Tuesday, April 17, 2007

I Believe in Living Sunlight

bee with deformed wingsToday I checked my hives after days of hard wind and rain. A honeybee pulled out a young, deformed worker, and dropped her a few yards away. The sick bee moved a little, but had no hope to live. Her sister took no time for pity. I did, but couldn't know whether a short tap from my toe would end her misery or shorten her only moment of sunshine. So it is with bees.

I'm a hobbyist beekeeper, but my companions are a theme of my days. I speak to youth groups, summer camps, and festivals about the miracle and importance of honeybees — how they can plug a jaded urbanite into a world of sun, rain, and blossom. Kids and adults respond with wonder. The bees are the living embodiment of sunshine, dependent on plants and their blooms to flourish, a need which is returned by the wild plants — as well as crops — that depend on pollinators for another generation of seeds and flowers.

In the city, I live like a yuppie but think like a farmer. I know the temperatures of the past 6 months and the forecast for this week. I know how much rain we've had, and how much we need. Since the bees arrived, I've smelled the blanket of sweetness that the linden trees lay down in June. Have these been extra-fragrant years, or did I just never notice before?

The bees are Tinkerbell vegetarians, less than 1 inch long and hanging from borrowed-looking wings. You can see gold sunshine through their bodies, as if the sweetness of honey starts inside. Being a ham-handed mammal pawing through the delicate home of 50,000 bees has underscored the clumsy truth about power: it's impossible not to kill or injure on the way to staving off disease and starvation. I'm wrong from time to time about how to fight those foes. Size and strength are no help in fixing my mistakes, made by clumsy fingers 20 times the size of any bee, by limits on what I can see and understand about their lives.

Bees live in a tight family communities, something many of us crave. Workers that stow honey in May will never meet the December sisters who eat it. Yet the bees are ruthless: the ill are cast out, and the old try to die outside the hive. They can't change how they live, even with the new illnesses and parasites that humans brought. Paradoxically, they need us more, since they can't survive alone. We need them more, too, as other pollinators disappear with their habitats.

Living with honeybees, I see the life force of sunlight streaming through our lives, in sweetness and danger. I don't know if the bees and I are within the cascade of warmth, or if it is in us. But I know we are together just the same, and our very different worlds will have their stories written in the same light.

An explanation for this essay:

One of the public radio networks in the United States regularly runs a segment called "This I Believe," where listeners can contribute a personal statement of belief. The program hopes to get people thinking and talking about faith and belief, during these times when we are all so likely to tear each other apart over these subjects. Friends have suggested, from time to time, that the honeybees are an appropriate subject for such an essay from me, and I resisted until now. I've learned as much about what I don't believe as about where my faith resides, you see.

So I uploaded this essay, "500 words or less," and realize that it's a poor fit. Like a beekeeper with a particular way of looking after the hives, these folks have a unique project and a specific method in mind, and I did not follow the directions. But I am glad I did it, anyway.

Maybe the best part is this: after your no-more-than-500-word submission, they give you 800 words to reflect upon the exercise of writing your belief statement! This, my friends, may seem silly — but it is actually quite cool. This is what I wrote:

This is not the first time I have written about bees: they seem to provide the doorway to a deeper understanding of how to be a unique, living being in a nonetheless teeming world. I go back again and again to learn what I really think and feel and sometimes to change my mind.

Politically, I am a biased person, but the bees actually make me confront some of the principles I hold for convenience and comfort, rather than for the sake of truth. It splits apart the relationship with truth and false faith, where you cleave to a belief for reasons other than thinking that the force of life within you really supports it.

"This I Believe" was a necessary activity for me because it made me confront so many things about power and responsibility and limitations and life and death in this little community where my role is so important but not omnipotent. I cannot love the bees without accepting their brutality, I cannot understand the cruelty without the beauty. How else can a person understand themselves?


Anonymous said...

In front of my house are a couple of clover patches that the bees like to visit, and I enjoy just watching these fascinating little creatures, and I love them. Normally the bees are quite lively, darting from flower to flower. However, one day a few weeks ago I saw a bee just hanging on to the flower she was on, drinking the nectar, but generally staying put. It quickly occurred to me that something was wrong with her. I also noticed something was wrong with her right wings, which stuck out at an angle and just looked askew. I suspected she couldn't fly, and I even prodded her a little bit at one point, causing her to crawl a little bit on the flower, but she did not fly off. How she managed to make it to the clover patch if she couldn't fly, I have no idea, but apparently, somehow, she did. I couldn't stay with her, but I came out to check on her as often as I could. At night she was still there and not moving...dead or just sleeping, I didn't know. The next morning she was nowhere to be found. I suspect she died at some point, but what happened to her after that, where she went, I don't know. It's probably weird, but I still think about her sometimes. Even today, she stays with me.

TomF said...

Wow, that was wonderful.

As an urbanite 'wonderer' myself that was a very inspirational read.

(I'm sure you must know all about the mysterious problems these wee beasties are facing at the mo {I was taken recently with this New Scientist article about it: http://environment.newscientist.com/channel/earth/mg19325964.500-where-have-all-the-bees-gone.html }).

It's good to know you're out there on your rooftop (and talking on the 'shop floor' too).

May the wind be at your back, as the Irish say.

(Not sure if they still say it in the cities tho. Probably not the done thing ;))

Ngaio said...

Your writing is thought provoking. We don`t (yet) have the same problem with our bees vanishing here in the Antipodes, and I shudder to think what will happen if we loose these wonderful pollinators.
I am a fairly new beekeeper and still learning, I enjoy reading your blog being a city beekeeper myself - pop in and visit anytime. It is autumn here and my girls are not so busy. I have also just had a hip replacement so am not out and about so much yet. Please keep writing ..

Art said...

Great site! Hello from the left coast. We live on the edge of Portland and our bees are finally coming back to life after loosing a hive over the winter. Here is a link to our hive action today:


Keep up the writing. I really enjoy it.

Anonymous said...

You must be a brave woman to squish it with bare toes!

Phang said...

Not so brave (or self-punishing!) I wear shoes always when working bees. As a matter of fact, it is a good idea to wear lace-up shoes and socks, and to tuck your pant legs into the latter!