We went on a field trip last Monday (my wife and I) to a farm on the shores of Lake Michigan were are raised a whole variety of creatures: deer, chickens, cows, pigs, championship racehorses, and bees. We had come for the bees. Now, my wife had been talking for a couple of years about becoming a beekeeper, and this summer everything came together for her. Her apprenticeship under a master beekeeper formally commenced this July. Here, in mid-September, it was now time to harvest the honey. For me to be invited to join her for this stage in the honey-making process was, indeed, a delicious treat. It was everything I’ve ever loved about grade school field trips (whether apple picking in the Fall or observing maple sugaring in the Spring): a connection with the simple life and with a living past. This excursion was even reminiscent of that time in grammar school when the rigors of our normal class schedule were cut short and our class was ushered into the library to enjoy stories (told by master storytellers) of the ancient Native American way of life, something to which I’ve been drawn ever since. Yes, something of the boy in me came back to life last Monday as I stood in the center of what felt like a lost civilization animated by the humming of 80,000 flying insects–for a bee hive is a civilization, replete with its highly sophisticated divisions of labor. What follows, now, is a series of reflections that can only come from that quality so characteristic of boyhood: a sense of wonder at the natural world. This sense, I am convinced, is one of the greatest joys in life…
Upon arrival at the farm, we donned our bee suits looking for our part like Marty McFly in his plutonium suit from Back to the Future. To stand among the throngs of bees in the bee suit is really the above-water, in-land version of a shark cage; it’s easy to become a little unnerved. On the other hand, it’s just as easy to become a little thrilled by it all, too.
Safe within our protective gear we went about the business of harvesting the honey: the process of removing the frames of honeycomb from the bee hives for off-site processing. This involved multiple trips from the hive to the pickup truck (safely removed from the hives), with one frame of honeycomb at a time being placed in empty boxes in the bed of the truck. Though the bees view us as stealing their honey (and, I suppose, we are) in fact they’ve produced far more honey than they can possibly use. Nevertheless, to allow for a fairly peaceful retrieval of the racks of honeycomb, the bees are given several puffs of smoke (from smoldering cedar chips) which drives them into a deeper level of the hive. There they gorge themselves on the sweet nectar and become quite docile. It’s the equivalent of giving a guard dog a juicy steak. Even still, there are always a few stragglers which need to be brushed away. Throughout the rhythm of our work I was able to carry on a casual conversation with our beekeeper whence I learned…
-that the pheromones of the queen bee place an indelible mark on all the bees of the hive; it’s how an imposter bee is recognized when it comes to steal honey since it bears the scent of a different hive. And in this society, thievery is a capital offense to which the lifeless body of a honeybee-turned-thief outside of one hive attested.
-that our instinctive (or, rather, learned) association of the black and yellow color scheme with danger comes from the natural color of these black and yellow stinging insects. It’s how the color scheme of a school bus was chosen: for its ability to trigger our attention as something primal in us says, “Warning!” Because of the bee, we will forever associate this combination of colors with danger. Then again, the graduating classes of St. Alphonsus grade school may well associate those colors with the need to pay attention not because of the honey bee but rather because of Miss Wysocki, our grammar instructor who was known to wear an outfit consisting of black and yellow stripes. (I would be remiss if I didn’t also add that this woman was one of the finest teachers I’ve ever known and who, almost twenty years later, was coaching me in the art of teaching grammar to Eighth Graders when I became an English teacher myself.)
-that man’s impulse to dominate nature with technology in the fiefdom of bees–not that there’s anything wrong with technology, per se–really is the stuff of Hollywood film. There were scientists who wanted to engineer a “super bee”, crossing conventional breeds with aggressive African breeds. Instead of getting a bee that was a fierce producer of honey, what we got was a bee that became a sort of rabid Pit Bull in defense of its hive, making harvesting honey virtually impossible. I couldn’t help but think of Dr. Curt Conners from this past summer’s The Amazing Spiderman who injects himself with lizard DNA in attempt to regenerate a missing arm. Violent aggression is the side effect, he becomes a monster, and the plot gets its villain.
The most privileged lesson of all was to be instructed in how to create a queen bee (the foundation on which the whole hive is based). This is, in the truest sense of the term, a lost art. There was a time when beekeepers knew how to create their own queen bees. But when, in the 1980s, queen bees easily could be bought for around $2 to $3 dollars (well worth the money), bee keepers jumped on the opportunity and stopped producing their own. As knowledge of how to create a queen bee subsequently diminished and was ostensibly lost, the price has gradually increased upwards to between $25 and $30. Our beekeeper was fortunate to find an old beekeeper, well in his 80s, who imparted this knowledge to him.
Prior to finishing our work of harvesting, the inadvertent slip of my wife’s chisel as she worked with her hive broke the honeycomb, and I was able to dip my finger into the golden brown goo. The flavor was so fresh, so unctuous. Once ingested, it gave the body a palpable burst of life. What a beautiful reminder and confirmation of why it is that we love to consume food produced in close proximity to its source: for the very life it imparts. And our field trip on this warm afternoon to the hives served as a wonderful affirmation of the reasons why we love to be intimately involved in the food-making process: for the ways that it adds to the substance of our humanity by evoking a wonder of the natural world and our place in it.