The Secret Life of Bees
In the name of the Bee—
In the name of the Butterfly—
And of the Breeze—Amen.
I am an eager novice beekeeper. My first season led me to believe I was a natural. All three of my hives produced many gallons of honey. I gifted family, friends, and strangers with the sweet and golden elixir. My second season was during the pandemic. The Bee Universe was determined to humble me on all fronts. Two of my Queens either abandoned ship or died before the spring pollen season, leaving me in such despair. I rush-ordered two Queen bees from Hawaii. These ladies arrived in Tennessee accompanied by their courts of worker bees. The silver lining of the Pandemic shutdown was that I had more time to dedicate to my new hobby. I visited the hives most days with conversation, music, and sugar cubes. Despite my best efforts, the production was much smaller the second year. The third year was a catastrophe. I lost all four hives and sadly returned to buying honey from the local grocery store. This is not the end of the story!
Beekeeping is a masterclass on patience, humor and perseverance. I have to navigate a rollercoaster ride of stinging (literally) losses and some sweet rewards. I have made record mistakes in my short tenure as a beekeeper. My husband loves to tell the story of an early spring evening when he heard my squeals and watched me through the kitchen window stripping off my clothes down to my “birthday suit” in the front yard. Shame on me for thinking dusk the perfect time to open up my hive boxes. Who, human or bee, likes to be awakened from a deep slumber? An angry swarm of bees chased me into the house. I had welts up and down my legs and arms for weeks! Just this past week I got caught in a bee swarm with multiple stings to the face and a trip to Vandy. I looked like a zombie from a Sci-Fi movie for my first college Parent’s Weekend.
I became a beekeeper for three reasons: One, I love honey. Two, I know the bees are integral to the health and survival of our planet. And three, having watched a friend working in his hive, a portrait of calm in the center of a bee swarm storm, I wanted to attain his capacity for peace and assurance in the face of a chaotic hive and challenging life. Could becoming a beekeeper draw out a better version of myself?
A beehive is a marvel of creation. Scientists can lose sleep over the fate of the bee population. There will be no green, no flowers, no fruit, no sweetness, no life on this planet without them. A healthy hive is led by a single Queen bee who oversees a community of twenty to eighty thousand bees. The first thing I learned about bees is they have no ego and will place the wellbeing of the larger hive above all else. Every bee has its assigned role in the hive. There are bees whose sole job is to build honeycomb. Others spend their days storing the nectar and pollen before it’s transformed into honey. Still more guard the entrance, others beat their wings to keep the hive at the right temperature and the servant-bees tend to the Queen Bee, feeding her the royal jelly. Adventurous bees venture out into the world, covering thousands of miles in search of pollen and nectar from plants, flowers, and fruit trees. If one bee is falling behind, the others step up and cover for it. “Goodness for goodness sake” is the rule of the hive. Even the Grand Dame of the hive has humility. Her life is destined to serve nature’s larger purpose.
Wisdom can be gleaned from the hive and the devotion of a beekeeper. Bees live solely in the present. There is no time to be wasted on what once was or will be. They are master adapters to changing circumstances in their environments. If relocated or faced with a late freeze, bees quickly adjust. They survive disasters like heat waves, food shortages, ice storms. If the hive falls prey to a predator, they will make a home in the trees. Although they are challenged on all fronts by beetles, mites, climate change, pesticides, they never stop their work. Bees approach their short lifespan as an ultimate adventure. They model the beauty and the potential in creation. Bees are curious and will travel outside their comfort zones to experience something new, something sweeter. It explains why their honey is a different color and flavor each season. One day they might relish a field of lavender, next, they are buzzing from one peach tree to the next. Bees are excellent models for how to be in relationship with one another. They set up their neighbors to have the best advantages for production too. They talk to one another, share their pheromones, even perform a special dance. Beekeepers call it the “wiggle waggle” dance. It is a bee’s clever way of alerting their neighbors to a good source of nectar. They will move in figure eight formations and shake their wings to indicate where and how far away is the field of flowers. The more excited the dance, the richer the nectar. This is a bee’s secret language. Although bees are known for their work ethic, they are also sabbath-keepers. They allocate 2/3 of their time to rest and renewal. A bee’s life is short, but the time is filled with great purpose, adventure, and membership in a loving community. There is a harmony in a bee’s life that I long for in my own.
Much admiration for my bees, but I am still wary of their stings. It is unnerving when the hive is open, and I am surrounded on all sides by a swarm of bees and their ready stingers. Any beekeeper will tell you that no matter how well you are protected or how extensive your expertise, you can still get stung. It’s the same in our everyday lives. At any given moment, we can be surprised by a diagnosis, the loss of someone or something important to us, natural disasters, wars, pandemics, and terrible injustices. None of us can avoid the visible and invisible welts that come with being human in this broken world. Too often we see our lives through an aperture of fear and do everything in our power to control every possible circumstance to not get stung. The result is a very small life. Or we can mirror the seasoned beekeeper’s posture of trust, surrender and peace. I confess that the first couple of years I was afraid every single time I opened the hives. I remember the shock of the first sting. I wanted to run, cry, even toss my bee suit in the garbage. “I’ve been stung.” Do you know what was my bee mentor’s response? “Yep. It happens. Carry on.” Best advice in beekeeping and also in life!
God has gifted us so many blueprints for how to flourish in Creation. A life of holy consequence, deep meaning and infinite joy is God’s hope for bee and human alike!
Tonight I have the honor of interviewing Robbie Quinn, Tallu’s husband, about her New York Times Best-selling memoir! We will talk about Tallu, the process of writing the book, and how Robbie and the kids are doing! You can join Clay and I live at Woodmont tonight at 6, or join the livestream on the Woodmont website! I hope you will join us!