thinking like a honeybee

Yesterday I had the pleasure of visiting Warm Colors Apiary in So. Deerfield with the lively & smart 7th graders who attend Jane Lucia’s science classes at the Williston Northampton School.

intro to beekeeping presented by Dan Conlon

I jumped at the invite not only b/c Jane is a talented educator who likes to get her kids out into the field; but also b/c Dan Conlon, who runs Warm Colors w/his wife Bonita, has perhaps the surest comprehension of the flowers of the Nonotuck biome. You see, you can’t raise 200+ hives of bees w/out knowing where they will get food—and they get their food from flowers. It all sounds so simple, but it isn’t.

The symbiotic relationship that humans have forged with bees is unlike those we have with other creatures. First of all, it’s a harmonious working relationship btwn humans and insects, which are rare to begin with. I can only think of silk worms as another example; but silk worms are always confined indoors & treated more like slaves than like partners.

Secondly: an apiarist has to be a partner with his/her bees, and as a partner must establish trust by caring for them—and to do that, they must learn to think like them. A bee colony functions as a superorganism, & that means that all of the workers and drones and even the queen spend all of their time working together to build, maintain and clean the honey and brood cells, and to keep a steady supply of honey. Each individual motion—bees’ and human’s—is cued to the larger choreography of keeping the superorganism healthy; if they aren’t, failure is assured. The successful apiarist becomes a functioning participant in the honeybee superorganism!

Honey seeker depicted on 8000 year old cave painting near Valencia, Spain

One of the fascinating aspects of the bee colony is that the bees communicate with each other through dances, which you can see happening near the hive entrances; through these dances, Dan said, scout bees tell nectar-collecting bees where blossoms are, what the quality is and how many bees are needed to collect the nectar. Beekeepers can’t understand these dances, but they can—and must—develop the skill of comprehending what, and where, the nectar flows are.

When I started keeping bees 2 years ago, I had no idea that “my” bees would draw my senses and thoughts out of my mind/house/yard and into the flowers that blossom in “my” microbiome (they cruise as far as 1 1/2 miles to collect nectar). I’d read about nectar flows, of course; but there’s a cognitive abyss between the concept and the reality. Developing a comprehension of local nectar flows = thinking like a honeybee and that = knowing the plants (flowers, bushes and trees) that provide nectar as neighbors: cooperative beings, fellow collaborators who fulfill their destinies, w/ unpretentious determination on the main stage & margins of our own lives, playing a role in our play that becomes clearer the more we notice them. To keep bees, you have to know all the other lives they depend upon, and that depend on them—and that means getting to know a lot of green creatures.

As the honeybee goes where the nectar flows, so goes my vision/imagination/consciousness. I’m becoming ever more aware and comfortable in these places, and w/these neighbors, that I was barely awake to, & am growing as a biocitizen. I thank “my” honeybees for taking me w/them, and—as a ring of ripples expands outward from the pebble tossed into a still pond—for magnifying who I am.

Comprehending nectar flows is something that takes curiosity, time & dedication. That’s why I celebrate Dan and Bonita @ Warm Colors Apiary—b/c they know which flowers are blooming where in Nonotuck—such a beautiful, practical, useful comprehension: such a sound basis for valuable, actual wisdom. (They’re also very nice and their store is really interesting, w/7 kinds of honey, each one made of the nectar of particular plants, bushes and trees.)

And what’s so cool is that 2 days ago the apple blossoms opened in W’hamp; I asked Dan when he’d be dropping off some hives to pollinate the apples @ Outlook Farm ystrdy, & he said “right after you leave.”

Think like a honeybee!!!!

This Saturday from 10-12 @ the Second Congregational Church in Greenfield, Dan will be speaking @ a celebration of Rev. Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth, the “Father of American Beekeeping.” Around 1850, Langstroth invented the modern hive used by millions of beekeepers, and deserves credit for changing the world in a very positive way.

Here’s the title page of his seminal book, The Hive and the Honey Bee—notice where it was 1st printed (the Hamp!!!):