One of the reasons why people love honey bees so much is because they react to our presence. They look at us. When we are relaxed they are too. When we are anxious they get nervous in response. When we calm down they calm down. Beekeepers become a part of the honeybee landscape, a part of their ecology, for good or bad.
Years ago while helping out an elderly beekeeper too frail to tend to his bees I met a recent immigrant from Serbia who told me about his super unpleasant bees he kept at an alpine meadow in his homeland. About a mile and a half away from his apiary he had to put on his bee suit, hat and veil, gloves and roll the windows up on his truck. Otherwise the bees would get at him and sting.
I wondered why to which he replied that these were Serbian bees, extra tough and defensive! Not like wimpy gentle Canadian bees. I didn’t have to look far for the reason. Once we were into the hives of our elderly friend he wrestled frames out killing and squishing bees in the process and then literally slammed the frames back in like they were sticky doors that wouldn’t close otherwise.
The bees didn’t love him so well. Nor me. Guilt by association.
I was trying to figure out what to do about these defensive stingy bees when my friend Lori Weidenhammer /Madame Beespeaker told me about her art performance of getting people to write messages to the bees. There is a tradition of telling the bees, of speaking to them.
This tradition of telling the bees is used whenever there is a change in ownership. When old beekeepers retire or pass away one must break the news to the bees. Preferably the old beekeeper introduces the new beekeeper but if not possible then at least the new keeper should tell the bees of the situation. In some places any change of family status would be announced, weddings, births, deaths. Bees are often invited to events via whispers or notes. Cakes and sweets from the party left outside hives for them to enjoy.
Bees do recognize their beekeepers. When one is respectful and gentle or harsh and violent they remember.
The next time a bee or wasp hovers back and forth in front of your face while you are in the garden take heed, they are having a close look at your features to remember you in future. Be nice; don’t wave your arms about. Stay calm and say kind things like “Pleased to meet you”, or “Do you like the flowers I planted for you?” If they are getting too close for comfort step back but don’t swat at them. That is not friendly behavior.
So I spoke to the bees of my elderly friend. I told them about his illness, that he wouldn’t be there any more to tend to their needs or care for them. I asked for forgiveness for the rough mannered helper there on occasion to lend a hand.
They calmed down right away. I was rarely stung after that. Was it because I spoke to them? I’d like to think so.
Recently a beekeeper colleague and mentor of mine passed away. He was a wise man, in tune with bees and trees. He gave his bees to a friend of his and was there to make the introductions, to help his bees make the transition.
Bees have wisdom, not written down but integral to their being. To their bee-ing. And beekeepers too with traditions and techniques, subtle and not so obvious, too often not written down, perhaps not possible to record on paper, that is integral to our relationship with bees and nature.
When we open hives and look in on our bees they welcome us. We welcome them too into our hearts and our lives. When bees die or beekeepers something profound is lost, ephemeral but very real.