All of us appreciate deeply the beauty and serenity of the Brandywine Valley and treasure its quality of life. Ironically, the professional and personal responsibilities many of us shoulder can divert our attention from the very things that appeal to us here. Our days can come to resemble the flat stones we skimmed across ponds as kids; we skip from one event to the next in our rush to complete our to-do lists.
Recognizing this in myself, I have been trying to simplify my life, and so it was with some trepidation that I took on an entirely new commitment three years ago. My wife, Linda, and I had just read Michael Pollan’s excellent book, In Defense of Food, and were really paying attention to the food we ate and where it came from. Around that same time I began to see news articles about a disease that was decimating honeybees across the country.
Although it might be easy to overlook the role of the simple honeybee in the production of the world’s food, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of the bee’s contribution. As bees fly among flowering plants and trees, collecting food for their colony, they scatter behind them the grains of pollen that bring about the growth of apples, walnuts, blueberries, almonds, tomatoes, cucumbers, cantaloupes, soybeans . . . the list is almost endless. Without bees, most of the food we eat every day simply would not exist.
Add to this the many benefits of eating local honey, and you have a compelling case to defend the bee. I made up my mind to be of help and bought two hives of bees and the necessary tools and protective gear to look after them.
Others who read about the bees” plight must have felt as I did, because beekeeping has enjoyed a renaissance. It’s impossible to pinpoint the number of enthusiasts here in the Brandywine, but the Chester County Beekeepers” Association alone has 100 members, and the University of Delaware estimates that there are 300 beekeepers in Delaware. Most are amateurs like me, with just a few hives each.
Except for early spring, when I feed them sugar syrup until trees and plants start blooming, and again in late summer when I harvest my share of the honey, the bees need very little of my time. I”m reluctant to call myself a bee “keeper,” because I”m not sure my bees know they’re being kept. If they choose to fly off and make a new home in a hollow tree somewhere there’s not much I can do about it.
Actually, their indifference is a good thing. When I occasionally manage to annoy one of them, the sting can be painful. But bees are not at all like their cousins the wasps in this regard. While wasps can be annoying and aggressive and can sting many times, a honeybee only stings if she feels her hive is being threatened. And in stinging, the bee causes its own death because the stinger remains in the recipient.
To minimize the chance of this happening, I have learned to work calmly and purposefully. The bees can tell if you’re nervous. It is important not to display impatience, haste, or indecision. When I move with deliberation, the bees go about their own work without being perturbed that the roof of their home has gone, the pleasant darkness replaced by glaring sunlight.
And then there is the giant dressed in white garb wielding smoke and sharp tools yanking the walls around. (White clothing is not just a beekeeper fashion statement. Bees shrug off most things, but they are genetically wired to attack their dark furry enemy the bear. Wearing dark clothes while working with bees would invite a painful, stinging encounter).
Today, three wooden beehives stand on a sunny rise in the meadow near our house, surrounded by grasses and wild flowers. The wood has weathered, and the peaked copper roofs have taken on a pleasing patina. On summer days, a graceful swirl of traffic rises above each hive. Bees emerge from the entrances, get their bearings and fly off, and return (in a “bee-line,” of course) sometime later, fully laden, to make a wobbly landing and disappear with their bounty into the recesses of the hive. I never cease to marvel that so many thousands of journeys each day can go on so harmoniously—picture Philadelphia International Airport operating flawlessly without air traffic controllers.
I take satisfaction in knowing that my bees are helping gardeners for about a mile in every direction, and I get real pleasure from the honey that they spare me each year. Last fall, after leaving the bees with the lion’s share of the honey for their winter sustenance, I harvested 120 pounds” worth from my three hives.
The ancients believed that honey was scattered down from the heavens in tiny drops, and that bees served the gods by gathering the honey into their hives and hoarding and defending it. I think they were right.
There comes a moment in late June when I am working in the hives and pause to dip a finger through the creamy wax shell and into the warm honeycomb for a sample. As with wine, honey is different from year to year. My bees have made amber honey tasting of the lofty blossoms of tulip poplar and locust trees, darker honey from bountiful meadow flowers and clover two years ago. And then there was last year’s crop, which, after weeks of dry, hot weather, was pale and celestial.
That first taste with its mingled sweetness and spice embodies the best of the summer, distilling into itself the breezes drifting through gardens, the warmth of the sun and the sharp glint of stars, the stately rhythm of the beating heart of the world.
I often visit the hives as the shadows of the beeches and pines begin to stretch across the meadow, telling myself that I”ll just drop by for a moment to give them a quick look, only to find myself lingering, enthralled by the complex order of their activity—thousands of individuals working at dozens of separate tasks, each contributing seamlessly to the maintenance of the colony.
Having become aware of my state of peaceful contemplation, I understand the real gift the bees have given me. Although I took on this hobby fully expecting to find my life becoming even busier, my time working in the hives has given me, instead, an abiding sense of peace and plenty.
The Eastern concept of Mindfulness is in vogue these days in psychology, medicine, and popular magazines. When doing something mindfully you strive to be fully present in the moment, to accept from the moment whatever it offers, and to disarm troublesome thoughts or feelings by calmly acknowledging and then releasing each one as it arises.
I find myself slipping into that zone of focused awareness as I work quietly among my bees. As distractions come into my mind I take note of each one and then let it go, much as I might watch a bee buzz around my head and then drift off into the tranquil azure sky. Time comes to a halt, and the world is centered in a fragrant humming box.