Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone… —- Joni Mitchell
Our relationship with honey bees is changing. We have become aware we need bees, not just for the miracle of honey, but as essential pollinators of our food system. While we may be aware that bees pollinate the plants in our food system, do we consider bees also generate food sources for birds and other wild creatures?
After thousands of years of taking honey for our own pleasure, and after exploiting these insects for two hundred years by relating to them as disposable servants in meeting our demand for industrial scale pollination of almonds, apples, blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, raspberries, melons, and squash (this is the short list), we have no choice but to re-evaluate our relationship with honey bees.
A slowly unfolding and mostly invisible (to Americans) cascade of global environmental challenges has and is creating species extinctions every day. Most of these species we rarely, if ever, see with our own eyes. Most of these extinct species had no “perk” for human kind, so they have vanished without much fanfare. Hopefully, we have a few photos in our scientific archives. If the honey bee goes extinct, we will notice.
In terms of technology, we have progressed from robbing the occasional honey bee hive, to hiving bees in pots, then in straw skeps which necessitated killing bee brood at the time of honey harvest. Countless honey bees eggs and larvae were routinely gassed and killed in ground pits.
Since those early days of developing European beekeeping technique, we have only shifted the way in which we kill bees and their brood. We now kill them in open fields contaminated with pesticides. Before honey bees (and other pollinators) die off using this new systemic approach, current traditional beekeeping promotes bringing pesticides and chemical toxins into the very cell walls of honey bee colonies, into the wax in which eggs are laid and pollen is stored, and, of course, trace amounts of chemical toxins will be found in any honey not produced through natural, organic beekeeping craft.
I write about our changing relationship with honey bees, I find purpose in protecting the well-being of honey bees as a beekeeper, but I call myself as a hive steward. The goal of a hive steward is not honey production, or the production of lovely soaps, candles, lip balms, or any product at all; the goal of the hive steward is developing a new cooperative relationship with these enchanting creatures upon whom human beings are dependent. Today, the most helpful hive steward may be the urban beekeeper. Remarkably, while cities are generally more toxic environments for people, cities are proving to be far less toxic environments for European domesticated honey bees.
Wearing the mantle of a hive steward using natural methods involves:
- listening to the bees in your care; they will communicate what they need from you
- seeing the bees in your care as intelligent, generous, and complex social insects
- understanding who is serving whom in the colony/steward relationship; you serve the bees!
- learning the craft necessary to steward a healthy bee colony
- appreciating bees’ need to expand without succumbing to the product and greed oriented mindset of the past (more bees, more honey, more crops, more money); refraining from artificial or mechanized insemination of queens
- Honey is not a product bees make for human takers; honey is bee food which bees reluctantly share with us
- there are valuable and profound lessons about life to be learned in undertaking a relationship with a bee colony
- developing an intuitive sense of what your bees need and bringing excellent craft and traditional knowledge to the relationship is your responsibility; in return you may receive some honey from your bees
- connecting to the wind, sun, rain, flora, fauna, and seasonal rhythms which dictate the “doing” aspects of caring for a bee colony
- refraining from the use of chemicals, corn syrup, and man-made medications; being willing to be a partner in supporting adaptive behaviors which may mean letting weak, non-adaptive colonies die off
- striving to be as hygienic (clean tools and equipment, re-using old comb) as the honey bees
- allowing bees to build comb and cell sizes in organic shapes instinctive to honey bees
- allowing yourself to be enchanted by and experience a deep love of the honey be — this last change in our inter-species relationship is inevitable once you begin to listen, see, understand and learn the simplicity, beauty, and complexity that is a colony of bees living in harmony, grace and unceasing work.
Recently, in teaching a class of six-year-old children I asked them what they had learned. We had done waggle dances, we’d gone on foraging romps pretending to be field bees, we’d gathered blossoms in a bouquet representing the life-giving touch a bee brings to any garden setting. I had shown them how bees takes beauty and transforms it into an edible product – with their unceasing work and generosity, we can bring the essence of an infinite, uncut, living bouquet into our physical bodies.
The children replied in unison: “Cooperation.”