Apis Virumque Cano…
As the year wheels deep into the solar summer, the lengthening days around here are filled with the thrum of a constant stream of airborne arrivals and departures. That would be the bees that reside in the side garden, just outside the living room window.
They are relatively new participants in my world, as I am in theirs. They have moved into the wooden hive boxes and seem well on their way to forming a colony. As often happens with things colonial, titles are in order. I can now call myself an apiarist or, more prosaically, a beekeeper, and the bees are, well…just the bees. Rank does have its privileges. While I am persuaded that the relationship is one that I have engineered for my own interests, I have to allow for the possibility that the inverse is equally true. These bees may be using me for ends entirely their own.
In his wonderful consideration of coevolution, The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan describes the ways in which enterprising members of the plant kingdom use mankind, as well as bees and other agents, to do most of the heavy lifting involved in ensuring the survival and propagation of the species. For bees, it’s a matter of distributing pollen in a way that produces fertility and genetic diversity for the plants. For people, the mechanism involves aligning the plants’ needs for habitat, nutrition, and protection from predators with human impulses toward sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control.
It strikes me that bees may also have discovered this tactic of covert manipulation and are using the promise of beeswax and honey to subtly lure me into abject and unknowing servitude to their grand scheme of survival. Apiarist? Sure, let me wear my silly little title. It matches my silly little veiled and hooded costume. If I want to pose as the tin pot emperor of their realm, fine. They have their own queen, and she’s the one who really calls the shots.
Why do I suspect this is true, this assertion of power? I have evidence.
- Bees need to be fed. Didn’t know that did you? Until the colony gets into good breeding fettle, and the pollen bearing flowers hit their stride, it’s up to the beekeeper to provide the nectar necessary to sustain the little buggers. Nonetheless, on sunny days there is a steady procession of forager bees entering the hive with full nectar baskets. The reason Lord Apiarist knows this is because he sees them file past in review as he makes his daily delivery of sugar water to the service entrance of the hive.
- Then there’s the behavior of my fellow beekeepers. Clearly they are under the narrative influence of an outside force. None of them can give you a straight answer. If you ask one a question, he or she will begin a response and then immediately drift off in another direction, visiting one topic after another in seemingly random fashion before returning to the point of origin. This is exactly the way a bee works a meadow of wildflowers. I have observed this to be a universal trait in the ranks of apiarists. In fact I have had to take pains to make sure that this tendency will never show up in my own writing. Because if it did, then I would now be inclined to tell you about the two new Buff Orpington chicks that we are adding to our flock because the lady that lives up the hill has a bunch of them and says they lay really well.
- Then there’s my own behavior. I am not particularly known for putting myself in harms way, yet at first report of a bee swarm at risk, something made me swing into action and effect a rescue. Unfortunately, “at risk” meant “swarm clinging to a low retaining wall next to a cemetery where they’d be hard to get without knocking a lot of them onto the ground” as well as “just after dark”. I later learned that bees really hate being on the ground and escape that situation by crawling up pant legs. They also don’t see well when it’s dark and behave aggressively. I know this is true because I read it in one of my bee books while having a post-rescue cup of tea and rubbing Benadryl lotion on a half dozen nasty stings. What made me act with such foolish disregard of my own safety and comfort?
- Sheer numbers. What ever impelled me to go from being steward of several chickens, cats, fish, frogs, and beetles (we have two boys), to becoming the public works department for a large city of bees? The shift in numeration is astounding. Most of the family’s dependant creatures fall into the category of “a few”. e.g. two cats, four frogs, etc. In the old days, my standards for “a lot” were set by the guppies living in the living room fish tank. I probably could have counted them, but they wouldn’t cooperate, and who cared anyway? There were just “a lot’ of them. But with bees it’s different. The colony starts the spring with about ten thousand members and, I’m told, by the end of summer could easily have three times that number. How do they count them anyway? Do you weigh one bee and then divide that into the weight of the entire colony? And how do they get the bees to stand still on the scale? I never used to think about things like this.
Clearly, there is an unseen hand at work here. Something impels me, my family, and many like us to take up the cause of the bees. We want them around. We want them to succeed. On an intellectual basis, we know the importance of pollination to the world’s food crops and we know about the threat of colony collapse. But there’s something more.
Beekeeping is a ritual of sorts, characterized by lots of rules and conventionalized behavior. There are costumes, sets, a slow and careful sequence of procedural actions. Both bees and their keepers know the rubrics and keep to them. The formalized interaction of people and bees goes far back in human history and deep into human awareness. People keep bees wherever bees can be kept. Looking at it from the other direction, bees induce human stewardship wherever bees want to live.
The idea of caring for the planet can seem grandiose and abstract, but to hold a living swarm in your hands makes it all very real. Watching the arrival of one pollen-laden forager after another in the summer sun calls to mind the grand symmetry of the lengthening days. I think that is the secret of the honeybees’ hold on us. We’re both beekeepers, man and bees alike. By learning to share our two worlds, we can come to better understand what it means to share our one World.
- David Parr, Artistic Director