. The gifts of the hive have myriad healthful benefits to humans, as the bees are very hygienic and honey is the only food that never spoils if harvested properly. If you ARE interested in fermenting the honey, so were your ancestors. MEAD is the oldest fermented beverage according to many sources: honey, water, and some wild yeasts. If the other gifts of the hive don’t heal what’s ailing you, this surely will put a smile on your face! We have the medicine for what we need at our fingertips.
Honeycomb: Young bees are also involved in wax production. Wax is secreted from wax glands, located inside the last four ventral sections of the abdomen, and is used to build honeycombs, either for storage of honey or for use as brood cells. New wax is also needed to repair old cells, and to cap cells (honeycombs as well as brood cells. The perfect geometry of these cells, where the bees grow, and sometimes go to die, is the most efficient use of space. Given a hollow cavity, bees do what is called “festooning”…they link together to measure the space and build their ideal perfect environment. Such elegance and efficiency of space is something to strive for in our lives and communities.
Which leads me to…..
The Hive: Home and the hive: I think if we pay attention closely enough, we can only hope to be so efficient and intuitive to needs. Re-using and re-purposing spaces to fit our needs is a sustainable way of keeping our landscape’s aesthetic while making it relevant to our needs. My husband and I set up our honey house in the former Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Greenland, MI. This space was sitting vacant since 1995, and we have now turned it into our production area for spinning honey and making mead, while the upstairs has become a community gather space for sharing music, art, and stories. The potential is overwhelming, and as caretakers of this historical building, this hive, we feel an obligation to keep it sacred and shared, and a place of inspiration.
Swarm: Swarming is the natural means of reproduction of honey bee colonies. A new honey bee colony is formed when the queen bee leaves the colony with a large group of worker bees, a process called swarming. In the prime swarm, about 60% of the worker bees leave the original hive location with the old queen. This swarm can contain thousands to tens of thousands of bees. It is loud, chaotic, and a bit unsettling at first….until you realize it is nature’s way of dividing the colony: from one you now have 2. Only the bees know why they swarm! We have the pleasure of many of our hives close to our house, so we have witnessed many a swarm. Taking the less invasive style of beekeeping, we often don’t try to artificially prevent them as some modern beekeepers do. Divergent thinking: Some of my biggest breakthroughs have come when I stop trying to make my initial idea work, and instead take a radical approach to solve the problem—just like a swarm. It is good to know when to swarm.
Wintering: After the honey flow and harvest, the hive begins to prepare itself for winter. The drones (male bees) are kicked out of the hive, the queen stops laying eggs, and therefore the population drops. They need enough bees to keep the temperature high enough through cold winter months, but not too large so they will burn through honey stores too quickly. The honeymoon is over, so to speak, and now it is all about survival. If the hive is healthy, they create a cluster around the queen bee, and circulate from inside the cluster to outside..gathering honey and delivering it throughout the population, and to the queen. This time of repose, quiet, and “dreaming of flowers” is something that we Northerners have come to expect, need, and secretly love. We thrive in adversity.
Spring: survive and thrive. Will the hives survive? Next comes the daunting task of assessing the hives in spring-time, which in the UP can sometimes be April. A sense of loss and guilt comes when we fine a dead hive---the wreckage of winter…maybe they didn’t starve, but maybe the queen died and the colony lost its sense of purpose…sometimes they make it through deep winter, only to perish in March. Nevertheless, some colonies come through strong, and are bubbling over with bees come May. Those that survive, thrive---and can produce lots of extra happy honey because the queen begins to lay eggs in Feb. or March. With the first bloom of dandelions or crocus, they are rocking and rolling, in their already established hive. We too, can survive and thrive through the rough spots and long winters and come out of it stronger having endured.
You get what you give: Take care of the bees and they’ll take care of us. What Beekeeping Has Taught Me about Alchemy, Sustainability, and Community? I can only hope that this small gesture, this passion of ours, this Keeping the Bees--will help the collective honeybee health. If we start seeing our endeavors, lives, communities, more as a superorganism rather than independent, separate entities, perhaps our greater purpose and organic complexity will emerge as well. If we can see our feeble attempts and daily efforts at life as spinning gold like the alchemist, then perhaps their rewards will be sweet. If we begin to see the relationships, the underlying webs in nature and culture, like the symbiotic relationship of the bees and flowers, perhaps we will make decisions based on a more sustainable future for our global environment and collective culture.
Thank you and Bee the Change…..